I was reflecting recently on some of the teachings of St. Paul as I prepared my high school students for a quiz on his letters. The film Paul: Apostle of Christ had just come out a few weeks earlier so the great man was on my mind more than usual. I was particularly struck by how important it was for Paul that he and his Christian flock be always “in Christ”, a phrase he repeats over 200 times throughout his writings! But what does this really mean? Isn’t it enough to just “like” Jesus or “admire” him from afar? The plain and simple answer Christ’s Church has given down the centuries is no.
When we look at Jesus’ life and ministry on earth, it’s practically impossible to choose what key takeaways or lessons are most important. With Paul’s phrase as a backdrop, I thought I’d suggest seven themes I find especially vital to developing in the Christian life. As it so happens, they all begin with the letter “P” (I didn’t plan this!) I think these themes help to do two things: 1) They paint an authentic and enlightening portrait of our Lord and 2) they, God willing, can help us with what I call the “so what?” factor. Why should I care about Jesus? Even more to the point: Why should I care about the Church’s moral teachings? Aren’t they just a bunch of arbitrary rules anyway?
7 Themes in the Life of Christ
Let’s face it. Jesus is powerful! He stunned the crowds with his miracles and he did things that were, if your only metric for life is that which can be explained scientifically and materially, truly inexplicable. He healed the blind, the lame, those with leprosy. He exorcised demons. He even raised the dead and restored them to their once grieving and ever-after astonished families. What does this mean? Put simply, it means that he was who he said he was – the Son of God, the Eternal Word of the Father. He is not merely “powerful”, but rather the very power by which the Father created and sustains the entire universe. In Athens, Paul quoted his Greek audience’s pagan ancestors who had some insight here, if only a ray of light. Referring to Jesus, Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We should strive to give our entire selves to Christ, the Power of God, that he can dwell within us. Jesus commands his followers to “abide” in him. If we truly do this, he can continue to demonstrate his power in the world today through us, his Mystical Body, the Church. I think this is what he meant when he said, “…he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (cf. John 14:12).
Jesus is also prudent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; [says Proverbs 14:15] “the prudent man looks where he is going” (CCC 1806). Jesus, not surprisingly, never did anything imprudent. One might object that as the Logos, the mind of God, he had an unfair advantage. But this attitude is one that is marked by a forgetfulness that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). God the Son submitted himself entirely to the human experience, and therefore he put himself in the position of having to make choices. When we choose, we do not only have to choose between good and evil. The prudent man is the one who also learns to choose between multiple goods. He disciplines himself each day in choosing that which he ought to choose right here, right now. He does so for the greater glory of God and he doesn’t look back. Jesus, the Ever Prudent, seeks to guide us into this mode of life; it is the surest path to true joy and peace.
Christ is also peaceful; indeed, he is “the Prince of Peace.” But peace is not merely the absence of conflict. Peace is not about what is missing, but what is present. If two warring parties agree to stop actively attempting to kill each other but still stockpile weapons, the situation may be better than it was. But this is not “peace.” Peace is rooted in justice. It is a harmonious state in which right relationship exists between men and God, all men, men and nature, and man within himself. Jesus famously says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). No mystery here. Jesus is the Son of God. It must follow that he is the peacemaker par excellence. We must invite the Lord of Peace to shape us into true peacemakers, into men and women who take initiative and proactively seek to render unto God and all creation that which is justly due. Can we begin to comprehend what the world would soon look like if we made such an attempt?
Another crucial theme I see in the life of Christ regards his emphasis on perfection. If you’re like me, you’ve inevitably found yourself cringing and awkwardly shifting your weight when you’ve read or heard this gospel passage: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It doesn’t seem fair, does it? How could God seriously demand such a thing? Only recently did I start to see behind the curtain on this one. Matthew’s word here is τελειοι. We make a mistake when we assume he means “flawless” or “impeccable” by this term. Telos is a Greek rendering of a Hebrew term that means, variously, “intended end/goal”, “proper fulfillment”, or even “consummation.” This last sense is often translated in John 19:30 when Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is finished!” or, “It is consummated!” (Greek: Τετελεσται). If you’re feeling upset that I seem to be turning this into a Greek grammar lesson, fear not! The point is rather simple. Jesus doesn’t call us to do the impossible. Our “perfection” is our fulfillment. In other words, there was once a blueprint for the creature called man. We, through sin, crumpled that blueprint and cast it aside in favor of living a life that is not truly “human” at all. We have done this for so long that we’ve long since forgotten what authentic human life even looks like. Christ, God made man, comes to reintroduce us to ourselves – to what we were meant to be. He seeks to achieve this perfection in each and every one of us. We simply have to give him some room to work and ask him to help us persevere.
Jesus’ famously underscores poverty in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This poverty is far more than mere material lack. While the Church has always followed Jesus’ lead when it comes to giving a preferential attention to those in material need, the gospel principle of poverty goes much further. Jesus is the God who became poor. He gives, he never takes. He is the perfect expression of God’s infinite love, the “icon of the invisible God” whose love super-abundantly overflows into and throughout creation (cf. Colossians 1:15-20). We are called to be “poor in spirit” so that the immeasurable reality of the Kingdom of God may be magnified in us. In other words, we are called to let go of anything and everything that sin would have us put in its place. Anything that is not the everything of eternal life with God is fundamentally limited, shortsighted, and will fail to bring the fulfillment and joy it promises. The moral life calls Christians to set aside the attachment to wealth, power, pleasure, and honor that threatens to separate us from the God from whom all good things come.
