What to Call it? Life in Christ

All-SaintsWe continue our series on names for the topic of this web site. We have considered sanctity, the interior life, and the spiritual life. Today let us consider “life in Christ” or “the Christian life.”

We could say “the imitation of Christ”; indeed, one of the greatest works on the spiritual life is the fourteenth-century Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

An interesting element of U.S. history: a scholar told me, though I have not confirmed, that a Protestant version of the Imitation was the most popular book (after the Bible) in America at the time of the Revolution. Casts a different light on our founding fathers, doesn’t it? Whatever Thomas Jefferson thought, the foot soldiers of the Revolution seem to have been a profoundly Christian people. It should be noted, however, that the Protestant version removed the fourth and final part of the book: “On the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.”

To imitate Christ is to live the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit, meekness, sorrow, hunger for justice, mercy, purity of heart, and making peace. And the culminating beatitude: to be persecuted. To imitate Christ is to be meek and humble of heart, to seek and save the lost, to lay down our life for others. And to offer our life, even to the Cross, as a sweet sacrificial offering to the Father.

Beautiful. Radical.

***

Another way to say the same thing is that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” He: Jesus Christ. Finally, we will be judged on nothing else but how we stand before Jesus. The most direct teaching Jesus himself gives on this is in Matthew 25, where he says we will be judged for how we treated him in the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

We will look on him whom we have pierced, and our final judgment is nothing more nor less than how we stand in that comparison.

***

But to say that much – to speak only of the imitation of Christ – is not enough. Because with man all of this is impossible! We cannot be judged by Christ’s standard. We cannot fulfill the Beatitudes. We cannot stand under the pressure of this radicalism.

In fact, the classical Protestant solution – above all, the theology of Luther, and also of Calvin – takes more seriously the Imitation of Christ than do many Catholics, when it says: therefore, we must give up. Luther says, obviously I cannot be Christ, therefore I accept salvation from him, and give up even trying to imitate him. Luther has a point.

The true Catholic response – real Catholic theology, which is infinitely deeper than the semi-Pelagian gruel that most modern Catholics starve on – says, “with man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The imitation of Christ is only possible if we are in Christ.

Or to put it another way, to truly imitate Christ is above all to imitate Christ’s dependence. He was not a mere man; he could only be Christ by the power of God. We too. The saints are not saints by their own strength, but by relying on God. Thus what we said last week about the Holy Spirit is operative here too: you cannot imitate Christ without the spirit of Christ. You cannot live the Christian life without being in Christ, relying on the power of Christ.

***

How do we do that? Well, first, we discover the reality of the Church, which is truly the Body of Christ. No Christian becomes a hero except by being truly part of Christ’s body, with Christ’s blood pumping through him, vivified by Christ’s spirit. “I am the vine, you are the branches; He that abides in me, and I in him, he shall bring forth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

To put the same thing a different way, the only way to be a Christian is through the sacraments of Christ. Baptism is true incorporation into Christ, entering truly into his death and resurrection. Confession is casting our sins on him, and receiving the spirit of true repentance from him. The Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ, true food and drink for the soul. Only his sacramental Body can make us truly part of his Body, truly living by his life.

That fourth part of The Imitation of Christ turns out to be the most important part of all. We cannot imitate unless we enter in.

***

Concretely: How do you practice the imitation of Christ? How do you receive life from Jesus?

eric.m.johnston

3 Comments

  1. You answered the question: “the only way to be a Christian is through the sacraments of Christ”. I receive life from Jesus through the sacraments. However, how do you explain the apparently holier lives of Protestants, who lack many of the sacraments, from the majority of Catholics living on the gruel of semi-Pelagian Catholicism? Why are Evangelicals a better witness to the life of Christ than most American Mass attending Catholics?

    • Great question, Chris!

      1. Sacraments are necessary, not sufficient — just like the presence of Jesus himself. The presence of Jesus is what ultimately makes anyone holy, but that doesn’t mean everyone in his presence is necessarily holy. You do have to truly receive the sacraments.

      2. Yes, the best practicing Protestants are much better than non-practicing Catholics. But what kind of comparison is that? Is there a Protestant Therese of Lisieux? Or Mother Teresa? Etc.

      3. Protestants do have Baptism, which in some ways is the most powerful sacrament of all.

      4. And it is possible to implicitly long for the sacraments even though you don’t quite know where to find them. I always think of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who before she was a Catholic, sat in Trinity Church at the end of Wall St. in New York, looking out the window and wondering where Christ could truly be found. She probably made much better spiritual communions than I ever do. (And it’s not because she had never heard of Catholics: she worked with Catholics in Staten Island. But she didn’t quite know . . . yet.)

  2. I’d never considered points 3 and 4. I think the saints you mention (and the hundreds of others unmentioned) in #2 are likely the most compelling motive of credibility for the power of Jesus present in the Catholic Church.

Leave a Reply to eric.m.johnston Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *