Daily Reflection
September 1st, 2006

Robert Heaney

John A. Creighton University Chair
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1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Psalm 33:1-2, 4-5, 10-11
Matthew 25:1-13

“We proclaim Christ crucified . . .”

Before St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he, like many zealous Jews, was looking for the coming of the Messiah – a new king who would throw off the oppressor’s yoke and “restore the kingdom to Israel”. One thing he knew for sure: the Messiah could not die – and certainly not by the Biblically cursed method of crucifixion. That is probably part of the reason Paul was so opposed to the first Christians – the original Jews for Jesus. They had it all wrong with their crucified Messiah. But when Paul was knocked to the ground by his personal encounter with the dead, but living, Jesus, his entire world was turned upside down. What he quickly came to realize was that he had not only misunderstood the Messiah tradition, he had completely misunderstood God!

What the crucified, but now living, Jesus meant to Paul was, as St. John was to write years later in his Gospel, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” God totally embraced our humanity, accepting our death, even letting us kill Him with one of the cruelest methods ever devised. Many people, then as now, consider the crucifixion as an unfortunate and indeed, embarrassing incident – not really necessary. After all, Jesus’ teachings – perhaps the most sublime ever uttered – embodied His message. That alone could inspire the ages.

Paul would have none of it. “We proclaim Christ crucified”. Only that awful death could reveal the depths of God’s love, God’s self-emptying – not as an abstract truth, but as a real event. Paul actually pays little attention to Jesus’ teaching. It is his death and God’s vindication of Him that are central to Paul and his message. When the Church at Colossae embraced an ethereal, exalted Christ [“. . . the image of the invisible God, first born of all creation . . . in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell . . .” (Col 1:15–20)], Paul said, in effect, “NO! NO! NO!” That marginalizes Jesus!

Paul corrected this view of the Colossians by inserting into their hymn (which we still use today in the Divine Office), the words “. . . making peace by the blood of His cross.” Paul did the same in response to the Philippians, inserting in their hymn “. . . He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” An exalted, ethereal Jesus can be revered and admired, He cannot be imitated. God’s love is only a philosophical abstraction until we encounter it on the cross.

That’s why Paul was so opposed to the law (as set forth in the Jewish scriptures). Rules and regulations compete with a crucified Christ. They give us a sense of security; they tell us what we should and shouldn’t do. And when we have complied, we feel virtuous and safe. But love calls us to total self-giving, without the security of knowing we have done enough, or even done the right thing.

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