By Joel Padgett
December 13, 2019
“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year,” the Catechism explains, “she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC 524).
And lest this desire remain merely on the level of good intentions, the same paragraph then continues by pointing us to Jesus’ immediate forerunner, John the Baptist: “By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30).” These few words contain quite possibly the secret to having the best Advent ever! Just as John the Baptist sought to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3) in his own life in this manner, let us, too, prepare for Christ’s birth in our hearts by dying to the demands of our fallen ego and praying for an ever-increasing presence of Christ’s life within us.
This increasing presence is the fruit of a life of faithful discipleship. As Christ called his disciples with the words, “Follow me,” (cf. Matthew 4:19; 9:9) so he calls each of us who have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3). This discipleship is meant to gradually lead us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29) by: having Christ’s “mind” (Philippians 2:5), being “clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27), and putting on “the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
In other words, we are called to imitate Christ — to be conformed to Christ — in all that we think, say and do. This has to touch every facet of our life at every moment of our life, whether it be in our relationship with God, others, or the created world around us. No part of our life is excluded. God knows our past, accompanies us in the present and wishes to guide our future by his loving providence.
But how does this imitation of Christ become more concrete in our daily lives? For one thing, it is not enough to merely take a “negative” approach to discipleship, although this aspect is essential and should not be excluded. Certainly, it is about avoiding sin, but not only. The negative aspect needs to be coupled with its counterpart: growth in holiness and virtue. For example, just because a husband does not cheat on his wife does not make him a good husband. Or, just because an employee does not steal from his employer does not make him a good employee. By all means, not cheating or stealing is essential, but not sufficient.
Pope Saint John Paul II, in “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” gives us an excellent framework for positive growth. Although he is writing in the context of the formation of priests, the four areas of formation that he mentions therein apply equally to all who seek to imitate Christ and be conformed to Him. These areas are human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. We yearn to be another Christ in each of these areas:
- The formation of human virtue and a well-rounded personality
- A life of prayer, sacraments and the theological virtues
- The study of our faith and a general knowledge of culture
- How we share our faith and how our faith motivates us to love, serve and care for others.
I like to think of each area as a thread in a tapestry. Every dimension of our lives is interwoven in such a way that in allowing Christ to form us in each of these areas, we come to more radiantly reflect Christ’s image.
Although some concrete applications vary based on our specific state of life, what does not vary is our common call to holiness. May we join our desire to that of John the Baptist and pray that during this Advent — and each day of the rest of our lives — we may decrease, and Christ may increase, so that every day may be a new Christmas in which Christ is born ever more effusively in our hearts and souls.