Imitate Christ and Set an Example in Love, Faith and Purity

‘To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self-emptying is to be more deeply present to one's contemporaries, in the heart of Christ.’ (CCC 932)

Annibale Carracci, “Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way,” 1602
Annibale Carracci, “Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way,” 1602 (photo: Public Domain)

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

When I was 6 years old, my brother Joe was already attending school, my dad was at work all day and my younger brother wasn’t yet born. So on weekdays, it was just my mom and me in our three-room apartment in the Bronx. When I wasn’t coloring with crayons, watching TV or creating little worlds with my Play-Doh Fun Factory, I was observing my mom as she did her housewifely thing. Every so often, she’d take a shoebox full of coupons, dump the contents onto the kitchen table, and commence sorting. She would discard coupons that had expired, and set aside other coupons for later use. And she’d attach a few coupons to her shopping list, to redeem when my dad got his paycheck and there was money for groceries. 

I was learning thrift from my mom’s example.

Because I was with my mom 24/7, I got to see how she created holiday magic. Whereas my brother used to come home from school to an apartment that had already been decorated, I was privy to the behind-the-scenes happenings. I knew that the Christmas light strings had been fastened with discarded scraps of ribbon that my dad had collected from the factory where he worked. I knew that the construction-paper Valentine decorations were held together not with Elmer’s, but with “glue” made from a paste of flour and water. I knew that the honeycomb-tissue bumblebee, whose black-and-yellow color scheme earned him a place in our Halloween display, had been begged from Bill the Shoe Salesman when Bill switched out his summertime store display for “Back to School.” 

I was learning resourcefulness from my mom’s example.

I used to enjoy listening to Mom as she talked on the telephone. If she was conversing mainly in Italian, she was on the line with my grandma. But if Mom was speaking grammatically perfect English, you could be sure she was giving what-for to a hapless customer service rep. She was a pro at making sure she got her money’s worth. If a product or service did not meet her expectations, Mom would either write an impassioned letter to the offending company or file a verbal complaint. When filing by phone, she would always record the time and date of the call, along with the name of the person receiving the complaint. Mom would write the information in pencil directly on the mint green wall beside the phone: a reasonable method, she thought, for safeguarding information in a household where things were often misplaced.

One day, while Mom was busy elsewhere, I picked up the pencil by the phone and began to write on the wall. I started by copying the pencil marks Mom had made during her recent tongue-lashing of the New York City Department of Sanitation, and then I drew little circles below the name of the unlucky Procter & Gamble rep who had listened to Mom’s vilification of “Tide, the Washday Miracle.” I was adding broad-stroke flourishes to my work when Mom walked in. She was very angry with me for having written on the wall, and I couldn’t understand why. 

I was only learning from my mom’s example.

“I will make you lick those drawings off the wall!” Mom told me. I hadn’t yet come to realize that Mom was all bark and no bite, and I was worried. So when Mom wasn’t looking, I took a tentative lick of the wall, just to see what I was in for. To this day, I remember vividly the rough, dry chalkiness of a mint green wall that tasted absolutely nothing like mint.

St. Paul reminds us to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). That’s a lot of virtue to be modeling. There may be times when we backslide, and are tempted to brush off our wrongful behavior by advising others to “Do as I say, not as I do.” But if we are striving for perfection, “Do as I do” should be our ideal. Led by Jesus’ example, we can lead others by our example, and ultimately say with St. Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).