Following of Christ (in the Christian Life)
FOLLOWING OF CHRIST (IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE)
In the earliest Christian writings the concept of identification with Christ was the fundamental and allpervading notion. tertullian's apothegm Christianus alter Christus found manifold expression throughout patristic literature and was admirably synthesized by isidore of seville (Sententiae 1.30.4): "Christ is one in Himself and in us" (unus in se et in nobis est Christus ). cyprian summed up the following of Christ: "We ought to cling to His words, to study His teachings, and to imitate His life" (De unitate ecclesiae 1.2). The perfect realization of this ideal was found in the martyr. ignatius of antioch pleaded in his letter to the Romans: "Let me imitate the passion of my Lord." In this same spirit the ascetics embraced a life of total dedication. "Let Christ be your life's breath" was the admonition of anthony of egypt.
With the christological controversies of the 4th century the simple devotion of early Christianity assumed a more theological expression. Although the Doctors of the Church insisted upon the reality of Christ's human nature as the exemplary cause of all holiness, they referred to man's likeness to God as the special end of the Incarnation. In the Greek Fathers this idea was especially emphatic. In the East, however, stress was placed on the redeeming act of Christ, who raised us to a share in His divinity; in the West there was more emphasis on our imitation of Him: "What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ if we do not copy His compassion and imitate His humility?" (Ambrose, Sermo 29). These two aspects of Christological devotion, reverence for the divinity of the Word Incarnate and imitation of the sacred humanity of Jesus, were combined in the teaching of St. Augustine: "In His divinity He dwells within our souls; in His humanity He sets before our eyes the example of His life and thereby draws our hearts to Himself" (Sermo 264). In the 11th century peter damian summed up this tradition: "It is truly great to die for Christ, but not less noble to live for Him" (Sermo 32; PL 144:6803).
With St. bernard the Christology of the West turned strongly toward the mysteries of Christ's human life. Bernard's affective trend in spirituality influenced subsequent writers. The Cistercian mystics developed profound love for the Sacred Humanity. Their prayer was a progression from the contemplation of Christ in the Scriptures and liturgy to the experience of union with Him and thence to imitation of His acts. The culmination of this devotion is to be found in the Franciscan tradition of deep emotional response to the mysteries of Jesus' human life and suffering. The stigmata of St. francis, the poetic tradition of the stabat mater, and the Meditationes vitae Christi find theological basis in the writings of St. bonaventure and in the teaching of duns scotus that love has precedence over knowledge.
Following more closely in the patristic tradition, the Dominicans developed a theological approach to the love of Christ. For St. thomas aquinas contemplation is wisdom in the intellect, charity in the will, and peace in the heart. Devotion is the gift of oneself to God, rather than complacency or enjoyment of Him. Thomas treated the mystery of the Incarnation as the principal work of Divine Providence and taught that every action of Christ was meant to lead men toward God. But the primary object of devotion is always the Person of the Word (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 82.1, 3).
The greatest mystic of the Dominican Order, catherine of siena, remained Thomistic in doctrine, but was more intuitive and practical in her zeal for the Church and her participation in Christ's suffering. Dominican mysticism in Germany under tauler and henry suso took an affective turn in attempting to follow Christ to the cross, that is, by the willing acceptance of suffering, and thus win a share in His love.
The epitome of medieval piety is found in the Vita Christi of ludolph of saxony—a work that combines patristic and medieval spirituality with such clarity and unction that it merits to be called the book of the imitation of Jesus Christ. It is not so much a biography as a set of meditations on the life of Christ. The considerations are filled with tender reverence for "the exemplar of all holiness, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came from heaven that He might go before us on the road to eternal life." The prayers that conclude each meditation open the way, through love of Christ's humanity, to that penetration to the depths of His divinity whereby the medieval saints strove to form their souls in the image of Him who is the Image of the invisible God.
See Also: imitation of christ.
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[p. j. mullins]