To Lay Down One’s Life

There’s a scene from Thorton Wilder’s Our Town in which Emily (a young woman in her early twenties who has just died in childbirth) is given the opportunity to go back and observe one day of her life. She decides to return her twelfth birthday. The agreement is that she cannot alter the day, only experience it again. Only the audience is privileged to hear Emily’s internal monologue in which her heart is bursting with all the things she wishes she could say to her mother. Upon seeing her father, Emily breaks down, despairing “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She then turns to the Stage Manager (the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent figure who has consented to this trip back in time) lamenting: 

“I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world . . . Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

“No.” The Stage Manager replies, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

It is only from eternity that Emily is able to fully perceive the grandeur of the earth.

In today’s Gospel, we are once again brought back to the Last Supper, the night before Jesus dies, in which he prays: 

Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you,just as you gave him authority over all people,so that your son may give eternal life to all you gave him.

John 17:1-2

Jesus came so that we might be given eternal life. And what is eternal life? To know God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, and to know the one he sent, our Savior, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). 

Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel (of which this reading is the conclusion of) begins just after Jesus finishes washing his disciples’ feet: an act full of humility and love. He goes on to tell his disciples: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15: 12-14). 

Tomorrow, we celebrate Memorial Day. A day in which our country remembers the sacrifice of the men and women in the military who have died in war while serving the United States — over 1,244,107 lives. These men and women have, in a unique way, lived out this commandment to the fullest— not only dying for their friends, but for thousands of people they merely knew as their fellow citizens.  

Yet, not all of us are called to serve in the military or sacrifice our lives in this manner. 

How then, do we obtain the eternal life which Jesus came to give us? We must spend our time on this earth glorifying God by following his commandment: to love each other. To love is to sacrifice, it is to will the good of another, it is to make a commitment to a person rather than to merely act on an emotion.

Time is precious, something we mark by significant and sacred events. For many of us, Memorial Day Weekend and the end of the school year, giving way to summer vacation, is one of those markers of time. The last few nights, my family has spent time reminiscing about various summer memories. Just the other day as we were sitting outside in front of the lake, a boat rode by in front of us, and as it did the smell of gasoline mixed with lake water and fresh cut grass led my sister to exclaim “oh my gosh, it even smells like summer!” 

To me, summer has always felt like an exclamation point, full of enthusiasm and emphasis, underscoring all that has been accomplished in the past nine months, as if we have earned this very season. Summer!  This year, however, it feels like an ellipsis, something that keeps you waiting for what is to come, something that is lingering. Summer . . . It’s here. But it feels anticlimactic. There is so much still unknown. Annual summer trips and traditions are being sacrificed. Restrictions still remain in place, prohibiting us from returning to the normalcy so many of us continue to crave. But this season still serves a purpose (though we might not be able to comprehend it until later down the road). 

For simultaneously, time is something we too often take for granted, even without realizing it . . . until, as in Emily’s case, it is too late.  So may we recognize the goodness of creation, the preciousness of the people God has placed in our lives; let us not take for granted the time we are given, the gift of freedom, and the many sacrifices of people who have gone before us; may we spend our time on this earth glorying God by accomplishing his works, making heaven known in our time here, but always living for a world that is unseen. 

May we live as saints and poets. 

A Prayer for Memorial Day
God of power and mercy,
you destroy war and put down earthly pride.
Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears,
that we may all deserve to be called your sons 
and daughters.
Keep in your mercy those men and women
who have died in the cause of freedom
and bring them safely
into your kingdom of justice and peace.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen

—from Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers

This piece was originally written for Bishop Guertin High School’s Reflections.

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