When Palladius, the author of the Lausiac History, wanted to expose a pseudo-monk named Valens in the early fifth century AD, he called him “a Corinthian—for St. Paul charged the Corinthians with arrogance.” St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan and one of the so-called “doctors” of the western church, commented on 1 Corinthians 5:1 that “the house of Corinth stank…There was a stench, for a little leaven had corrupted the whole lump.”
Justifiably or not, the earliest worshipers of Christ in Corinth were remembered in church history as the Christian community with problems. St. Paul enumerates them in the first letter to the Corinthians in rapid succession: problems of vanity, division, arrogance and power (Ch. 1-4); problems of sex, lawsuits, and marriage (Ch. 5-7), problems of idolatry and arrogance (again!) (Ch. 8-10), problems of worship and division (again) (Ch. 11-14), and problems of belief (Ch. 15). Reading the letter straightforwardly and literally, one could only conclude with Basil of Caesarea that “Those in Corinth were infants, in need of milk.”
When I gave my first presentation on Christianity in Corinth yesterday evening at the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick (Harrisburg, PA), I noted that it was precisely the humanness of the Corinthian community that has (historically) made the Corinthian correspondence a frequent subject of commentary and teaching.
It also explains why passages from 1 and 2 Corinthians are used in eastern and western liturgical cycles during the season of Lent. With the themes of self-denial, renunciation, spiritual exercise, and charity, the letters offer a wide range of instructive teaching for spiritual pilgrimage. There are passages about repentance, conversion, and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-6.2); the foolishness of Christ crucified and the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18-25); spiritual food and drink and temptation in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10.1-3); endurance through temptations and trials (2 Cor. 5:20-6:10); power in weakness (2 Cor. 4:6-15); and the celebration of the Paschal feast (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 11:23-26). And the long passage about resurrection in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 15) is regularly used at the season’s conclusion in Easter Sunday.
For this week’s Lenten Wednesday series, Pope Francis reflects on a passage of 2 Corinthians less commonly associated with the season — or at least in the cycle of readings. In 2 Corinthians 8:9, St. Paul puts voluntary poverty at the heart of the incarnation: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (NRSV)
In his first Lenten message, Pope Francis discusses the mystery of poverty in the incarnation and the logic of divine love. I copy the opening of the message below. You can read the full sermon in English here.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As Lent draws near, I would like to offer some helpful thoughts on our path of conversion as individuals and as a community. These insights are inspired by the words of Saint Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor8:9). The Apostle was writing to the Christians of Corinth to encourage them to be generous in helping the faithful in Jerusalem who were in need. What do these words of Saint Paul mean for us Christians today? What does this invitation to poverty, a life of evangelical poverty, mean for us today?
1. Christ’s grace
First of all, it shows us how God works. He does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor …”. Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things (cf. Phil2:7; Heb 4:15). God’s becoming man is a great mystery! But the reason for all this is his love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances. God did this with us. Indeed, Jesus “worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he truly became one of us, like us in all things except sin.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).”………..