The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series – Part 10: The Work of Our Redemption
When Saint Augustine Cathedral was renovated in 2003, a new altar was installed. Built on a limestone base, it incorporates shades of rose-colored marble with a dark green marble top. Across the front in gold letters are inscribed the words, "Pascha nostra immolatus est Christus," which means, "...our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed." Taken from 1 Corinthians 5:7, these few words sum up Christ's saving work: His sacrificial death by which we are delivered from the grip of sin and death. These words recall the deliverance of the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt and the subsequent Jewish celebration of the Passover. They identify Christ with that deliverance and its fulfillment. Now it is Christ Himself who is the Lamb of Sacrifice. By dying on the Cross and rising, He accomplishes our definitive deliverance from sin and death. What's more, these few words also describe what the Eucharist captures and celebrates – namely, the saving sacrifice of Christ, crucified and risen.
Saint Augustine Cathedral in Bridgeport, CT
Isn't it amazing how much Saint Paul could pack into a phrase!
What the Apostle packed into a phrase will take me a whole column just to sketch. After all, the death and resurrection of Christ was the main content of Saint Paul's preaching. Everything he said about the identity of Jesus, the Church, and Christian conduct flowed from his bedrock resolution to preach Christ crucified (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:23). As we have seen in previous columns, Paul formed this conviction as the result of his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It was confirmed yet again after his dialogue with the Athenians. In this attempt to preach the Gospel, Saint Paul observed how religious the people of Athens were, and he noted that they even had an altar to an unknown God.
The Apostle made use of this to introduce them to the true and living God. His sophisticated audience seemed to follow his line of reasoning until he spoke of Christ's Resurrection. Some scoffed, and others told him they would hear of this "some other day" (cf. Acts 17:16-34). After that, Saint Paul went to Corinth resolved to know and to preach "nothing ...except Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). This was not Saint Paul's "fallback" position but, rather, the driving force of his life and ministry. His preaching and writing brim with the significance and power of Christ's death and resurrection.
To understand more fully the significance of Christ's death and resurrection in Saint Paul, we should start with creation. In my last column (entitled, "Jesus Christ is Lord!") we saw how Paul spoke of Christ as the pre-existent Son and Lord through whom the world was made. For example, in Colossians 1:16-17, we read, "...all things were created through him and for him...and in him all things hold together...." Before that, in a column entitled "Mystery!", we focused on Paul's teaching of an overarching plan for the salvation of the world, a plan which emerged from the hidden counsels of God (cf., for example, Ephesians 1:9-10). Both themes prepare us to understand what Saint Paul said about the conditions that prevailed before Christ's intervention in history to accomplish His saving work – namely, His death and resurrection.
As usual, Paul did not write in a merely theoretical vein about creation. Instead, he sought to show us that even pagans could know of God through his works, through creation; then he would lead them to know God through Christ, crucified and risen. To do so, he drew on his vast knowledge of Scripture as well as his cosmopolitan experience – both of which were transformed by his encounter with the Lord.
A Greek-speaking Jewish rabbi who came of age in the Hellenistic world, Saint Paul knew a thing or two about pagans – and he is not inclined to let them off the hook. For example, in Romans 1:20, Paul writes, "Ever since the creation of the world, [God's] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he made." Thus, human reason is capable of discovering the Creator, as the Church teaches to this very day. Unfortunately, pagans, as a rule, got lost in false reasoning and devolved into idol worship. Echoing the Book of Wisdom (Chapters 13 and 14), Saint Paul thus speaks of the foolishness of human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:23 ff.). In Romans he goes further, saying of them, "...they became vain in their reasoning and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds, or of four-legged animals and of snakes" (Romans 1:21-23). This led to all manner of moral degradation, which Paul goes on to describe at some length.
Suffice it to say that the sinful behavior Paul cites is not much different from the moral perversion that stems from contemporary idolatry (cf. Romans 1:24 ff.).
By contrast, Paul's approach to Judaism, though mixed, is decidedly more positive. After his encounter with the Risen Lord, Saint Paul read the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) with new eyes. He continued to see the providential hand of God in the life of the Chosen People. Unlike the pagans, they expressly believed in the one true God, for He revealed Himself to them, gave them the law, and entered into covenants with them. Indeed, the Israelites were the teachers of the human race in their belief in the one true God and in the wisdom their law embodied. In fact, in Romans 9:1-5, Saint Paul speaks of the anguish he feels over his separation from his "kin according to the flesh." He writes, "They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah."
Paul could write so movingly about these things because he was steeped in the Mosaic Law understood not merely as a series of legal prescriptions but precisely as "Torah" – that is, God's revelation of self which gave rise to a whole way of life (cf. Raymond E. Collins, The Power of Images in Saint Paul, Collegeville, MN., Liturgical Press, 2008, p. 21). Thus, the Torah was understood by observant Israelites as the living Word of God, already "an intensely living reality ...an event, a personal intervention in their existence" (Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, Notre Dame University Press, 1968, pp. 31-32). In this profound, spiritual sense, Saint Paul, upon his conversion, could see Christ and His intervention in history as the fulfillment of the law. In this sense, Paul would teach the revealed Word of God to his co-workers such as Timothy, just as a Jewish father would have imparted knowledge of the Torah to his sons (cf. Collins, op. cit., p. 62).
However, Paul was also more than familiar with a narrower approach to the Mosaic Law which tended to extract the rules (halakah) from the revelation – to the impoverishment of both. Recall that Paul was himself a Pharisee, a lay expert in the law, trained under Gamliel the Elder.
