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The Imitation Game

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2-14-21

My Dear Friends in Christ,

In this Sunday’s second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we find the Apostle admonishing his readers: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Earlier in the same letter Paul had already admonished the church at Corinth in the same way, following it with an explanation: “For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:16-17). In sending Timothy to the Corinthians Paul was sending a living letter to teach the them the Christian way of life by example. In the very same way Paul would exhort the Corinthians to be living letters themselves as evidence of the Gospel’s saving power to the world (2 Cor. 3:1-3).

In this Paul was imitating the teaching method of Christ. When first encountered by Andrew who was eager to learn more about him and inquired: “Rabbi…where are you staying?” Jesus responded, “Come and see” (1:38-39). The Son of God Incarnate used discipleship as his pedagogy, calling twelve men to accompany Him throughout his public ministry who followed him wherever he went, ate when he ate, and slept where he slept. It was the formation of an entire life that consisted of spoken word but on the witnessing of actions just as much, if not more. For this reason, time and again Jesus pointed out to his disciples that the measure of their learning would not be knowledge gained, but life transformed. Thus, in the middle of His Sermon on the Mount he exhorted them: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Similarly, later, after He had washed their feet during the Last Supper He told them: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done” (Jn. 13:15).

In choosing this as their primary teaching method, Jesus and Paul were tapping into a deep truth about human nature: life is an imitation game. From antiquity to today scholars have asserted that human beings are imitative by nature, if you will. In his Poetics Aristotle wrote: “imitation is natural to man from childhood…he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation” (Poetics, 1448B). Advances in technology have led neuroscientists to conclude the same from the study of what are known as mirror neurons. When we witness actions, or read or hear about them with significant vividness, mirror neurons are activated in the brain’s neural pathways such that the brain is internally simulating these actions as if we were doing the actions ourselves (see Charlene P. E. Burns, “Hardwired for Drama? Theological Speculations on Cognitive Science, Empathy, and Moral Exemplarity,” in Theology and the Science of Moral Action, 152-155). This is an educative process that prepares us for imitative action in the future when we encounter similar situations. In short, the philosophy of Aristotle and cognitive science say more eloquently what popular parlance conveys more pithily: monkey see, monkey do.

It is worth stating at this point that imitation is truly an educative process and not just the simple mechanical replication of action. This can be seen on several levels. From the perspective of psychology, mirror neurons are understood to play a crucial role in what is known as theory of mind. The idea behind theory of mind is that in our interactions with others we try to understand what the other person is thinking. For example, when we witness the action of another, not only are the mirror neurons in our brains priming us to imitate that action later, but we are actively engaging in learning the intention motivating the action we are witnessing. Said differently, we are learning not only what is being done but why it is being done (see Brown and Strawn, The Physical Nature of the Christian Life, 56-58). The idea here is that if we learn motivation we are able to imitate the action we see exemplified by others in a way appropriate to our own unique personalities and states in life when faced with a similar situation later on.

The mechanics of imitation can also be understood from a philosophical or theological perspective. In Platonic philosophy, the material universe is thought of as being a mirror image or imitation of immaterial reality (see Plato, Timaeus, 30.C-D). Within this dualistic philosophy, the idea is that material reality, including human beings who are parts material and immaterial, need to imitate immaterial reality in order to reach perfection. In some cases this meant the imitation of God. For example, Plato writes: “He, then, that is to become dear to such a one [God] must needs become, so far as he possibly can, of a like character…” (Laws, 716C). The idea here is that the lower being imitates the higher being so as to move toward perfection. St. Thomas Aquinas draws on this philosophy, overcoming its dualistic shortcomings in light of the Incarnation, in commenting on the passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians read this Sunday. Beginning from the idea that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity is also the one through Whom all things were created at the beginning and are now upheld in existence (Col 1:15-17), St. Thomas explains: “But this exemplar of God has been very remote from us at first, as it is said: what is man that he could follow the King, his maker? (Eccl 2:12). And therefore he willed to become man, that he might offer humans a human exemplar” (Commentary on First Corinthians, C. 11, L. 1.583). From here the chain of examples is meant to lengthen, and we who are created in the image of God are meant to imitate the One Whose image we bear so as to increase in likeness to Him (Gn 1:27). Links are added by the force of attraction to the exemplary lives of Christian love drawing others to their way of life (see 1 Pt 5:3, 2 Thess 3:9), their bonds forged and strengthened by the fire of the Holy Spirit whose grace enables the imitative learning process described above. This is the imitation game, and its aim is to add links to the imitative chain until ultimately all are bound to Christ as members of His Body, the Church, in accordance with His High Priestly Prayer: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).

