Readings: Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10
In decades and centuries past, Catholics have sometimes been criticized for trying to save themselves through so-called “good works” and thereby were thought to be spurning God’s totally free gift of salvation. However, our second reading seems to support this notion by suggesting that Jesus’ suffering and dying were more by way of example and thus we are called to follow in his footsteps. This all becomes a little confusing: for if Christ suffered for us and died to save us, why should we still embrace suffering by following in his footsteps? Wasn’t it precisely to spare us suffering that he took it upon himself? In attempting an answer, it’s important to clarify what is meant by saying that Christ left us an example and that we should follow in his footsteps.
It may seem a rather subtle distinction, but what we are being exhorted to imitate is not his suffering, but the behavior and the actions that lead to that suffering. For, as we know, it was because of his witness to the Truth and his unwavering commitment to reveal the true and loving face of the heavenly Father that he was persecuted and suffered death. And so although there is a very real sense in which his suffering and death were necessary and inevitable, nevertheless it is also true that he did not purposely seek out suffering or even death. Indeed we know that in the Garden of Gethsemane, he actually prayed to be spared suffering and death.
And thus, when it is said that Christ left us an example and we are asked to follow in his footsteps, we too are not being asked to seek out suffering or–even less–to manufacture suffering by inflicting it on ourselves. Instead we are being exhorted to witness to Love and to Truth in all our words and actions, and thereby reveal the true face of Christ and the Father. This witnessing is, in turn, only possible because Christ first died to save us so that through his wounds we are healed and thus made capable of witnessing to his goodness and love. Sadly, as the lives of the saints have shown us, the more we succeed in witnessing to Christ, the more we seem to incur suffering and persecution from a world and society whose values and priorities are frequently opposed to the central message of the gospel.
But even when we don’t reach the heights of sanctity, out daily efforts to not return insult for insult, injury for injury, sarcastic comment for sarcastic comment, will bring their own share of suffering. And in doing so we will be following–however modestly–in the footsteps of Christ and imitating his example. And at the same time, by absorbing this suffering and not retaliating in kind, we will, like Christ, not be visiting suffering on others or adding misery and conflicts of our troubled and suffering world. And in this we will be shown to be true sisters and brothers of Christ in whom alone we are saved and gain the strength to follow his example and so become light in our darkening world, and that city built on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.