5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Embracing the Cross

Easter Vigil Mass at St. Charles Borromeo, 2019

You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father
(Matthew 5:14–16)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 2:1–5
February 5, 2023

When introducing Plato’s idea of the “Noble Lie” my professor told a class of 18-year-olds that one day we would understand it not just in our heads but in our hearts as well. It took over 50 years but now I get it.

Plato’s insight was that a nation required a founding myth to maintain peace and order. The common folk needed to believe it but the “Philosopher Kings” who governed the society would know that this was man-made and devised as means of social control. This ruling class would do almost anything to maintain this myth. We have seen it at work in our own day with debates on curriculum in general and history in particular. By defining the past, we can determine the future. (The Republic, Book 3, 414)

Christianity pulled back the veil on these myths. They depend on a power structure which allows some to be strong and the expense of the weak. Its symbols reflect that division. The basic reality for Christianity is that Jesus died on the cross at the command of the empire but then rose from the dead in defiance of it. “Death has no power over him.” (Rom. 6:9) The Roman Empire is long gone but societies still have myths and histories to justify why some have to the right to rule and others the duty to submit. It is the genius of St. Paul that he not only recognizes that the Gospel unmasks these myths but that the good news of the cross must be presented clearly and simply without distractions or flourishes to be effective.

It was a common expression in my youth that “the medium was the message.” How an idea or position was presented would determine what was heard or experienced. In Paul’s world the most important and certainly prestigious means of communication was oratory. These were techniques that allowed a well-trained person to present ideas in a manner that would seduce and well as inform the listener. A good orator would have a bag of tricks that would draw an audience into his line of thought and eventually convince them of his position. It was necessary for a good politician to be a good orator but there were also professional orators would take their act on the road and attract large crowds and fees. Live oratory is part of our own history from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the Chautauqua society. Great orators had powerful voices and commanded a place of prominence and superiority. These techniques by their nature accepted and upheld the status quo. To use them one needed the training of the ruling class and would typically assume their ideas and positions.

Paul will have none of it.

He has already told us:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.

(1 Co 1:17)

We saw that “emptied of meaning “could be translated as “made pointless”. He understands that these rhetorical bells and whistles will undermine the message of the cross.

He has told us that the message of the cross was foolishness to a world that wished to maintain the strict hierarchy of ruler and ruled. Indeed, it overturned it. (1 Cor 1:18-25) As we saw last week, if the Church reflected the society, then most of the Corinthians would not have been wanted. They are there because of God’s call. (1:26-31).

He now comes to the preacher himself.

When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.

(1 Co 2:1)

Paul first reminds them that he came to them to preach. In the first line of the letter, he called himself and apostle: one who is sent. He now will tell than that he has come to proclaim but with simplicity. He has already given the content now he is explaining why he preaches it in such an unadorned manner.

He proclaims the mystery of God. Most of his listeners whether born Jew or Greek would have associated mystery with the beliefs and most of all the rituals of “mystery religions”. These were cults that promised the keys to the afterlife. In most cases a person would join and be given passwords that could get them higher into what we would call heaven. It is elitist. First of all, only special people would have the knowledge and also a rich person could buy more powerful charms to get further ahead of others. Most of the members of the Corinthian church would not get very far. For Paul “the Mystery of God” was the plan of God which may be fulfilled in heaven, but we start living here on earth. It was open to all who embraced the cross of Christ.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified

(1 Co 2:2)

Paul’s unadorned style is not accidental nor from a of lack of skill but a conscious choice to focus on Jesus. Indeed, not only on Jesus but on the crucified Jesus. We will see in this section that Paul knows and can use rhetoric but only those techniques that highlight the basic message of the cross.

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,

(1 Co 2:3)

An orator would often feign weakness to get the sympathy of his audience. Claiming lack of knowledge of a topic and then showing complete mastery was a common ploy. Paul however tells his listeners of his weakness but connects it to the weakness of Christ and his cross. If Christ is weak in the usual sense of the weak than so am I. His weakness is so great that he trembles at the thought of his mission. But he then tells the Corinthians to look at the results:

And my message and my proclamation were not
with persuasive (words of) wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,

(1 Co 2:4)

When a great orator had concluded, people were moved by his performance. With Paul, they received the Holy Spirit who builds up the church by his gifts. We have already seen in 1 Corinthians:

So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
As you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(1 Co 1:7)

Paul shows us an eternal Christian truth, look to the strength of the community around you to judge the ultimate effect of preaching.

So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God

(1 Co 2:5)

We rest our faith on the Church, the people that God has formed. He will describe the body of Christ later in the letter, but the idea is present here. The spirit of God is always working among us.

This final sentence today may sound like the one with which we began. (Cor 1:17). This is far from an accident. This is called an “inclusio” which brackets a section of a letter or oration to show that an explanation has been completed. It is Paul’s way of showing that he could have provided more literary decoration but gilding the cross is like gilding the lily: unnecessary, distracting, and vulgar.

We are founded on the cross and because of it, we can see past our contemporary noble lies to grasp the Mystery of God; the most noble plan of salvation.

We continue to read 1 Corinthians with the Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew at Sunday Mass. This week we are told that we are the light of the world and that we must shine. We see in today’s reading from St. Paul that the church can only shine when we embrace the cross.