The imitation of Christ is our mission. To be like Jesus in the world is our ambition. We are not speaking of mere mimicry. Nor are we considering an aspiration to be like someone who is so different from us, so far above us, that our mission has no chance of being fulfilled. The Lord is far above us but he is also right beside us and he urges us to be like him. To do so is not to stop being ourselves. In all maturity and integrity and self-respect we can imitate Jesus Christ in a way which far from compromising our own character and personality actually brings those to their best. We imitate Jesus while remaining ourselves. We do so by being like him as we meet him in the Gospel. We meet the Lord also in his teaching faithfully transmitted to us in the Church. We encounter the imitable Christ also in our personal sacramental and spiritual life. Jesus takes his troubles to God in prayer. He puts up with awkward, uncomprehending people. He forgives injuries. He shows respect for His mother. His presence is a healing, reconciling one. In all these details and many more we can imitate the Lord.
If it is possible, with the help of the grace of God, to imitate Christ in the details of life, is it possible to copy his larger projects, his grand scheme, his world mission? The Son of man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Service is certainly possible for us. We are all the time on the alert for opportunities to serve others. Jesus alone is the Saviour of the world. We do not save ourselves or others. Yet there is no doubt a way in which our salvation is worked out by our handing our life over to the One who made us and who longs to save us. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others was Jesus's great project, his reason for being. In our mission we can find ourselves beginning to want to imitate him in this way also. Every absorbing thing that we find ourselves drawn into can be the arena of our sacrifice. A marriage, the relationship with one’s children, our commitments to others, a job, a parish, a friendship or an enthusiasm can be the setting for a self-giving which is Christ-like. Jesus is imitated when we are generous, unselfish, contributing to goodness, holiness, peace and healing. We are Christ-like when we are empowered to make salvation more real in our missionary circle - in our parish, in our family, in our school and wherever we are.
Redemption was a life-consuming project for Jesus. Our accepting that we are redeemed is going to be hardly less absorbing for us. Let us be confident that we shall find mercy and grace when we are in need of help. Saving us was Jesus' reason for being with us. Being saved is our great reason for being like him. Otherwise, how impertinent to want to be like God! This divine impertinence, this godly cheek, on our part, which prompts us to embark on the imitation of Christ takes us into very deep water. Jesus offers his life in atonement. There is satisfaction for us, there is joy in being generous, in giving ourselves wholeheartedly for something which benefits others first. The discomfort, even the pain which might come to us in such self-giving is a cost calculated, a price we are willing to pay.
Christ's great work was undertaken out of love, was discharged in peace and brought about joy. That great work was necessitated by sin, and not Jesus’ sin. If we imitate Christ, we also imitate his atonement. Unlike him, we have sins of our own for which we seek to atone as best we can. Such atonement is a big project for us and is costly. To imitate Jesus in his atoning work draws us into self-examination, requests for forgiveness, the making of amends and the learning of humility. Jesus, sinless though he was, did not trip lightly down this path. If we are to travel with him on this mission to the world, the journey will be no joyride.
Anyone with any self-knowledge, any common-sense, jibs at least little before the arduous aspects of the imitation of Christ. However, before we make too much of the difficulty, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the labour of atonement for our sins has already been done by Jesus himself. By his sufferings shall my servant justify many. God foretold of his Son this struggle. The task is completed, the work done. Our imitative rôle is more modest. There will be costly self-giving. There will be exposure of weakness. There will be suffering. For most of us, most of the time, mercifully, these trials will be small-scale and undramatic. Christ's mission is cosmic. Our mission of imitating him in our life looms large also. However, our world mission has everyday expressions which are very often simple, ordinary and unremarkable. Jesus is remarkable. We his imitators are not unremarkable. We are nevertheless too busy imitating Christ to notice how remarkable we are ourselves becoming.
Peter Gallagher SJ