Our second reading today was from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. The lectionary provides a series from this letter, from the 7th to the 14th Sundays in Year B. In the section quoted from today, which occupies two whole Chapters, St. Paul speaks about the collection he is trying to organise on behalf of the Christians in Jerusalem. This collection is mentioned or alluded to also in 1 Corinthians (16:1), Galatians (cf. 2:10), Romans (15:26) and Acts (24:17). For St. Paul, the voluntary financial donation he is eliciting is a necessary act of charity; of Aid to the Church in Need. But also it’s an act of communion, demonstrating in a practical way the unbreakable bond that exists between the Churches, and between gentile and Jewish Christians.
But rather than speaking about Paul’s collection, I want to focus instead on a single verse, which he seems to drop almost carelessly into his argument, as he urges the Corinthians to be generous.
Remember, says Paul, how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, in order to make you rich out of his poverty.
This statement has enormous dogmatic implications, far beyond its bearing on Paul’s present argument. Clearly it presumes the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus, and it summarises his whole mission, as entirely for our sakes.
Our text evokes the rather similar statement of Paul about Jesus in his letter to the Philippians, Chapter Two. Being in the form of God, Paul says there, (Jesus) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave... The common opinion of scholars is that St. Paul is there quoting a fragment from a very early Christian Hymn. Some scholars speculate that our briefer but no less important text in 2 Corinthians could also be a Christian doctrinal formula which pre-dates St. Paul.
Writing to the Philippians about Jesus Christ, in his Incarnation and in his death, St. Paul uses the image of height and depth, exaltation and abasement. Writing to the Corinthians, he uses instead the image of riches and poverty. The Roman liturgy takes this up when it sings of the wonderful exchange, the admirabile commercium. Christ, we sing, we ponder, we wonder at, took our poverty, our wretchedness, our sinfulness, in order to give us his riches, his glory, his perfect union with his Father. He emptied himself in order that we might be filled; he bent down low in order that we might be raised up; he died in order that we might have life. Implicit here is the doctrine, developed over the first few centuries of the Church, of the One Person in Two Natures. For most radically the poverty of Jesus was his mortal humanity, and the wealth he bestowed on us was his divine nature, and Sonship. He must be One Person, for the man Jesus did not cease to be the eternal Son of God. But also, he must be in two natures, for although he identified himself with us to the end, he did not thereby lose his divinity. If he had done that, how could he have made us rich?
St. Paul mentions this astonishing doctrine in order to galvanise the Corinthians into generous giving. But more deeply, all of us are asked to ponder it, and in consequence to change our lives. We have been given so much, we have been so abundantly blessed, we have been rescued from so dreadful a fate, in order to gain so great an inheritance; so what will be our response? There can be only one: we must become conformed to Jesus Christ. In order to receive what he wants to give, and also in order to respond to that gift, we in turn must give ourselves away, out of love for God, and for all poor sinners.
This total gift of self can be offered by anyone, in any state or condition of life. It will be expressed outwardly in multiple acts of generosity and service. Another way of expressing it will be the making of once-for-all commitments, most obviously through religious vows. But the complete gift of ourself has to go deeper than any outward act. It must eventually cost us everything. It must involve the emptying out of self, and our becoming completely transformed in love. It will never be perfected until our death, but also, we will never be truly content until it has been accomplished.
At present our community is listening in the refectory to a biography of St. Katherine Drexel. Katherine Drexel was a fabulously wealthy American heiress, who towards the end of the 19th century spent vast sums of money in multiple good works. But all that philanthropy was not enough for her. She needed to give herself, completely. So she became a nun, and for the rest of her life devoted her energies to serving the poorest and most marginalised members of her society. But even that was only, as it were, the outward sign. What Katherine really wanted was total dedication to Jesus Christ, total love for him, total openness to his grace, unconditional readiness to follow him to the end.
Nowadays the idea of total religious dedication is often regarded with suspicion or even hostility, not least because of the counter witness so often given by religiously inspired violence. Surely no one could be more completely dedicated than the suicide bomber, or the suicide gunman! Yet we must condemn their acts of indiscriminate slaughter as diabolical parodies of the true self gift that God asks of us. The result of dedication in imitation of Christ will always be the giving, not the taking of life. It will always issue, somehow, in the poor being made rich; in sadness being turned to joy. Total Christian dedication will be manifested not with explosives and bullets, but often in silence, in humility, and goodness, and purity, and attractive holiness.
Katherine Drexel has now been canonised as a Saint. Why has the Church acknowledged her holiness, and confirmed the power of her heavenly intercession? For sure, not simply because she gave so much money away; nor because she took and lived religious vows, nor because she accomplished so many wonderful works. Katherine Drexel is a Saint because she fulfilled her ideal of union with Jesus, especially and explicitly through the Holy Eucharist. Each of us, without any exception, is called to do the same.