What does this mean for us concretely and practically? The Apostle gives us our answer. Paul’s claim to be an imitator of Christ rests on the dynamics of the Incarnation, God’s self-humbling surrender of the Divine prerogative in becoming human to be one with us. Paul casts the Incarnate Christ as exemplar par excellence in exhorting the Philippians (and us today) to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). What does this mean? Christ’s example tells the story: “…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…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). The divine self-humbling described here in metaphysical or theological terms is the same movement concretely acted out in Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples. The Master took on the role of a slave in washing his disciples’ feet, as Peter makes so clear in his protest (Jn 13:6).

In calling the Corinthians (and us) to imitate him as he had imitated Christ, Paul claimed that he lived his life in an effort to imitate this self-humbling mentality. What comes next is important for understanding authentic imitation. For Paul does not go about washing the feet of those he serves, but he imitates this action of Christ in other ways. How does he do this? He imitates Christ by giving up his prerogative as a Christian and, even more so, as an Apostle of Christ. Concretely he does this by not giving offense to his those who are scandalized by eating certain foods (1 Cor 10:23-30), persevering through abuse and rejection from those to whom he preached (2 Cor 11:21-27), and working for his living instead of having others provide for his needs (1 Cor. 9:1-18). For Paul, all of these were ways of imitating Christ, of living with the mind of Christ, of allowing Christ to live in and through him (Gal 2:20). And for what aim? Paul’s answer echoes the why of Christ (Jn. 3:16), demonstrating learning process described above in psychological and neuroscientific terms had taken place in him: “…I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19; cf. 1 Cor. 10:33). This is the imitation of Christ, putting one’s entire life at the God’s disposal in every circumstance so that others might experience the healing power of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection.

How, then, do we play this imitation game so as to grow in conformity with Christ and call others to unity with Him as well? First and most importantly we play the imitation game through our participation in the sacrifice of the Mass. Participation in the Mass both avails us of the grace to imitate Christ and teaches us how to do so. But if our participation in the Mass is to become the source of a life of imitatio Christi, we must truly be participants and not merely spectators. Active participation in the Mass has become a topic of debate, and is often misconstrued by being described solely in terms of movement, speaking, or singing. Yet the neuroscientific and psychological processes outlined briefly above tell us that, while important, these are not our only means of active participation. By carefully attending to Scripture in the Liturgy of the Word as it is read, our brains are literally imitating the virtuous actions we hear being vividly described so that we might concretely imitate these actions when the circumstances deem appropriate. When we move to the Liturgy of the Eucharist we must strive to maintain the same degree of attention. We must carefully listen to the Eucharistic prayer as they are said by the priest, praying to God that the sacrifice of Christ now being carried out in words might “become our sacrifice, that we ourselves…may be transformed into the Logos, conformed to the Logos, and so be made the true Body of Christ” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 173).

By actively participating in the Eucharistic Liturgy we put on the mind of Christ as his Body, and are availed of the grace to imitate Him with the whole of our lives. This is where the life of the Church as the Body of Christ becomes so important. It is imperative that we all dedicate ourselves to the imitation of Christ in our own unique ways because we need to see, here and now, what a life looks like that prolongs the dynamics of self-giving love that have their source and summit in the Eucharist. We need exemplars of a Eucharistic life to imitate. We have explored how theologically this is the way the Tradition thinks of our lives, and how this theological paradigm can be given further clarity through the sciences. This is where the communion of saints fits into the imitation game. The lives of the saints of the past testify that God’s grace knows no limits of historical context, age, race, or sex, but that He is continually at work in the world, transforming us individually and collectively into the Body unified in His Son as He intended for the human family from the beginning. Today it is time to learn from their lives with renewed intensity and to celebrate their feasts with greater solemnity. They are the living expression of God’s love made present to us through history, and in imitating them, we imitate Christ. By joining in this imitation game we put on the humble mind of Christ and become His hands and feet in the world, so that “whether [we] eat or drink, or whatever [we] do, [we] do everything for the glory of God,” “not seeking [our] own advantage, but that of the many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:31-33).

Your servant in Christ,


5 thoughts on “The Imitation Game

  1. Thank you, Tony. The science of imitation became a little clearer with the connection to the liturgy. 🙂 “We put on the mind of Christ as His body, and are availed of the grace to imitate Him…” Nicely done as always. Pax

    1. Thanks, Fr. Aidan, I appreciate it!

      Yes, entering deeply into the Eucharistic prayers affords us the opportunity to share in Christ’s eternal movement of love toward the embrace of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In this we put on the mind of Christ in the fullest sense and experience, if even for a moment, what it truly means to be a human person, the imago Dei.

    1. Thanks very much, I appreciate it! May God give us all the grace to truly put on the mind of Christ, so as to make His life and healing love known and present to the world!

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