On April 30, 1926, Pope Pius XI bestowed upon St. Francis of Assisi the title “Alter Christus” [the second Christ]. He was not seeking to undermine the uniqueness of Christ, but to emphasize the extent to which Francis imitated the life of Christ, an imitation to which all Christians are, at least in principle, called. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Francis was, of course, particularly noted for imitating the humility and poverty of Christ.
In a sense, the whole life of Christ is the life of a Christian. We live in Christ; we are baptized into the death of Christ; we put on Christ; we are raised with Christ. Indeed, Christ, who is the Son of God, became the Son of Man so that we might become sons and daughters of God. The imitation of Christ, then, is not the construction of an artificial copy, but the unfolding of the very life of Christ in human persons. Again and again, the pattern of Christ’s life and the living reality of Christ are reproduced in the church’s members.
The martyrdom of St. Stephen is a particularly striking example. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56). At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens opened, and they are open every time a person is baptized in water or the blood of their martyrdom. To be in Christ is to have free access to heaven, an open door to the throne of grace. “Through him [Jesus],” says St. Paul, “both of us [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” The heavens are rent, and they remain open. God is utterly transcendent and utterly available to all the baptized.
The very moment of Stephen’s martyrdom is a re-enactment of Christ from the cross. “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60). Breathing his last, crying out, forgiving his persecutors, Stephen imitated Christ in dramatic detail. His martyrdom, no doubt, was the culmination of his witness to Christ in all the days preceding his death. Stephen was conformed to Christ, caught up into the life of Christ.
Jesus expresses the reiteration of his life among his disciples in these words: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). The ascension of Jesus to the Father and the giving of the Spirit of Jesus to the disciples unleash and disperse the power and life of Christ among all the baptized in all time and space. Strange to say, but this work is greater than the work of the historical Jesus because it has neither geographical nor temporal limits. To be a witness of Jesus Christ is to be Jesus Christ in the world.
Finally, consider this. St. Paul, grieving over the church in Galatia because they had so quickly fallen away from the gospel, wrote, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
The whole life of Christ is the proper form of your life.
Look It Up: John 14:3
Think About It: You are where Christ is, and Christ is in you.