The Way of Weakness
You don’t have to read too deeply into history to realize that most societies and cultures have placed a premium on strength and power. From warriors to generals, chiefs to Caesars, the cult of the strong and powerful holds sway almost everywhere in human history. This is evident in the art and the athletic contests of most cultures as well as their attempts at military might. But it is no less evident in their religions, which almost always portray the gods as powerful, unconquerable, and virile.
Our age is no different from most in our lust and fascination for power. We fancy ourselves civilized but the signposts of our culture - i.e. our art, athletics, and politics - belie that notion. And our religion? Of course, we do not have one religion in this country. But I think that we can see clearly the corrosive effects our love of power has had even in religion. Consider, for example, how much that is called “Christian” today is but a thinly-veiled so-called gospel of narcissism and prosperity. Manufacturing bad theology from a hodgepodge of biblical quotations, these modern gnostics concoct a religion of self-actualization rooted, not in the Cross of Christ, but in the same old cult of power that has always enticed fallen humanity.
As we said, this is not new and so it should not surprise us. St Paul struggled against the influence of the cult of power in the Church already in the first century as he encountered it in the new Christians in Corinth. Their enthrallment and devotion to power was evident in their attitude toward the apostle himself. Impressed with Paul’s letter and epistles, they were disappointed when they finally met him in the flesh. He was not the powerful and imposing leader they had believed him to be: “...his letters...are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”
St Paul’s response to this supposed slight, however, was not only atypical of the cult of power, it was downright subversive. Citing his credentials as an apostle of Christ - having been beaten and tortured, among others - St Paul goes on to “visions and revelations”. Specifically, he tells of his being caught up into Paradise where he heard inexpressible words.
All of this would seemingly fit perfectly with the cult of power which loves stories of humans being deified by contact with the divine realm and made superhuman. But rather than becoming a superhero, something else happened to St Paul after his journey to Paradise: he was given what he called a "thorn in the flesh." And while we don’t know what this thorn was we know that is caused Paul great suffering, so much so that he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him. Rather than taking it from him, though, Christ told the apostle, “My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
This word from Christ detonated in Paul’s mind, destroying whatever vestiges of the cult of power might still have remained. For this word was the Word of the Cross. Not an abstract, ivory-tower concept or theory about the Cross, but rather the Cross real, present, and potent as Paul’s own crucifixion with and in Christ. And it was only in this crucifixion and self-offering - in apparent weakness - that the Apostle could find salvation.
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 For 12.9b-10)
The cult of power was reckoned as impotent by St Paul because he had himself seen, once on the road to Damascus and again in Paradise, the One who “was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God.” And having seen Him the apostle could not only preach to the Corinthians the word of the Cross, he could himself be crucified in weakness before them.
We hear often that Great Lent is a journey with our Lord to the Cross. It is not, then, nearly as much a season for us to “grow” by becoming better people as it is a season to recognize our weakness through the Cross of suffering and spiritual poverty. What good would it do for us, after all, if we simply become better versions of ourselves? What we want - what we need - is to find our life hidden in Christ.
Do not seek the perfection of [the law of freedom] in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ. (St Mark the Ascetic)
With love in Christ, Fr John