Finding the Perfect Christian

Our Lady’s existence, from the first moment of her creation, remains anchored to God, the exact imprint of whose image in Christ will be stamped upon her life forever.

Battista Franco Veneziano (1510-1561), “Madonna and Child in Glory with the Saints”
Battista Franco Veneziano (1510-1561), “Madonna and Child in Glory with the Saints” (photo: Public Domain)

“You are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

When St. Paul dictated that sentence, he intended it as reminder to those Christians living in Colossae — a city in Asia Minor which, being in prison, he would never see — not to remain unsettled in their faith, but instead to cling to Christ Jesus. For having been raised with him, they needed to seek only the things that are above, leaving behind the things on earth. That way, he assured them, “When Christ, your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory” (3:4). In the meantime, of course, like Christians everywhere, the same exhortations apply: 

Put to death those parts of you which are earthly — fornication, impurity, passion, evil desires, and that greed which is idolatry (3:5).

Is this how we are to understand the fact of our being Christian? That our identity in Christ is defined by the sins we must not commit? Because that cannot be the sum total of what membership in Christ means. It isn’t moralism that defines us, as if Christ came only to give us norms and precepts by which to regulate our behavior. We certainly didn’t need an Incarnation to do that. And, besides, listing items on a moral spreadsheet had already been done. That was the work of the Old Testament. 

So, if isn’t a matter of simply itemizing sins, then what is Christianity? How are we to understand the fact of our being Christian, that our belonging to Christ is more than the sins we mustn’t commit? Might there be a shorthand way of expressing what it means to find our identity in the God who became one of us? After all, if God entered the theater of our world to redeem us, occupying the same stage on which we all must live and move — indeed, offering us the most intimate possible companionship along the way — surely there must be some surefire way of saying it in the simplest possible way.

Suppose we ground it in the following two terms, that of Alpha and Beta, mindful that neither is finally detachable from the other. Let Alpha then be the principal point of contact, which is the Mystery of God in Christ who, by becoming one of us, concretizes in the flesh of the human being Jesus the whole meaning of divine and eternal being. Alpha becomes thus the source, the necessary point of origin from which we live and move, drawing all our strength and purpose for the journey that lies ahead.

Let Beta be the secondary or derivative point, then, which is the Mystery of Christ whom we are to encounter in our neighbor, who is very often the stranger longing to become our brother. Beta is thus the flashpoint toward which we live and move in time, a great and endless spectrum along which all the myriad and broken images of Christ may be found. So many points of Christic contact, as it were, to beckon us along the road that leads us home to God. 

And the movement between the two, what shall we call that but the very life of the Holy Spirit, who keeps the whole enterprise going, from Alpha to Beta, from Beta back to Alpha? Here is God’s own Spirit, enabling us not only to see God in Christ, but to see and thereby embrace Christ in our brother, however broken or shattered by sin the image may be. Only do not call this movement a mere axiom or principle of the Holy Spirit, as if the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity were not only distinct from us, but altogether separate from the graces and gifts he gives. In going from God in Christ, to Christ in our brother, it is not as if we were just activating or evincing the work of the Spirit. Because the back and forth movement is itself the Spirit, coursing through our very lives in his sheer unleashing of divine life. It is God’s own Spirit, who is nothing other than the spiration of Love between the Father and the Son. Who pierces the marrow of my life so deeply that it becomes no easy thing to know where I leave off and God begins.

Everything, therefore, depends on holding fast to Alpha, which is the unifying source upon which even the possibility of loving my neighbor rests. “Without Me,” says Jesus, “you can do nothing.” And who more that Mary has shown us the way? She whose whole being was so steeped in God that not once but twice does she conceive the Word — both in her heart, the very center of her soul, from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception, and then in her body at the instant of her assent to the angelic invitation.

How perfectly, then, do we see the Alpha and Beta equation in the life of Our Lady! Her whole existence, from the first moment of her creation, remains anchored to God, the exact imprint of whose image in Christ will be stamped upon her life forever. It is the point from which she lives. Followed by countless images of the Incarnate Son, the Child she carries everywhere into the world he came to save. 

Beginning, who can doubt, with Joseph, her dear and faithful husband, with whom she first shared the news. So extraordinary an event of God’s enfleshment in time could hardly have been a secret she’d have kept to herself.

And after Joseph, who then may be told? Who is her next Beta Point? The gospels are not shy in alerting us to the so-called “chain of custody,” which is legalese for letting us know who else may be entrusted with the Good News. And isn’t it obvious? Why her cousin Elizabeth will be the next to know. St. Luke is wonderfully plain spoken about it, telling us that it was “in haste that Mary arose and went into the hill country” (1:39) there to see the one whom God had visited in her old age. 

“Wherever she goes with her Child,” writes Adrienne von Speyr, “the grace of the Child flows out through her into the world.” She does not venture anywhere on her own. There is always Someone with her, one who having already received her free and full assent, now wishes only that she share it with others. “She is a vessel,” Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, “a monstrance of the Word and Will of God become flesh.” And for this reason God will raise her up so that all generations might call her blessed, looking to her to admire as she looks to him to adore.