by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1: 18).
During this year, dedicated by our Holy Father to St. Paul, I have been pondering Paul’s understanding of the meaning and the power of the cross. Paul came to the realization that true wisdom and power are to be found in the crucified Jesus. This is, of course, paradoxical, because from a worldly evaluation, a crucified Messiah appears to be an absurdity.
After his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, there was no question for Paul about the truth of the risen Jesus. Still, Paul understood from his own vigorous persecution of the disciples of Jesus, the scandalous nature of a crucified Christ to a devout Jew.
The chief priests and Pharisees requested — and Pilate authorized — that the tomb of Jesus be secured with guards (Mt 27: 62-65). When these very guards report about an earthquake, an angel rolling back the stone and the empty tomb, the chief priests do not admit their error, but bribe the soldiers to report that the body of Jesus was stolen by his disciples (Mt 28: 11-15). Paul understood, for those who had closed their minds completely to Jesus, even the greatest sign of all, his resurrection, was unable to open their hearts to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
Paul also had a foot in the Greek world and understood well their love for philosophy, the pursuit of truth and the attainment of wisdom. Greeks rejected the crucified Messiah as an irrational belief. The paschal mystery (the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus), in the light of their human wisdom, was pure foolishness.
I have been reading some of what has been described as the “new atheism.” In reality, it is not very new, just old ideas repackaged. The tragedy of this new atheism is that it is embraced by intelligent and scientifically knowledgeable individuals. In fact, their intelligence becomes an obstacle to faith. It is difficult for them to accept an intelligence greater than their own. While they have a remarkable knowledge of the physical universe, they fail to recognize how it is much more reasonable to believe that such an amazingly complex, yet well- ordered world reflects an intelligent design rather than the outcome of pure chance.
For the most part, the Greeks of Paul’s time were not atheists, but rather believed in many gods. Their gods resembled comic book superheroes. They were more like human beings with extraordinary powers than the one and sovereign God who had made himself known to Israel.
For Jews and Greeks, though for different reasons, God taking on our human flesh and allowing himself to be the victim of human sin by his crucifixion on Calvary contradicted their preconception of how God or a god should behave. On the other hand, Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus led him to realize the crucified Christ was the key to understanding everything — the best of human reason, as well as God’s revelation in the law and the prophets of Israel.
Paul could never cease marveling that the only-begotten Son of God, co-eternal with the Father, chose to take on our human flesh. Jesus reversed the disobedience of Adam in Eden by his obedience in Gethsemane to the will of the Father. Paul is awed that Jesus humbled himself by “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2: 6-8).
Paul could never get over the truth that even when he was persecuting Christians, the Body of Christ, God still loved him and desired to share eternal life with him. Paul reasons that, in a rare case, someone might be willing to sacrifice his life for a very good person. What makes God’s love revealed in Jesus so amazing is that he gave his life for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5: 7-8).
Paul understood that everything was grace, everything was God’s gift. There is nothing that he could do to earn or deserve the love of Jesus. The acceptance of God’s unconditional love evokes a profound gratitude. From this great gratitude comes an energy and power to live for God and bring his love to others. It is a power to love that is beyond our mortal capacity, but is made possible because, as Paul marvels, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me…. I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2: 19-20).
Paul was never the same after his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It would take months and even years for Paul to grasp fully the ramifications of his conversion. For instance, Paul’s frustration over his failure to perfect himself by following faithfully the Mosaic Law was resolved by his encounter with Jesus. What Paul could never accomplish by his own efforts and self-determination was now made possible by the power of Jesus alive within him (Rom 7: 15-24).
During these special days of grace, the church invites us to ponder our own encounters with Jesus. A wonderful meditation for the Triduum is to reflect upon when you most powerfully experienced the love and mercy of Jesus in your life. What was your Damascus Road experience or experiences? Jesus gave his life on Calvary to liberate us from our sin so that we might share in his abundant life now, not at some distant future moment.
The crucified Christ still represents foolishness to those who consider themselves worldly wise. Yet for those who accept the cross as the ultimate revelation of God’s unconditional love, the crucified One offers us the peace, the hope, the joy and the very power of God.