By Deacon Louis S. Malfara
Special to The CS&T
I was determined that while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. — 1 Corinthians: 2:2
When I was little, my fraternal grandparents took me on occasion to their church, St. Nicholas, near 8th and Moore Streets in South Philadelphia. I remember how frightened I was of the lifelike statues, especially the saints who were depicted shedding their blood.
Likewise, Jesus hanging on the cross, bleeding and sorrowful, was frightening. While statues and pictures attempt to depict the actual horror of the cross for us moderns, they only approximate at some surface level what Christ actually endured.
After all, we see things through our own cultural perspective, which does not include this sort of horrific chastisement.
Choosing the cross as an evangelistic strategy is difficult in any age or any culture, and yet St. Paul was most effective in touching the hearts of a spanerse people in a complex multicultural world. He said, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24).
If we can, for a moment, look at the cross of Jesus through the Hebrew and Roman lens, it is astonishing that the cross of Christ held such a central position in the teachings of St. Paul. He states: “I preach Christ and Him crucified.”
The paradoxical truth of Christian doctrine meant utter defeat to unbelievers. But not to St. Paul, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:18).
Ironically, the symbol of death gave life to his preaching and his ministry. The power of the cross was transformative and efficacious in converting many to Christ. For St. Paul, the cross had two meanings: Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf that restored our life, “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8-11); and the call to embrace total self giving, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
In dying to self and rising in Christ, we embrace the cross because, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:7-8). Ultimately, the total victory of the cross is confirmed in the resurrection.
During the Passion liturgy of Good Friday, the priest carries the cross from the back of the church to the altar, intoning three times as he processes, “This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world.” The congregation responds, “Come, let us worship.” The liturgy ritualizes the reality of the Christian life, reminding everyone to “lift high the cross.”
And this is the same thing that St. Paul did for his communities: holding the cross high above them in his writing and in his preaching so that they could clearly see this image of hope and, as a result, give glory to God. It should also be our Lenten prayer.
Deacon Louis S. Malfara is director of parish ministry at St. William Parish in Philadelphia.