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As Christ’s followers, we know we are called to walk in his footsteps. He told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Most of us will never take up a literal cross or endure a fraction of what Our Lord suffered. Yet we are called to imitate Him in our own ways, in our own lives.
Christ gave many straightforward instructions in Scripture about how to act as He did in daily life. Perhaps the clearest, and also the most challenging, is related in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends.”
At first glance, to “lay down your life” might sound like a dramatic, one-time decision. The phrase calls to mind situations like a soldier valiantly falling on a grenade to save his comrades, or St. Maximilian Kolbe offering his own life at Auschwitz in the place of a married father.
Certainly these examples epitomize self-sacrificial love, but they’re not the circumstances for holiness to which most men will be called in today’s world. What does it look like to “take up your cross” and “lay down your life” as a family man, living an ordinary life?
Holiness is different for fathers than for single men
Popular models of holiness are not always helpful. A single man often is able to take on many prayers, fasts, and other spiritual practices that can be very time-consuming. A married father might look at the many devotions a single man can take on and worry that his own spiritual efforts are inadequate.
Parents realize, after they have a child, that their prayer lives are going to have to change. Gone are the days when you could drop into the Adoration chapel at a moment’s notice, or spend long quiet mornings reading Scripture.
As the chaos of early parenthood gradually calms, you can anticipate adding more of these beloved and sustaining spiritual practices back into your life. But in many seasons of raising children, parents must find a way to seek communion with God in brief moments of prayer snatched here and there.
These seasons of unpredictable and exhausting days may not leave time for all of the spiritual practices you’d like to do, but they can be spiritually fruitful nonetheless. In fact, these seasons are rich with opportunities for spiritual growth.
Works of mercy in your home
Some years ago, a Franciscan sister spoke at my parish about practicing charity and seeking holiness. She told the audience to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy frequently—every day, if possible.
One attendee candidly admitted, “I don’t remember the last time I did any of the corporal works of mercy!” Meanwhile, the parents in the room looked at each other with knowing grins. Each of us had “clothed the naked,” “fed the hungry,” “given drink to the thirsty,” “comforted the afflicted,” and so on, that very day. These daily opportunities for loving service are a great spiritual gift.
It might be tempting to think that serving your children in this way doesn’t “really count” as a work of mercy, as these acts of service take place in your own home. But let’s recall that Mother Teresa once said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the action that we do.”
Serving and loving your immediate family is exactly what Christ is calling you to do in this season of life. Our Lord assured us, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Who could better qualify as the “least of these” than a small child?
The honor of servant leadership
When you look at it this way, you have a great privilege in this season of life. You have the honor of countless daily opportunities to serve Christ by serving your own wife and children. This service, too, means you’re obeying a Scriptural command: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
What exactly it looks like to “hand yourself over” and “lay down your life” for your family will vary for each family, but no doubt many possibilities present themselves each day. It might involve any of the following sacrifices:
- Getting up in the middle of the night to soothe a scared or fussy child
- Remaining calm when the kids are all yelling at the same time
- Praying for your family
- Responding patiently to repeated requests from your kids
- Anticipating something your wife or kids need and getting it before they ask
- Playing or reading stories with your kids, even when you’re tired
- Giving up free time to take over a chore from your wife
- Working to provide for your family
This is just the tip of the iceberg of sacrifices a father might find himself making when he lays down his life for his family.
The refining fire of sacrifice
None of this is easy to do. Comedian Jim Gaffigan put it perfectly when he said, “I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy.”
Parenting and marriage are a kind of refining fire, that can burn away selfishness and imperfections, if we let them. Put another way, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
“A lifetime’s death in love” is a really lovely way of describing the continuous and rather painful death to self that family life requires. Yet this “occupation for the saint” is the calling God has placed on each of our lives too.
As Christian parents, let’s take to heart this calling. Let’s embrace the cross of dying to self in loving service, right in our own family homes.
7 Lenten sacrifices for men to grow in faith
How being parents helps us understand God’s fatherhood