Christ, the Messiah, is not merely the Redeemer who breaks apart the bond, and cleanses us from sin. He is also the dispenser of a new divine life which shall wholly transform us and turn us into ‘new men’… Though we receive this new life in Baptism, it may not flourish in us unless we cooperate.
A strong desire must fill us to become different beings, to mortify our old selves and re-arise as new men in Christ. This desire, this readiness to ‘decrease’ so that ‘He may grow in us’ is the first elementary precondition for the transformation in Christ. It is the primal gesture by which man reacts to the light of Christ that has reached his eyes: the original gesture directed at God.
It is, in other words, the adequate consequence of our consciousness of being in need of redemption on the one hand, and our comprehension of being called by Christ on the other. Our surrender to Christ implies a readiness to let Him fully transform us, without setting any limit to the modification of our nature under his influence.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ
Reflection – A new author on the blog, the great lay theologian of the 20th century who had such an influence on Popes John Paul II and Benedict, who wrote that “When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”
This quote comes from the beginning of his great work Transformation in Christ, and lays out a principle thesis of his work—that Christ came not merely to work an external change of redeeming us or wiping away our guilt, but to work a complete change in the whole person, a complete transformation from being one sort of being to another sort of being altogether.
We can miss this quite easily, can’t we? Especially since (let’s be honest) the behavior, the actions of so many Christians are not measurably different from the actions of non-Christians. The transforming effect of the sacrament of baptism is a doctrine we have to, alas, take on faith much of the time. We see little of this effect in our communal church life. It’s not that Christians are any worse than the mass of humanity—we’re not—but really, we truly are supposed to be better.
We have the Holy Spirit of God living within us. We have Christ himself daily attending us to shape us, form us, teach us, and communicate his life to us so that we can live as Jesus lived and lives. All of this by the will and gracious love of God the Father. We really should be better than we are.
It does in fact come down to our willingness to change. God is a gentleman; He doesn’t coerce us, doesn’t force Himself upon us. Indeed, He can’t, since the whole transformation He is offering us is a matter of us becoming lovers in the pattern of Christ the Lover of Mankind. Love that is coerced is not love; it is literally a contradiction in terms to speak of ‘coerced love.’
So, what’s the holdup, anyhow? God is offering us all sorts of gifts and new life and abundance of grace, poured out freely in Jesus Christ, in the sacraments of the Church, a gift and grace sure to transform our lives and make them glorious. What’s the holdup? Oh yeah… it will hurt, a bit. It will be hard, somewhat. It will take us beyond what we think we can do, just a little… like a few trillion miles little.
I am reminded of an interview Catherine Doherty gave to Radio Canada, the French language TV network (yes, our TV network is called ‘radio’ – you gotta problem with that?). At one point she explained it very simply, that everyone was afraid, and that was the problem. Afraid of what, the interviewer asked her. “De la peine, mon cherie!” she immediately answered. Of pain, my dear… and she has the most luminous smile on her face as she says it.
Christ wants to transform our life, and the promise of Scripture is that this will make our life radiant and beautiful. But we look at a crucifix and we know that too is part of the process… and we’re not sure. We vacillate, we hesitate, we say yes, we say no, we say later, we say let me think about it some more…
And Christians go on, for the most part, being fairly indistinguishable from the general population, and the world remains deeply unconvinced that there’s anything especially true or compelling about the Gospel, because they don’t see anything especially true or compelling about the way we are living.
Sorry to be a bit of a downer today. But there’s no reason to be downhearted about it. The answer is as close as turning to Jesus right now and saying, ‘please, Lord, let’s do this! Change me, and let’s start today! How can I love more, today, be more like you, today? Show me, Lord, and make it happen.’ It’s pretty much that simple. So… let’s all do that, OK?