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Jesus Is Our Model

General Audience — August 17, 1988

In the gradual development of the catechesis on the theme of Jesus Christ's mission, we have seen that he is the one who effected man's liberation through the truth of the Gospel, of which the ultimate, definitive word is the cross and resurrection. Christ frees man from the slavery of sin and gives new life by means of his paschal sacrifice. The redemption has become a new creation. A new humanity begins from the redemptive sacrifice and the resurrection of the Redeemer. In accepting Christ's sacrifice, God "creates" the new man "in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph 4:24), the man who becomes an adorer of God "in spirit and truth" (Jn 4:23).

As an historical figure, Jesus Christ signifies a perfect model, the ideal, for this "new man." He who in his own humanity was the perfect "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15), became a visible model. He was the most perfect model for humanity, through his earthly life, through all that he "did and taught" (Acts 1:1), and especially through his sacrifice.

Here we enter into the ambit of the theme of the imitation of Christ, which is clearly present in the Gospel texts and in other apostolic writings, even if the word "imitation" does not appear in the Gospels. Jesus exhorted his disciples to "follow him." "If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (cf. Mt 16:24; Jn 12:26).

Only in Paul do we find this word "imitate," when the Apostle writes, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). And again, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction" (1 Thess 1:6).

However, it is necessary to observe that the word "imitation" is not the most important thing here. Most important is the fact which underlies it; that is, that Christ's entire life and work, crowned by the sacrifice of the cross, accomplished through love for the brethren, remains a lasting model and ideal. It induces and exhorts us not only to know, but also, and especially, to imitate. Besides, Jesus himself said in the upper room when he had washed the apostles' feet, "I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:15).

Jesus' words do not refer solely to the act of washing the feet, but, through that action, to the whole of his life, considered as a humble service. Each disciple is invited to walk in the footsteps of the "Son of Man," who "came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28). It is precisely in the light of this life, of this love, of this poverty, of this sacrifice, that the "imitation" of Christ becomes a requirement for all his disciples and followers. In a certain sense it becomes the framework of the evangelical Christian ethos.

That liberation for the new life, about which we have spoken during the previous catecheses, consists precisely in this. Christ has not transmitted merely a magnificent theory to humanity. He has revealed in what sense and in what way the salvific transformation of the "old" man, the man of sin, into the "new" man must be achieved. This existential and therefore moral transformation must succeed in conforming man to that most original model according to which he was created. Only to a being created "in God's image and likeness" could the words which we read in the letter to the Ephesians be applied: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph 5:1-2).

Christ is the model on the way of this "imitation of God." At the same time, he alone makes this imitation realizable, when, through the redemption, he offers us a participation in God's life. At this point, Christ becomes not only the perfect model, but the efficacious model. The gift, that is, the grace of the divine life, by the action of the paschal mystery of the redemption, becomes the very source of the new likeness to God in Christ. Therefore it is also the source of the imitation of Christ as a perfect model.

From this fact, exhortations like that of St. Paul to the Philippians get their force and effectiveness: "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others" (Phil 2:1-4).

To what does such a "parenthesis" refer? To what purpose are these exhortations and demands addressed to the Philippians? The answer is contained in the following verses of the letter: "this mind...was in Christ Jesus...and have this mind among yourselves" (cf. Phil 2:5). Christ took "the form of a servant...humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8).

The Apostle touches on what is the central and crucial point of the whole work of redemption accomplished by Christ. Here is also found the fullness of the salvific model for each one of the redeemed. Here is the culminating point of the imitation of the Master. We find the same principle of imitation also expressed in the Letter of St. Peter: "If you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps" (1 Pet 2:20-21).

In human life, suffering signifies a test of the human spirit's strength. Such a test has a "liberating" significance: it liberates the spirit's hidden strengths and allows them to appear. At the same time it becomes an occasion of interior purification. The words of the parable of the vine and the branches told by Jesus are relevant here, when he presents the Father as he who cultivates the vineyard: "Every branch of mine that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit" (Jn 15:2). That fruit depends on remaining (like a branch) in Christ the vine, in his redemptive sacrifice, because "apart from him we can do nothing" (cf. Jn 15:5). On the contrary, as the Apostle Paul states, "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). Jesus himself said, "He who believes in me will also do the works that I do" (Jn 14:12).

Faith in this transforming power of Christ as regards man has its deepest roots in God's eternal design regarding human salvation. "Those who he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren" (Rom 8:29). In this way the Father prunes every branch, as we read in the parable (Jn 15:2). In this way the Christian's gradual transformation according to the model of Christ is accomplished, to the extent that in him "all of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit." Thus says the Apostle in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (3:18).

It is a question of a spiritual process from which life flows. In that process it is Christ's generous death which bears fruit, leading into the paschal dimension of his resurrection. It is begun in each of us by baptism, the sacrament of Christ's death and resurrection, as we read in the Letter to the Romans: "We are buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4). From that moment, the process of this salvific transformation in Christ develops in us "until we all attain...to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ" (Eph 4:13).