If we take the definition of St. John of Damascus that prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God,” we can truly assert that Christ is always at prayer in his earthly life and ministry. The Catholic Church teaches that all genuine Christian prayer is nothing other than being brought into the Son’s prayer to the Father and the Father’s response to that prayer. Prayer is animated by the Holy Spirit, himself the very bond of loving communion between the Father and the Son. We are continually strengthened through prayer, not because it is something we “have to do” in order to check the box or score points, but because it is in prayer that we are nourished by the active, powerful, fruitful communion of the Trinity. The Three Persons love each other infinitely, and they never cease telling and showing one another. That is what we are united with in prayer!
The final theme in the life of Christ I wish to mention here is the theme of Christ’s person. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. It’s important to clarify that through the Incarnation he does not become a human “person” as well. Rather he, always a divine person, mysteriously joins to himself the full experience of human life: a human mind, will, and nature. This is utterly incredible, for by doing so the Son links true humanity with the Godhead for all eternity. Humanity itself is now bound up in the Creator and it takes on a redeemed and even divine quality in Christ. This brings us back to St. Paul. Paul had been a persecutor of Christians. When Jesus brought him to the ground in the flashing of a moment, he said those famous words: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He said “me”, not “my followers” or “the members of my club.” This strange question became the bedrock of Paul’s entire theology, indeed the core of Christian theology altogether. What does it mean to be a “Christian”? What does it mean to live the Church’s moral teachings? Simple. It means living Christ’s own life. Period.
If we want to see what this looks like, we need only look to the saints. With so many to choose from, I would like to end this post with a few thoughts on St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Here we have a rather poignant and well-established record of Christ living with astounding potency in and through one of his beloved. Francis, more than most, embodied what has been dubbed the Sequela Christi, Latin for “following Christ” or “following in Christ’s footsteps.” I think it’s most enlightening to think of this image as not so much “following” Jesus as a separate and distant agent, but rather becoming his own feet. I’ll conclude by picking up the last three themes discussed above and taking a closer look at how Christ continued to demonstrate them through Francis.
3 Themes in the Life of St. Francis
In The Rule of 1221, Francis made it quite clear that for his order, gospel poverty was to be rooted in a practical and rigorous material poverty. “We should have no more use or regard for money in any of its forms than for dust” (Ch. 8). As aforementioned, money is not evil per se, but the attachment to it is deadly. Francis was passionately keen on removing any obstacle that would diminish the Kingdom of God’s presence in himself and the friars. The way of life Francis promoted immediately caught on, and in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi St. Bonaventure accounts for this: “Because they possessed nothing earthly, and feared to lose nothing earthly, they were secure in all places; troubled by no fears, distracted by no cares, they lived without trouble of mind, waited without solicitude for the coming day, or the night’s lodgings” (Ch. 4). Bonaventure elsewhere relates that Francis considered poverty to have been the “familiar and beloved companion of the Son of God”, the “food of humility” and the “root of perfection” (Ch. 7). Indeed, “nothing gave him [Francis] so much offense as to see anything in the brethren not wholly in accordance with poverty” (ibid). It’s no wonder that Francis is known around the world to this day as Il Poveretto, “the poor man.”
Francis prays to the Father in the Rule, “we beg our Lord Jesus Christ, your beloved Son… and the Holy Spirit, to give you thanks for everything, as it pleases you and them; there is never anything lacking in him to accomplish your will, and it is through him that you have done so much for us” (Ch. 23). Francis understood that prayer was not something to which we are somehow entitled. God, through sheer gratuitous love, invites us into the Trinitarian communion, conversation, and conviviality. The highest form of this we can experience in this life is the Eucharist, to which Francis was particularly devoted. Bonaventure writes, “His burning love for the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body seemed to consume the very marrow of his bones, as he wondered within himself which most to admire – the condescension of that charity, or the charity of that condescension of our Lord… he was, as it were, spiritually inebriated and frequently rapt in ecstasy” (Ch. 9). Francis’ life and the lives of his followers were set to a rhythm of prayer: the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, silence in the presence of God. All works of charity and proclamation of the gospel were inseparably bound up with the prayer of Jesus to his Father in heaven in the Holy Spirit. We too are invited into this prayer each day.
Last but most certainly not least, in fact of primary importance, was Francis’ participation in the very person of Jesus Christ. He never experienced this through the alter Christus dimension of the ministerial priesthood, but he did in precisely the way God willed him to experience it. Bonaventure describes this reality as Francis’ experience of being “transformed into Christ” (Ch. 8). This was perhaps best illustrated in the mysterious appearance of the Stigmata, the five wounds of Christ. An extremely rare and profoundly mysterious occurrence, Francis was so closely united to Christ in every way that Christ’s own wounds appeared in Francis’ flesh for the final years of his life. If we are tempted to be scandalized or incredulous over such a thing, we should remember that Jesus is the God who suffers. The Christian life – be it the spiritual life, the moral life, etc. – is truly the Life of Christ, all of it with no missing pieces. Francis experienced the intensity of the suffering of Christ, yes. But so too did he thus experience the unimaginable joy and glory of the Resurrection, a joy that he continues to bask in as you’re reading this and one in which you and me and everyone else is invited to partake as well. Be not afraid! Suffering will come, but it isn’t the end of the story.
St. Francis of Assisi would be the first to dismiss the curiosity and attention that his legacy engenders. He would likely shrug it off and insist that we focus on the remarkable and simple truth underneath it all, the truth that changed St. Paul’s life and inspired him to lead others to the same summit: We are all called to life “in Christ.” So next time you feel stumped by a particular moral teaching, press pause! Take it to prayer. Ask the Lord of Glory, the Word of God who became man and who died to eradicate your sins and draw you into his Resurrection to help you live in complete union with him. Ask him to help you become so close to him that St. Paul’s words to the Galatians become true for you, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).