Third week of Lent
The power of Christ crucified

By Most Reverend Joseph R. Cistone

The Catholic Standard & Times presents the third of a six-part series authored by the auxiliary bishops of Philadelphia to aid readers in their Lenten preparation during this year of St. Paul.

St. Paul is called the “The Apostle to the Gentiles” because of his evangelization of non-Jews, especially the Greeks. It is important to remember, however, that St. Paul had been a devout Jew. In fact, prior to his conversion, his fidelity to Judaism motivated his persecution of Christians. Providentially, because of his Jewish roots, St. Paul was able to convert many fellow Jews by his inspired preaching.

Nevertheless, St. Paul’s most effective ministry was among the Gentiles, and the city of Corinth was among his greatest challenges. As a seaport, Corinth was a strategic location for the infant Church. People from all walks of life lived and visited there, Jew and Greek alike. It contained a population of primarily “free people,” so the Christian message could more easily be spread by those who could come and go as they pleased. On the other hand, as a port city, Corinth was vulnerable to all kinds of immoral, dishonest and sexually illicit behavior. Corinth also was a hot-bed for factions and spanisions, one of which being Jew vs. Greek.

In the few verses quoted here, St. Paul addresses one of those conflicting perspectives. “Jews demand signs … and Greeks look for wisdom.” Jews were accustomed to experiencing “signs” of God’s presence and direction in their lives: the plagues in Egypt, manna in the desert, the parting of the Red Sea. These “signs” helped to strengthen their understanding of God’s will and plan. During Jesus’ public ministry, the Jews were always chasing after signs: the multiplication of loaves and fish, healing of the sick, raising of the dead. These experiences, however, did not always result in faith or conversion.

One sign which remained an obstacle for the Jew was the image of Christ crucified, the sign of the Cross. Crucifixion was the highest form of humiliation and indicated that the one crucified was cursed and abandoned by God (Deut. 21:23). For the Jew, it was incredible that someone whose life ended on the cross could possibly be God’s Chosen One.

Greeks, on the other hand, fancied themselves “wise men,” thinkers and philosophers, though many were simply sharp and clever, able to impress others by persuasive rhetoric. As one scholar put it: “the Greeks were intoxicated with fine words and to them the Christian preacher, with his blunt message, seemed a crude and uncultured figure, to be laughed at and ridiculed rather than to be listened to and respected.”

St. Paul could convert the pragmatic Jew and the philosophical Greek. He gave new meaning to the crucified Christ. He explained how the Cross was both a powerful sign of God (for Jews) and the Wisdom of God (for Greeks). The Cross revealed God’s unconditional love in action. For St. Paul, power comes not from marvelous signs or eloquent words. True power results when a person humbly and completely empties himself and dedicates himself to God so that God can work powerfully through that person. This is the power of Jesus Christ crucified. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave so that, through Him, God the Father might save us. As St. Paul would eventually say, in his own imitation of the crucified Lord, that “it is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me.”

Obviously, there is a lesson here for our own lives. Like both the Jews and Greeks of old, some Christians still cling to the miraculous and, at times, even bizarre events of life, like finding the image of Jesus in a potato chip! Others are easily swayed from the teachings of the Church because of the eloquent words of modern preachers. The best way to experience the power of God in our lives, however, remains in our imitation of Christ crucified: when we humbly empty ourselves of self-interests and selfish concerns, whatever the sacrifice, and totally commit ourselves to the will of God. In our weakness is His strength.

“Brothers and Sisters: Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

– 1 Corinthians 1:22-23

Lenten meditation

In what sense can the cross of Jesus be
a stumbling block? Foolishness? The power of God? The wisdom of God?

What situations can you think of where God uses
the weak, lowly, and despised to build his Kingdom in our day?

When in my life did I feel God’s strength in my weakness?