for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 4, 2010
Gal 6: 14-18
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“May I never boast except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6: 14).
Most people like to brag, at least a little bit—about business or athletic accomplishments, about family history, about their children’s achievements (you’ve all seen the bumper stickers—“My child’s an honor student at such-and-such a school”; “I’m proud of my Eagle Scout”; and so on), about many things. Some of what we brag of is noble, some of it not so noble.
St. Paul has a different idea: to brag about not what he’s done but what God has done. It’s true that in one or two places Paul does refer to his own deeds—persecution of the Church, for instance, before his conversion; and his sinful inclinations against which he’s powerless except for God’s grace. What God does, however, is offer us grace and eternal life thru the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.
I read recently of the response of Archbishop John Purcell (1800-1883) of Cincinnati to one episode of 19th-century anti-Catholicism. Former President John Quincy Adams had come to town in 1843 to dedicate a new astronomical observatory on Mt. Ida, one of the city’s prominent hills—later named Mt. Adams in his honor. Adams declared, “This observatory is to be a beacon of true science that should never be obscured by the dark shadows of superstition and intolerance symbolized by the Popish cross.” In 1859 the Church of the Immaculata was built two blocks away, and Abp. Purcell made sure that the cross on top of its steeple was a couple of feet higher than the top of the observatory. Take that, you anti-Catholics! And when the observatory had been forced to relocate to escape the smog of Cincinnati’s growing industry, the church became a monastery of the Passionist Order, which renamed the church Holy Cross, in 1873. Abp. Purcell returned for its rededication and gave a homily entitled “The Triumph of the Cross.” So there, anti-Catholics! Coincidentally, Abp. Purcell died on this day, July 4, in 1883. May he rest in peace.
The cross of Christ is indeed our triumph, or more accurately, the triumph of God over the power of evil, over sin and death. So St. Paul gladly boasts of it—and of his self-identification with the cross.
Two weeks ago, our gospel reading included a passage in which Jesus told his followers, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus says this, in Luke’s gospel, as he’s making his way to Jerusalem. To follow Jesus is to go with him toward Calvary, toward the cross. St. Paul says he’s done that; he’s been crucified to the world (Gal 6:14); he’s died to the world and all the honors and comforts that the world could offer him. Figuratively, his body has been crucified: he’s been beaten and whipped and stoned out of hatred for Christ; he’s walked thousands of miles over rough roads in all kinds of weather; he’s camped out on the side of the road, and he’s been shipwrecked. His body “bears the marks of Jesus” (6:17)—the wear and tear of the years, the wounds and scars.
In this letter to the Galatians, Paul’s been debating with some opponents about whether Christians are bound to follow the Law of Moses—in essence, to be Jews in order to be saved by the Jewish Messiah, the Christ. For non-Jews, for Greek pagans who’ve been converted by Paul’s preaching, such a position would entail following the Torah in all its details like any devout Jew—including circumcision. But Paul maintains that the grace of God offered thru the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation. No physical mark—circumcision—is necessary or even useful. It’s worthless without the cross, without God’s freely offered forgiveness, without grace. The marks of Jesus that Paul bears on his body are cause for boasting because they indicate his acceptance of the peace and mercy that God offers thru Christ, not thru observance of the Law.
Grace makes one a new creation, Paul says (6:15). Christ rose from the dead on the 1st day of the week, inaugurating a new creation of the world, a rebirth of humanity. (That’s why Christians worship on the 1st day of the week and not on the Sabbath.) To be part of that new creation is all that matters—no marking on your body. A little earlier in this letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, “There’s neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female—but all are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). That was part of our 2d reading 2 weeks ago. Being circumcised or not (Jew or Gentile); being physically branded as someone’s property, or as a soldier in the Roman army, or not (slave or free); and gender—none of that matters for those who “have been baptized into Christ” (3:27) and thus into the new order of creation, into the order of grace and not of the Mosaic Law, of social status, of national pride.
How are our bodies marked by Christ? How has Christ affected our lives? To what extent have our desires and our passions and our selfishness been crucified in Jesus’ name, so that we might truly say we belong to him?
“Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule,” Paul says today, “and to the Israel of God” (6:16). The true Israel, God’s Israel, is the one associated with his only Son, with Jesus Christ. Glory be to the cross and to Christ risen from the dead, and to all those who follow him on the road toward Calvary and toward eternal life.