January 20, 2011

Jesus Christ is Not (Just) a Moral Example

Sometimes I hear conversations or homilies and I get worried that we have a rather thin idea of our relationship to Jesus Christ. For example, it is said that we are called to imitate Christ, to 'follow in his footsteps' as St. Francis would say. Of course this is quite true, and the imitatio Christi is a venerable and indispensable part of Christian spirituality and practice. But again, sometimes I feel like it becomes theologically thin and impoverished.

Christ is not primarily a moral example. It's not as if he emptied himself, taught, healed, reconciled, and cast out demons all in a humble manner, finally going quietly to his death, entering into the depths of suffering and the alienation from God we have insisted upon for ourselves with our sins, just so that he could leave us an example of how to be a godly human being. It is all that, of course, but the revelation of God in Christ is much more.

We do not become humble and godly because we follow the example of Christ in the simple sense of moral example. We become humble and godly because we consent to have our own personalities transformed by and into the charity and humility of Christ. We are not just following an example; we are allowing the Exemplar Himself to become our own new and renovated selves. This is what it means to be baptized into the death of Christ, and to become his Body in the Eucharist.

It is precisely this theologically dense sense of Christ-ianity that I don't always hear in preaching or conversation. It's too bad; because this is the real good news. If the main thing is my having to imitate a Christ who is separate from ourselves, we are doomed. That's not good news, given my sins. We try to be godly not in order to achieve a salvation that is available to the good, but instead as an act of thanksgiving for a salvation already accomplished for the sake of the evil.

If our sense of our relationship to Jesus Christ is only one of moral example, then we have forgotten what Incarnation and Sacraments even mean.


Mark said...

As St Leo the Great puts it, Christ is both "sacramentum" (or "mysterium") and "exemplum", and we cannot imitate the "exemplum" unless we are united with, transformed by, empowered by, and taken up into the "sacramentum".

Brother Charles said...

Brilliant! Thanks!

clavis said...

This is not often preached because most people won't understand it. Our pastors have tried to preach this, people are just plainly confounded. Pastors can only exhort the people repeatedly to frequent the sacraments, pray and strive to be virtuous, leaving the rest to God. To understand what is explained here, we need grace. Deo gratias!

Stuart said...

Absolutely spot on.

Jesus makes a home in our hearts, Him in us and us in Him.

Greg said...

A single blog post that could fill an entire semester of theological study, if not much more. Thank you for such a well articulated statement, and thanks to Mark for adding a pithy synopsis.

You mentioned a desire some time back to be involved in formation work. And you mentioned a chapter coming up in the near future.

Would love to keep you informed about emerging events. If appropriate I can be reached by e-mail at tamingthewolf.com

EP said...

Thanks for your post. I mention your post on my brand new blog! :) Truly Jesus is true gift of God for us.

Louise McEwan said...

Wonderful post.
Sometimes I hear people claim that the essence of Christianity is found in Matthew 25:35-40; if we are acting justly, we are Christian. They forget that to be a Christian we must first believe in Jesus.
Jesus did not simply give us a good example. Lots of people give us good examples, but they are not God and have not freed us from our sinful selves.