Died for Me

29 Mar

closing scene, Saving Private Ryan

My daughter Gianna, like her brother before her, had a rare genetic disease called Mitochondrial Depletion Disorder. Essentially, the cells in her liver could not make the energy they needed to stay alive, so her liver started to shut down. As a result, the doctors recommended a liver transplant. The chances of her getting a liver were slim (she needed half of a toddler’s liver, as she was only 3 months old) and the long term outcome of the risky surgery was questionable at best for her diagnosis. But it was the only chance we had, so we waded through all the blood tests and paperwork and waited for the phone to ring.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Gianna was hospitalized so she could be kept in the best possible health until we could get a liver. People offered comments trying to help us stay hopeful, “there are lots of accidents on holiday weekends!” At this point I had already lost one child and the thought that someone else’s healthy toddler would have to die in order for my baby to live made me sick. I was torn between desperately wanting my child to live and the idea of another set of parents having their world turned upside down if it were to happen. To make matters worse, there was no guarantee that the transplant would actually save her.

Luckily, we don’t get to make decisions about whose baby lives and whose baby dies. In our case, Gianna’s disease progressed quickly and she was soon too sick for a transplant.  She died before we had to decide whether or not to accept a donor liver. Although our near-transplant experience may be kind of unique, I know we are not the first to grapple with these questions. Storytellers have been fascinated for ages with the question: how does a man deal with the fact that someone died so that he might live? I recall the closing scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan, where decades later the liberated private still bears the weight of the sacrifices others made for him. He wonders if he has done enough good, lived well enough to make up for the lives of the men lost in the campaign to save him.

As we approach Holy Week, I am faced with that same question.  No baby died so that Gia might live in the physical sense.  But in an even more real spiritual sense someone did die for her.  Someone died so that I would have a guarantee that she is in paradise now, and that same someone died so that, if I cooperate with Him, I might get to paradise too.

As a kid, and sometimes as an adult, I have felt awkward around Holy Week.  Why do we have to dwell over this crucifixion thing? Jesus did end up rising from the dead, right? We’re an “Alleluia people”!  It can seem like the Church just wants to inflict some good old fashioned Catholic guilt on us.

But that’s not it at all.  Yes, Jesus did rise from the dead, and that is such great cause for rejoicing that the Church sets aside 50 days to celebrate it versus the 40 of Lent.  But we can’t shortcut the cross on our way to the empty tomb.  The fact of the matter is, someone had to die for me to live, and that person was my perfect Creator.  He not only died, but he died a humiliating, agonizing, criminal’s death.  He was mocked, abandoned and tortured by the people who should have fallen at his feet in worship.  He did it knowing that even at the cost of every last drop of his blood, some would still choose not to receive the salvation he offered.  And far from being spectators in this injustice, we participate every day through our sins.

We need to consider this horrible fact.  Not to make us feel some frivolous kind of guilt, but to help us see the enormity of the gift.  Like Private Ryan, we need to ask ourselves seriously if we are living a life worthy of the sacrifice.  In the face of Jesus’ unending devotion, we need to commit our loyalty back.  The good news is that what Jesus suffered for us he chose willingly.  He doesn’t want followers who are already perfect, he wants those who are grateful and cooperative with his grace.  In short, he wants us to let him be our savior.

So, as Holy Week approaches this year, let’s not hold back in meditating on the gruesome realities of the Cross.  Let’s pray the Stations with devotion.  Let’s dust off our copy of the Passion of the Christ. Let’s really meditate on the Sorrowful  Mysteries.  In so doing, let us allow this Savior to reveal to us just how deeply we are loved.

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