“The horos–the standard or definition–of Christian life is ‘the imitation of Christ according to the extent [or ‘measure’] of His incarnation’ (Longer Rules XLIII). Basil comes back repeatedly to this theme: Christ is the servant of all in his earthly life and nothing less is demanded of us. In a short treatise ‘On Renouncing the World’ (de renuntiatione saeculi 211C), he says quite simply that ‘humility is the imitation of Christ’. And this includes a readiness to sacrifice our lives, our whole selves, for righteous and sinners alike, since Christ loves all alike and dies for all alike (Shorter Rules CLXXXVI). Everyone has equal claim on the Christian’s unconditional service, because of the unconditional self-offering of Christ to all. Grace is free to everyone, and so must be the love and practical compassion of the believer; we may recall Basil’s indefatigable energy and ability as a social reformer, the schools, hospitals, and orphanages which sprang up in such abundance around his episcopal seat.” Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980), p. 100.
We could qualify and blunt the radicality of this monastic vision in a hundred ways. I know that I am tempted to. Those of us with families to care for and jobs to hold down introduce one set of qualifications. Heirs of Paul, Augustine, and/or the sixteenth century Reformations may be concerned about works-righteousness and therefore introduce another set of concerns. As I survey the landscape of contemporary Christianity, I am more worried that we don’t hear the demand of Christ with sufficient clarity to know that we have fallen short and need mercy. And I am delighted to see Basil deriving the extent of the demand from the radical self-giving of the Lord.
If Christ, who sets the standard, lived his life and died for all, so ought we to love our neighbor. I wonder what the world would think if it saw us living and dying like that? We might catch a glimpse here and there, but is that our reputation today? The works of mercy once won a world for Christ. They might well do so again, provided that our love hasn’t grown cold.