As we saw in the first of these columns that dealt with his "conversion," Paul regarded strict observance of the law as key to salvation. He was skilled in the kinds of argumentation with which the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus. By training and conviction he saw Christianity as a consummate threat to authentic Judaism. This got the better of Paul. By his own admission he became "a zealot for his ancestral traditions" (cf. Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6). This led him to persecute the followers of Christ. Later, Paul would come to account his former Pharisaical way of life "as loss and rubbish" (Philippians 3:7-8).
All of which brings us back to Saint Paul's proclamation of Christ crucified in Corinthians 1:22-25 where we read,"For 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." Paul does not find salvation either in philosophy as such or in slavish adherence to the law but, rather, by faith in Christ, a theme we will look at separately in a future column.
The renowned Pauline scholar, Lucien Cerfaux, recommends that, in studying Christ's death and resurrection in Saint Paul, we do better to reverse the usual order and instead begin with the Resurrection and then consider the death of Christ (cf., e.g., The Christian in the Theology of Saint Paul, New York, Herder & Herder, 1967, p. 43). This isn't because Paul de–emphasized or devalued the Cross – far from it. Nor did he separate the Resurrection and the Cross or play one off against the other – as if one were saved exclusively by the Cross or exclusively by the Resurrection. Rather, one is saved both by Cross and Resurrection, by "Christ our pasch" (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Why, then, begin with the Resurrection instead of the Cross? We do so for the simple reason that this was the way Paul first learned the Gospel.
After all, it was the Risen Christ whom Christ encountered on the way to Damascus. His core proclamation was "the Son of God raised from the dead." In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul tells us that he received the content of his preaching from the Apostles: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..."
Crucifixions were meant to send a very clear public message: "This could happen to you!"
Indeed, Paul takes the stubborn Corinthians to task for their lack of faith in the Resurrection. He tells them that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, then his preaching and their faith are in vain: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (1 Corinthians 15:19). For faith in the resurrection clearly means the unshakeable belief that Christ has come to life again. Transformed by the glory of God, He emerged from tomb and was seen by the Apostles and "last of all" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8) by Saint Paul.
The Risen Christ did not jettison the body which was crucified; His Risen Body exhibited the five wounds. At the same time, the Resurrection was more than a physical miracle; it was and is a spiritual reality. It is the imperishable life of God in the One like us who had died and was raised. It was God's victory over sin and death in and through our humanity (cf. Romans 6:9-10). It established Jesus, "descended from David according to the flesh...as Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness through the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4). Thus He acquired dominion and power not only over His followers but, indeed, over all creation (see Philippians 2:9-11).
Saint Paul sees the Resurrection as the preview of what is to come. He came to understand, if somewhat gradually, that the Resurrection would not immediately lead to the fulfillment of all God promised. Rather, he came to see the enduring power of the Resurrection in the present time, among those who believe and, indeed, in the whole universe. It is sharing in the Resurrection that transforms one's life right now in preparation for the day of the Lord, when Christ will be "all in all." While even the pagans have the law of God "written in the hearts" (Romans 2:15) and thus have knowledge of right and wrong, it is under the influence of the life-giving Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead that we can truly lead a life that is holy and pleasing in God's eyes (cf. Romans 8:11).
If Saint Paul wrote tellingly of the power of the Resurrection, so, too, does he proclaim the centrality and power of the Cross. An early profession of faith found in 1 Corinthians 15:3 states simply: "Christ died for us in accordance with the Scriptures." That same confession of faith goes to speak of the Resurrection (as we saw above). In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Saint Paul says he came solely to preach "Christ and him crucified." Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 he contrasts the word of human wisdom with the word of the Cross. It was for this "crucified word" that Saint Paul was sent.
There are many passages in which Saint Paul speaks of the death of Christ. Among the most vivid, however, is Galatians, both Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. Chapter 2 discusses the Council of Jerusalem and decisions reached regarding Jewish and Gentile converts. Paul goes on to remind the Galatians that they are justified "not by the works of the law" (Galatians 2: 16) but by faith in Christ. Paul reiterates that he has given up that way of life – indeed, he has died to it. Then adds, "I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.... I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and has given himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20).
Here Saint Paul speaks in a very deeply personal way of Christ's gift of self on the Cross by which he found newness of life. This is a passage we can never meditate on enough! It helps us see the depth of the Crucified Savior's love for us, the lengths to which he went to save us.
Saint Paul's words become stern in Chapter 3 where he rebukes the Galatians for losing sight of Christ's gift of self. "O senseless and foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you – you before whose eyes Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" (Galatians 3:1-2) This way of speaking – "publicly portrayed as crucified"– may seem needlessly roundabout and chronologically out of step. After all, the Gospel was preached to the Galatians decades after the crucifixion.
Why does Paul say that he "publicly portrayed Christ as crucified" before the eyes of the Galatians – as if he were showing them a movie? Well, perhaps this gives us some idea of the power and immediacy of Paul's preaching. He wanted the Galatians to fix their attention on the crucifixion not as an event locked in the past but as a powerful intervention in their lives, especially through the Eucharist which "proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
But there is a deeper, more theological motive. As Father Raymond Collins explains (op. cit., pp 90-91), the words "publicly portrayed" have a specific meaning. Crucifixions were meant to send a very clear public message: "This could happen to you!" This message was very often directed at runaway slaves; if caught, crucifixion was their fate. By contrast, the Cross sends its own unique message: the means by which slaves were put to death is the very means by which we are ransomed from slavery to law and slavery to our own passions. The "curse" which Jesus endured for our sake has become our ransom! (cf. Galatians 3:13, ff.).
In this way, we were reconciled to God; the forces of sin and death were defeated; the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ was made possible; the naked demands of the law were abolished; sin is forgiven; "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Corinthians 13:13) is made accessible.
"Pascha nostra immolatus est Christus!" Praised be Jesus Christ!