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No Greater Love Than This

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 smashed nose-first into the rock-solid ice covering the Potomac River just outside Washington, D.C. To horrified onlookers, it seemed impossible that anyone could be alive inside the mangled steel carcass slowly vanishing into the water. But one by one, six survivors gasped to the surface and grabbed desperately at the tail of the plane.

They had to swim up past their dead friends and seatmates and spouses to escape. They knew that unless they were pulled out fast, they'd soon be sinking back down to join them. Just hanging on was agony: The six survivors had fractured arms and shattered legs, and their hands were freezing into claws that slipped from the wet steel.

"Help us!" they screamed. "We're going to die out here!" They were only 40 or so yards from the  Virginia shore but surrounded by an arctic nightmare of jagged ice. Pushing a rescue boat into those shards would be suicide. Piloting a chopper into the whipping snowstorm would be nearly as risky — that's what brought the plane down in the first place.

Would-be rescuers yanked ladders off utility trucks and tried stretching them across the ice. They knotted scarves and fan belts into makeshift ropes and dangled them from the 14th Street Bridge. One man even tried dog-paddling through the ice chunks, hauling a jury-rigged rescue rope along with him. He couldn't get close and was nearly unconscious by the time he was dragged back in.

Twenty minutes after the crash, the sun was going down, and no one had been able to reach the six survivors. They were doomed...until suddenly, miraculously, a rescue chopper came whisking across the darkening sky. It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.

The next person to receive the ring handed it over to someone else. The chopper lofted her to safety, then wheeled back. The man gave away the ring again. And again a third time.

Arland Williams Jr. even gave it away when he knew it was his last chance to live. He must have known, because when the chopper thundered back seconds later, he was gone, vanished beneath the ice. (“The Hidden Cost of Heroism” NBCNews.com by Christoher McDougall)

What a story to read about an all too human bank examiner, who in the moment of life’s greatest challenge became an immortal hero, sacrificing his life to save the lives of three other people! Jesus emphasized that there is “no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” In the case of Arland Williams Jr., however, he most likely didn’t even know the people he was saving, and yet, he still offered his life to help those in desperate need right in front of him!

In the Gospels, we hear Christ say “just as you want others to do to you, you should do to them likewise.” We can talk in many theoretical ways about what divine love is, and how we are called to live out the Golden Rule of Love with all people. In Arland Williams Jr.’s last minutes of life, though, we witness a most beautiful and memorable example of love in life’s most desperate moment.

What I found interesting when I read this story at NBCNews.com, was how the journalist tried to comprehend this heroic act. He tried to understand and then explain why someone would sacrifice his life for complete strangers. In the article, he even noted how Charles Darwin himself found it quite confusing to rationalize how someone who was ready to sacrifice his life for others could fit into his “survival of the fittest” theory. “He who was ready to sacrifice his life,” Darwin observed in a bewildered manner, “would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”

We Christians, however, understand such heroic acts as having their source of heroism and love in the source of Jesus Christ Himself, who set the ultimate example of sacrificial love when he offered His perfect, sinless life for the entire world. We heard in today’s Gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believed in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.”

St. Paul described God’s love simply like this: “While we were still sinners, Christ willingly died for us.” God came to earth and died for the salvation of all people, including those who didn’t know him, and even those who hated him. Christ personified divine love in the most supreme way, and our faith teaches that this potential of divine love is what God has placed in each and every human being. It is from such love in which we were created, and with such which He wants each of us to live out in our own lives.

We believe that we were created in the image of this Divine Love of God, and such love has unlimited potential. The true mark of an authentic human being, one who has reached this potential, living out the divine likeness in which he or she was created, is to love the world around us in an extreme manner – not only loving our family and friends and those who are close to us, but also loving unknown strangers and even loving our enemies. This essential teaching of divine love separates Christianity from many other world religions. We were created out of love, and called to love throughout our lives. We love, not because we will receive something in return, but simply because it is our nature to love. And we are capable of such love because we were created in the image of our merciful, loving, and heavenly Father, whose unconditional love embraces all!

This divine love lies deep within all of us, and in such heroic moments like those of Arlan Williams Jr., it can surprisingly reveal itself in the most dangerous and challenging moments of life. It may seem confusing, and even incomprehensible to many secular people who don’t realize our divine origins, and who instead have allowed our own fallen nature and egocentric desires of survival of the fittest to dominate their worldview. Yet we Christians know that we were created for something greater. We were created in the image of our loving God, who imprinted deep within our souls His divine love, and the natural fruit of this love is the Golden Rule - “do to others as we want them to do to us.”

From today’s Gospel reading expressing God’s divine love for the world, let each of us thank God for the image of love in which we were created, and be inspired by such heroic moments like that of Arlen Williams Jr., where we see in the most powerful way how love sacrifices and prevails for the sake of others.

“There is no greater love than this, to lay down your life for another.”