There’s a contrast in our readings today. Our Gospel gives us a glimpse of the crucified Lord, put to death between two criminals. The leaders of the People scoff at Jesus, “He saved others; let him save himself” (Lk. 23:35); the soldiers who are his executioners mock him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Lk. 23:37). They’re engaging in a grisly and gruesome form of “I told you so.” These are cruel actions. They’re making fun of him because they know he’s helpless.
Yet St. Paul, writing to the Church at Colossae, is confident that Jesus Christ is all-powerful. He and the members of the Church believe that Jesus is the One “by whom all things were made,” as we say in the Creed. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (Col. 1:15-16). Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18); in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). Not only is Jesus the all-powerful principle of creation, the head of the Church and the fullness of God, but he is the source of salvation for each of us.
So which is it: Lord of the universe, or crucified criminal? Utterly helpless, or all-powerful? It’s a contrast but not a contradiction. St. Paul has faith precisely in Christ crucified; it’s the same Lord we see at Golgotha who’s invoked in Paul’s letter. St. Paul says elsewhere that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In the Letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that though Jesus Christ was “in the form of God” he “humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross” (Phil. 2: 6, 8).
In other words, the way of the cross is where God’s power is shown. Here, the Gospel writers agree with St. Paul. All of them, including St. Luke, show Jesus in command of the scene. When he comes to the place of the skull he’s not running and hiding. Jesus is not silent in the face of his accusers because he’s helpless, but because he puts his trust in God. He has confidence in God’s vindication.
Consider again the scene of crucifixion, and the words of Jesus’ accusers and executioners. It doesn’t take much to wield the weapons of cruelty; to fire missiles at the innocent; to torture the weak and enslave the vulnerable. You don’t have to be much of a human being to do that; in fact, wielding these weapons in this way reveals a distinct lack of humanity.
But in order to endure these things you need to be perfectly human, like Jesus Christ in fact: perfect God and perfect man. You need to have faith in the One who is so powerful that he can turn death into life, and turn cruelty on its head. God vindicated Jesus when he raised him from the dead.
Paul’s conviction is that the new life manifested in the resurrection is shared with the members of the Church. His strength is their strength. After all, as he writes, Christians have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Christ. In him they have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.
A little later in the letter, Paul talks about “the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). His strength is our strength because we are found “in him,” made members incorporate in his Body the Church. He lives in us and we live in him. This is a mystery, which is shown forth in the sacraments of the Church. These sacraments both signify and effect: in other words, they represent to us sacred mysteries, and they make present through faith the reality of what is symbolized, and place it in our hands.
In Holy Baptism we become one with Christ, members of his Body the Church. It’s how we are made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power, as we heard in our reading. In the Holy Eucharist we are fed with his Body and Blood, the symbols of his life given for us, the reality of his power made perfect in weakness, as Paul says. It’s the sacraments that make the Gospel promises real for us.
God knows we need his power and presence in our lives. Each of us is challenged in many ways, and we all have burdens we bear. But God gives us grace, his power and presence, to strengthen us in this life, and to prepare us for the world to come. God shows forth his power on the cross, and invites us to share the new life of Jesus Christ.