In the Bible (somewhere--I couldn't find the quote, so frustrating) it says, "There is no greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Or something pretty close. Like I said, I couldn't find it this morning, and while I was looking, my little ones found a bottle of maple syrup and dumped it all over the kitchen floor. But syrup aside . . .
Most of us listen to this verse and think of dramatic gestures involving life and death. Mainly death. We imagine that laying down one's life involves taking a bullet for them or, like St. Maximillian Kolbe, volunteering to take the place of someone condemned to die. Perhaps we imagine giving a kidney or bone marrow. Some of us drift through life without any chance at all to make such grand offerings of ourselves. We read the verse, smile, shrug, and perhaps hope that we will never have to choose between our own life and that of another person.
Within marriage, and even more strongly in parenthood, we are asked every day, sometimes several times a day, to give up our lives. Our lives are not composed solely of this physical, biological existence. What makes us ourselves involves our hopes, dreams and plans, our wants, both immediate and distant. It is our self. To lay down our lives for another is to lay down these hopes and lay down these dreams for the greater good of the marriage or the family. Laying down our lives asks that we set aside preferences when sense and need require it. A man takes a job he dislikes, or even a second job so he can make ends meet. A woman sets aside a career to stay home with children because they need her presence and love more than the income. A man gives up the attachment to a boat, a fancy car or airplane. A woman gives up the desire for a perfectly decorated house. The two have become one, and this new One, that is both, not either or, is now what needs nurtured. For that new One, both lay down their lives for this greater good, this One.
As children are born, parents lay down so many little things. We lay down our sleep, our energy, even the exclusiveness of our body, and yes, risking physical life. More than ever, a parent lays down his time and her hobbies. The good of the children, intrinsically tied to what is good for the marriage and the family as a whole, requires the daily laying down of our wants in response to their needs. Those needs, whether they are time, food, attention or discipline, will require parents to go again and again to the Cross for grace. The grace to give, the grace to give patiently and boundlessly as God gives to us. The needs of our spouse send us back again, with the same prayer on our lips. Grant us grace, oh Lord.
So we give up. We set aside the things which, though we enjoy them, cannot take priority over the One and the family. We trust God to be sufficient for us, to fill the dreams, goals and desires with His love and His grace.
When we stand at opposite ends of the aisle, looking down a length that seems so incredibly short and impossibly long at the same time, it is easy to forget what love truly is. Yes, that warmth welling up under the heart until the faces radiate joy is a part of love, but a much truer part is spoken later: for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The vows speak the language of laying down our life, no matter the situation, no matter the hardship, no matter the cost. They speak the language of love that calls each spouse to Heaven, and to bring each other to Heaven.