Year C, Advent 3
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance…Have no anxiety about anything…”
Anyone hearing these words out of context might assume that their author did nothing but lounge around all day nibbling on bon-bons. After all, it’s easy to rejoice and to be gentle and worry-free when everything’s just dandy. But we know that Paul is the author of these words, and that, in fact, he had good reason to be anything but worry-free. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while in prison, and he fully expected that he would soon be executed for his faith. And yet, just when we might expect him to be most somber, he is most joyful—so joyful, in fact, that he uses the word “rejoice” nine times in the four short chapters that comprise Philippians.
For Paul, the one thing worth rejoicing over is the gospel of Christ, which he understands not merely as proclaiming Christ, but as imitating Christ. Paul declares, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Paul spells out quite clearly what it means to be an imitator of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians, in which he quotes an early hymn of joyful praise:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Here we can hear Paul at his most joyful, rejoicing in the advent of Jesus as the One who humbled himself for the salvation of the world. Here, Paul makes it clear that to imitate Christ is to have “the mind of Christ.”
But what do people who have the mind of Christ think about? Paul answers this question just two verses after the ending of this morning’s reading: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and those with the mind of Christ gotta think on these things. Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy—these are the things that the mind of Christ is fixed upon; not upon the false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, displeasing, condemnable, shabby, and accursed things of the world.
Imitating Christ isn’t just a matter of thinking, however, but also of doing. There is a long and venerable spiritual tradition of the imitatio Christi that places special emphasis on what one must do if one is to become more like Christ. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, stands at the forefront of this tradition. Thomas writes, “Whoever would fully and feelingly understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.” For Thomas, as for Paul, the sacrificial gift of Christ’s own self is the highest form of gift-giving; it is Christ’s love that we should strive to embody, as well as what we ought to seek in others. As Thomas writes, “He who loves with purity considers not the gift of the lover, but the love of the giver.”
With only eleven shopping days left until Christmas, most of us will spend the remainder of Advent selecting gifts for friends and family. If we really take seriously this call to be imitators of Christ, how can our gift-giving reflect this call? I’m not talking about just asking yourself, “What would Jesus do?” “What kind of smart phone would Jesus buy?” “What brand of tube socks would Jesus give?” No, I mean something deeper than that, something grounded in the very way that human beings show love to one another in their giving.
It is a simple fact that we reveal what we truly value in what we give to others, and in so doing, we provide a model for others to imitate. This is particularly true for the example we provide to children in our gift-giving, I believe, but it is equally important for adults. Further, this truth holds for non-material as well as for material gifts. One way of putting it might be to say that the messages behind our material gifts last longer than the actual gifts themselves, longer than any warranty. Are we therefore teaching others to imitate us in the true and honorable through our gifts, whether they be words, actions, or goods? Or are we doing the opposite—or perhaps worse yet, sending a mixed message or no message at all?
This Advent, as we remember that “the Lord is near” and await in joyful and expectant hope the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we would do well to ask ourselves what we are in fact saying through what we give, and contemplate how the very act of giving Christmas gifts can be a way of imitating Christ’s unsurpassable gift of himself. Perhaps then we will discover the joy of Christmas in the joy of imitating Christ’s self-giving, and in modeling for others what it means to imitate him.