For this Sexagesima Sunday we have a longish cutting from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, precisely 2 Cor 11:19-33; 12:1-9. Hence, it stands astride two chapters. There wouldn’t have been chapter and verse divisions in Paul’s original, of course. These only came much later. The Gospel for Sunday passage is the Parable of the Sower and the Seed from Luke 8. We are looking this year at the Epistles.
Our context in the liturgical year is Pre-Lent. Remember! Lent is coming fast so make your plan for Lent now! This second “gesima” Sunday’s Roman Station is St. Paul’s outside-the-walls, the burial place of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Station comes from Latin statio which can mean a “stopping place” for when you are travelling or also a military post manned by a sentry. These three “gesima” Sunday have their Stations at St. Lawrence outside-the-walls, St. Paul’s, and St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill across the river from old Rome. It is as if these three basilicas with their mighty martyr saints entombed in their hearts are standing guard over the Roman Church. How we need their protection now from the sacking and ravening taking place within, not only from without.
The context of the reading. The people of Corinth had been attacking Paul as not knowing what he was talking about. In turn, he hits them with being Satan’s minions and false prophets. He counters with the dangers he has experienced, being beaten and shipwrecked and hungry and mugged and betrayed, and so forth. This is what we hear in the first part of the Epistle reading pericope. The point is rather straightforward. This is what being a disciple of Jesus may cost you and you must be ready to bear the sufferings. Being beset and weak in the Lord is reward and strength. This is, in fact, the point of the verse that follows the reading (i.e. 2 Cor 12:10): “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul’s sufferings stand as proof of his authority. But there’s more.
Well on in the liturgical reading, however, we get to something striking. This is precisely where the break was placed between what we now call chapters 11 and 12. After Paul writes about his hardships, he brings in “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1). In this part there is a verse with a famous image from which we have the phrase a “thorn in my side. Let’s see just this last part of our Sexagesima Epistle:
I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [NOT INCLUDED For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.]
Here we have in 12:1-6 indications that Paul received visions of some kind which he describes as being “caught up into third heaven.” It was a mystical experience of some sort. He speaks as if he is talking about some other person: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago…”. In a way, we are all different people after fourteen years, especially if our life brings us what Paul underwent. We are different while remaining the same. This is one of the advantages to having the same readings every year and the same feasts and cycles: they don’t change, but we do. Therefore, each time they impress newly upon us.
For the rest of this week’s burnt offering, let’s look into this “third heaven” (éos trítou ouranoú) and Paul’s thorn (Latin stimulus, Greek skólops). A volume could be written about each. I’ll try to do it in less than another five thousand words.
Paul is trying to describe the indescribable and at the same time uphold his authority to the Corinthians. Beyond physical affirmations of his state, there are also spiritual proofs.
The Greek word for heaven, ouranós can mean the visible sky and the things in it, such as birds and clouds. It can mean the sidereal heaven, above the “sky,” with its stars. It can also mean the heaven above those heavens which is the dwelling place of God and the angels. By extension it can mean the bliss that would be in such a heaven. That bliss, if you’ll allow me to be cheeky, is even more than that which gripped Fred Astaire. It is, rather, the heaven to which we refer when praying the Our Father, as Jesus taught us in Matthew 6:9. Paul was “caught up” to that “heaven,” to the presence of God.
As a consequence of Paul’s self-awareness of his growing importance, God provided a way to help Paul remain humble and dependent on grace, described in painful terms: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”
On the one hand Greek skólops is from Homeric Greek onward into Biblical Greek, a pointed piece of wood, like a stake. On the other hand, Paul equates the skólops with an “ángelos Satán…” messenger of Satan, which sounds very much like a demon. One is tempted to conclude that God allowed Paul some long period of demonic oppression. Demonic possession is the taking over of a person’s body. Oppression concerns attacks on things that affect a person’s life from the outside, such as financial and employment problems, troubles in relationships, things suddenly breaking down though they were in good working order, annoying infirmities or illnesses. Oppression can also manifest as physical attacks, such as those suffered by St. John Vianney and the amazing Poor Clare St. Veronica Giuliani. The Devil would try to distract her at night when she was trying under obedience to write her spiritual diary and locutions from the Lord and from the Blessed Virgin. The Enemy would hide her writing materials, physically beat her, show her visions of Hell, appear – the horror – in the guise of the bishop.
Peter knew about Paul’s letters and seems to have heard them read or read them himself, proof for which is in 2 Peter 3:15-16:
[O]ur beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand…
We don’t know what the specific suffering was that God lovingly allowed Paul to experience. Some have suggested that it was bad eyesight. After all, in his role, Paul would have needed his eyes for writing. Also, at the time of his conversion, he had been struck blind as Christ’s way to get Paul’s undivided attention. Another possibility is that the “thorn” was a particular person or group who continually vexed Paul, attacked him and his work. We’ve all be there and know the vicious power of such an affliction.
Whatever the stimulus, the “thorn” was, it was severe. Paul begged “the Lord” to take it away three times. Jesus said, “No” and with some of the most heart-rending words in all the New Testament, one of the only quotes from the Lord Himself outside the Gospels:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Is it not true that some of the most impressive people we know, whose example is the most moving, are those who patiently and even with joy endure great suffering? They have a kind of authority when they offer their point of view about things that matter. We tend to attend to them as we tend them.
Just for a moment we might thread in the Gospel passage for Sexagesima, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. Most of the seeds don’t make it, but some do, magnificently. The seed had to “die” for it to grow and bear fruit. It could be also that, depending on the plant, it had to be pruned, lots of it harshly hacked off, for it to flourish even more.
Do you have sufferings in your life now? It is not wrong to ask God to take them from you. Paul did. The Lord did too in the Garden. Both of them, and all of us, must be content with the answer, be it relief even through a miracle, or be it silence through a suspension of consolations. In either case, God’s glory is made manifest in you, you glorious image of God you.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz