Letting Christ Live in Me

WHAT DID ST. PAUL MEAN when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20)? How was he crucified with Christ? In the sacramental sense, he was “crucified” the same way we were: through baptism. In this mystery the death and resurrection of Christ are mystically represented. We are buried in Christ when we are immersed (buried) in the water. We are resurrected with Him when we are raised up out of the font.

This is not simply an attempt to paint a picture of Christ’s burial and resurrection. These events, like the incarnation, the ascension and all the mysteries of Christ’s work for us are neither abstract ideas nor even moments from the past. They are, to be sure, historical events which happened once in time, but which possess all the power of eternity. Their effect exists in “God’s time,” which is not limited to our earthly limitations of space or the passage of days. Through the holy mysteries – especially baptism and the Eucharist – we are able to connect with the saving events of the incarnation. We do not simply think about them as past, we unite with them as ever-present in what they have accomplished: our union with God in Jesus Christ.

In Acts 9 we read that Paul was baptized in Damascus by Ananias three days after his life-changing encounter with Christ. His attachment to the Law of Moses died as a result of that encounter. He had always been a religious man, but until that time his religious energy was focused on keeping the precepts of the Torah. Paul’s reliance on the Law died when he encountered Christ. His energy was now focused on preaching Christ crucified and risen as the way to God for all, Jew and Gentile. As he wrote in Galatians 2:19, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.”

Dying to Self

But Paul did not simply say, “My reliance on the Law has been crucified” but that “I have been crucified…it is no longer I who live.” In this he seems to be responding to the call of Christ recorded in the Gospels: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). A follower of Christ, then, should be prepared to imitate the Master’s way of life.

Paul depicts the Lord’s fundamental act of self-denial, the incarnation, as setting a pattern for our life. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7). Paul lived in imitation of this as he went about the Roman Empire preaching Christ but assuring his own livelihood so that he would not seem to be in the preaching business.

Serving others in the spirit of Christ was quickly seen as an important, perhaps the primary, way of letting Christ live in the believer. The image of Christ washing His disciples’ feet was imitated liturgically in Christian history and is practiced in all the apostolic Churches to this day. The head of the community (bishop, abbot, pastor) washes the feet of those he serves as a reminder that all leadership in the Church should be viewed as humble service.

Personal Asceticism

Paul first died to the Law that he might live in Christ. He and, the other apostles and countless servants of the Church through the ages died to themselves to serve the Church after the manner of Christ. But there is also a way in which every believer is called to die to oneself. Further in the Epistle to the Galatians St Paul specifies this death as “death to the flesh”: “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). His list of the passions of the flesh runs from adultery and fornication to contentiousness and jealousies. His definition of “flesh,” then, is not limited to what we might call the physical but also to what we might label as psychological or emotional. The common denominator to Paul’s list is the ego. To be Christ’s, for Christ to live in us, we must deal with the distorted ego of our fallen human nature.

The average, well-meaning Christian often envisions the Christian life as attending church services and keeping the commandments as best he can. However the average, well-meaning Christian rarely if ever has an experience of the God whom he worships. Those who have experienced God’s presence in their lives are generally those who have attempted to cleanse their hearts from egotistical desires and passions.

According to the nineteenth century Russian theologian St Theophan the Recluse, the spiritual life takes work. “An instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree. Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.” In another place he wrote, “The chief reason why so few people attain to full Christian perfection is exactly their reluctance, through self-pity, to force themselves to deny themselves.” He calls our reluctance to take up the cross “self-pity:” It’s too hard to pray and fast regularly, to work on my failings day after day, to put up with so-and-so. What would he have thought of our lifestyle, dedicated to the pursuit of happiness as it is?

Dying to one’s self through fasting and humility draws away the curtain of our egos, as it were, and allows us to see the deeper reality of our existence. When we are constantly striving to focus on the image of Christ in us rather than on the cravings of our “flesh,” we awaken to our true nature and realize that God truly does dwell within us. When that happens we appreciate that Paul’s statement, “It is not I who live…” is not mere rhetoric. It is the true meaning of our existence revealed in fact.

A Spiritual Warfare

St John of Kronstadt was a charismatic parish priest in 19th century Russia. He so exemplified the life in Christ that his cathedral – built to hold 5,000 – was packed for Liturgy every day. On the 45th anniversary of his ordination in 1903 he described his taking of the cross:

“Once ordained a priest and pastor, I soon learned through experience …how many infirmities, weaknesses, and sinful passions there were in me, how strong a hold the prince of this world had over me, and how I had to struggle hard with myself, with my sinful inclinations and habits, and conquer them, so as to be as far as possible invulnerable to the arrows of the enemy.

“The spiritual warfare began, and with it watchfulness over oneself, sharpening of spiritual sight, teaching oneself uninterrupted secret prayer and invocation of the all-saving Name of Christ.

“In this warfare I have come to know the immensity of God’s long-suffering to us; for He alone knows all the infirmity of our nature… He has surrounded and continued to surround me everyday with the joys of salvation from sin in peace and expansion of the heart. The divine mercy which I have experienced and the perpetual nearness to me of the Lord confirm me in the hope of my eternal salvation and in that of those who follow and hear me.