Ian Paisley (1920-2014) was a Northern Irish Presbyterian minister who, at age 25, broke from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to found the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. He was elected president of that assembly for the next 57 years. Paisley was also a political agitator bitterly against any union of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, stridently against the decriminalization of homosexual activity, and intensely opposed to the legalization of abortion. The Reverend Paisley was equally against all forms of so-called Popery. When Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother met St. John XXIII in 1958, Paisley condemned them for “committing spiritual fornication and adultery with the Antichrist”. When St. John died in June 1963, Paisley announced to a crowd of followers that “this Romish man of sin is now in Hell!” Paisley interrupted a speech being delivered by St. John Paul II in the European Parliament by shouting, “I denounce you as the Antichrist!” He was dragged from the assembly by no less a person than Otto von Habsburg, heir to throne of Austria-Hungary. Paisley believed the European Union to be a part of a conspiracy to create a Roman Catholic superstate controlled by the Vatican. He claimed in an article that the seat no. 666 in the European Parliament is reserved for the Antichrist. He did however, in 2005, extend sympathy to the Catholics of Northern Ireland on the death of Pope St. John Paul II.
Paisley eagerly built his own Free Presbyterian Church building in Belfast in the 1960s. On the sanctuary wall, high above a rather grand pulpit, are Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified!” The full quote reads, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23).” And just a few verses further St. Paul repeats the same notion, to be heard at Mass this Sunday: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1Cor 2:1-5).”
Gross religious bigotry notwithstanding, the Reverend Paisley did get one thing right. This side of the grave, the crucified Christ must be the dominant inspiration and guiding support for the Christian in everyday life. Yes, Jesus was indeed a miracle worker and the Jews had every right to be impressed with his cures, his healings and indeed his raising of the dead. And Jesus was truly well-spoken. His parables, aphorisms, and vision still impress those analyzing the wisdom of the ancient world. But the real example from Christ and the true message of Christ is only fully discovered on Calvary’s hill.
The authentic Jesus, the true Jesus, is Jesus the dutiful son who on the cross abandons earthly ability and human wisdom to rely solely on obedience to God. As the psalmist writes in today’s Mass, “An evil report he shall not fear; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steadfast; he shall not fear.” Jesus knew that while his Resurrection and Ascension would indeed be pledges of future glory for humankind, it was his Passion and Death that would manage the world through the vagaries of this present life. On the Cross, Christ’s Godly power, although hidden, was vigorously at work in Jesus’ obedient endurance of shame, disgrace and ignominy. Christ’s major lesson to humanity is clearest here on Calvary. An authentic Christian life is not sustained by the aura of miracles, no matter how impressive, nor is it founded on human wisdom, no matter how insightful. True power and true wisdom are to be found in the least expected place: Christ’s shameful, but obedient, death. To the unbeliever, the crucified Christ represents weakness and farce. But the earnest believer sees strength and meaning. Christ adhered to his Father’s Will knowing that obedience to the Divine Plan would lead to ultimate, if not immediate, fulfillment. The Cross is the key to a meaningful and sustainable Christian life in this valley of tears we call Earth. Indeed, “we preach Christ crucified.” All else is mere talk.
In gentler terms, Jesus gives the same advice in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Christ instructs, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” And the light that must shine is the glow that derives from total obedience to the Father’s Will. The Father’s Will is happily often benevolent, gladdening the heart. But the Father’s Will too can be perplexing, challenging the believer in the soul’s depths. The true believer, like Christ, will persevere, confident that God is always true to his promises.
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