"The Exhortation to the Apostles" (detail) by James Tissot

“The Exhortation to the Apostles” (detail) by James Tissot

“See how they love one another”—this was the observation that the pagans made, to their own bewilderment, about the early Christians. Our earliest brothers and sisters in Christ lived lives of such unprecedented joyful service that it astounded the world around them, a world that had never seen anything like it before. These first Christians lived according to the model of self-gift physically demonstrated to them by their role model, Jesus Christ, not too long beforehand, through his own life and death. But this concept of “self-gift” was absurd to the rather hardened Greco-Roman culture around them at the time, making the early Christians a definitive sign of contradiction.

Even so, Christianity became quite a popular movement. The faith spread rapidly, even and especially during challenging times, like during plagues, for example, because the Christians were the ones tending to the sick and living with hope, thus making the Christian life very attractive to unsuspecting pagans who received such kindness from Christians whom they didn’t even know and often were prejudice toward. Christians served those around them with love and joy, sharing the Gospel message through their actions, which communicated a profound respect for the dignity of each person they encountered. Christians were starting a crusade of joyful service, a revolutionary movement that would extend beyond their day into our present time, giving each of us now the opportunity to participate in that same mission in our families and in our culture through our own joyful servant-leadership.

Just as converts flocked to Christianity during this early phase in the Church, we have the ability to win hearts and souls to this same appealing Christian life. Among those we win over should be those in our own family, who, inspired by our own joyful service and self-donative leadership, desire to mold their lives around the countercultural practice of self-gift, too.

It is arguable that our modern culture is becoming just as uncomfortable, or perhaps even downright hostile, toward the idea of self-gift, as the pagans were in early Christian days. Self-donation confronts the postmodern tendency toward selfishness and individualism. It’s probably easier than it should be to think of a recent time in which you had to fight the urge (or you gave into the urge) to put your needs before the needs of a loved one, or maybe you can think of a time when you did serve another, but did so without a joyful spirit.

As Christians, we experience the blissful irony of finding ourselves by giving of ourselves. The model for this truth comes from God himself—the ultimate self-giver. In the Holy Trinity, we see the Father giving himself unreservedly to the Son, and the Son giving himself unreservedly to the Father. In holding nothing back, their self-gift is so complete, so climactic, that it takes the shape of another person—the Holy Spirit. When we give ourselves wholly and unreservedly to our spouse, we too can experience powerful, life-creating results. But self-donation doesn’t end in the sexual act or in the birth of new life. It continues throughout family life.

We are all given countless moments throughout the day to choose to serve with joy, to opt for making a gift of ourselves to those we love, through even the littlest of self-sacrifices: losing sleep to comfort a crying infant, assisting a spouse with a project or chore that you would rather not do, helping an older child with homework when you were planning on watching TV or reading a magazine that had nothing to do with 8th grade algebra…the list goes on. Every opportunity we have to practice self-donation can be received begrudgingly or with a spirit of joy, recognizing that with each small chance we seize to serve another, we are drawing one step closer to the spiritual leaders, the joyful servant givers, that God is calling us to be.

The goal is to have each family member look to you and think in awe and gratitude, “See how he gives of himself to me!” “See how she loves me!”

Check out Katie Warner’s exciting new book, Head and Heart: Becoming Spiritual Leaders for Your Family (Emmaus Road Publishing, August 2015).

Here’s what some other Catholic authors and leaders are saying about Head & Heart: Becoming Spiritual Leaders for Your Family, foreword by Bishop James Conley (Emmaus Road Publishing):

“Read this book now and your children will thank you later.” (Steve Ray)

“Warner has drawn up a map we can read and follow, so that we all arrive at the goal [heaven], together with our families.” (Dr. Scott Hahn)

Head & Heart will help you take small steps toward building a vibrant Catholic identity in your home.” (Dr. Edward Sri)

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