Be like Mike?
If you were around then, do you remember the “Be like Mike” Gatorade TV commercial of the 1990s? The implication of the ad was that if you drank Gatorade you might be able to play on your own court with the same excellence as Michael Jordan, the then perhaps greatest professional basketball player of all time.
Be Like Christ
But we Christians, not Jordanians. Specifically, we are Catholics. We are disciples or followers or lovers of Christ. We are not so much dedicated to a lofty ideal as imitators of the Perfect Man. As St. John Paul II liked to say, we must become what we are. This means we must come to be more Christian. We ought to be Christians whose lives are consistent with what we believe. Our works are to be done with Christ, close to him so that we are his instruments, open to His grace to sanctify every environment.
Because every man and so every society is in need of reform, so is every Catholic. Before the so-called Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, all of Europe was Catholic. This meant that all the persons and institutions were also Catholic. Not only were the saints Catholic, not only were the average persons Catholics, but all the knaves were Catholics as well. It was easy for the Reformation to blame every evil in society on the Church because every evil-doer was a member of the Church of Rome.
But the “reformers” were making a big mistake. Let me explain.
One reform movement that arose in the fourteenth century was an order called the Brothers of Common Life. They believed that work and contemplation went hand in hand to form the pious or saintly life.
As Peter Berglar wrote about them in his book on Thomas More,
Like many pious Christians, the Brothers of Common Life disapproved of the abuses then exiting in the world, society, and especially in the Church. But their response was more temperate than that of the [later] reformers, for they recognized evils and injustice as fruits of original sin. God, the Church, and the world, they held, need not so much reformers as Christians who follow Christ. (Thomas More: A Lonely Voice Against the Power of the State 113).
Thus, the problem was that every person is wounded or weakened by original sin. And the solution was by prayer and work to become better “Christians who follow Christ.” This movement produced such men as Thomas à Kempis, Nicholas of Cusa, and More’s close friend, the great humanist Erasmus.
Even though six centuries have passed since More’s day, our mission as Catholic laity has remained the same, to be “Christians who follow Christ.”
What Is Love?
One question, however, is what does it mean to “follow Christ”?
Love or charity (in Greek agape) is the essential nature of God. We are given this divine gift of love through the Sacraments. It flows to us from the Father through the Son, as Christ taught in the parable of the vine and the branches. If we are in the state of grace, we have this agape. We don’t need to acquire it. We just need to make it operative by cooperation.
Love or charity is essentially affirmation. It is, as Josef Pieper said, the exclamation of one person to another that “it is good that you exist!” and a corollary affirmation that “I want you to exist forever!”
That is how the Blessed Trinity conceived of us before creating the universe. It is how the persons of the Trinity look at us now: God considers that it is good we exist and God wants us to exist forever.
This affirmative nature of charity ought to be remembered when we consider other, more demanding, definitions of agape, such as “Charity is willing the true good of the other, even to the point of sacrifice,” or Christ’s words “Love one another as I have loved you,” or St. Paul’s passing on of Christ’s saying that “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” or Vatican’s II’s claim that we only find fulfillment through a sincere gift of self.
The Surpassing Good
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says that we all crave being looked upon with love. Fr. Robert Spitzer articulates how Christ looks at us: with empathy, compassion, or mercy. This attitude is based on Christ’s seeing our “goodness, lovability, and transcendent mystery” (Finding True Happiness, 182). This loving heart of Christ is illustrated in the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. If we imitate the heart of Christ, this empathy and affirmation will be our own attitude and approach toward our neighbor as well.
So, essentially, to imitate Christ is to love as Christ loved. It was a sacrificial love, yes, but a happy love at the same time. It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Holiness Via The Ordinary
To apply this to life in the twenty-first century, we can turn to St. Josemaria Escriva. He rediscovered for modern Catholics the universal call to holiness by means of the sanctification of ordinary life and work. It is in our everyday humdrum lives that we encounter other persons with their “goodness, lovability, and transcendent mystery,” whether those persons are family members, friends, those we encounter in school or work, or anywhere else. And we encounter them in all the ordinary situations in which our minutes are spent.
We can be like Christ through Sanctifying Grace, which we receive through Baptism and the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist.