Paul ordinarily employed a scribe to write down the letters that he dictated for the benefit of his local churches. Sometimes, however, he picks up the pen himself to write a last few lines (2 Thess 3:17; 2 Cor 16:21). In the passage that we heard from Galatians on this past Sunday (6:14-18), we have the final verses of this letter, and Paul tells us that he wrote these sentences himself: (6:11):
“See with what large letters I am writing to you in my own hand!”
This effort on Paul’s part could assure the legitimacy of the document as well as offer him an opportunity to emphasize some important and personal points. He does so in the focus upon the cross that stood so central to his theology:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (6:14)
Paul’s boast was never in the number of Churches that he founded, or the number of people whom he converted, or the number of journeys that he made, but always in his willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel without compromise. Thus, to take up his cross.
In the penultimate verse of the Letter, Paul proclaims:
“From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” (6:17)
The marks here refer to the suffering that Paul had undergone in his proclamation of the Gospel, for example, his beatings and shipwrecks and stoning. For Paul, these scars signaled his total devotion to his Master, Jesus.
As one reflects on Paul’s imagery, one can begin to ask how we bear marks that identify us as Christian men and women. For most of us, that would not involve physical afflictions as Paul experienced them, but our discipleship cannot be so neutral as to leave us unmarked by the faith that is at the center of our lives. Perhaps, we can take a step back to Paul’s focus on the cross and ask how this symbol defines our following of Jesus. Among many possibilities, I will suggest two ways in which we bear this foundational mark.
First of all, in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is an essential element of our Christian faith. We begin and end our prayer with this holy pattern—just as we begin and end our mass. The sign of the cross proclaims who we are and what is most important to us. It reminds us of how much we have been loved. As Christians, we are sealed with the cross and we mark ourselves with this sign.
And secondly, as the cross reminds us of the final journey in the life of Jesus, it also calls attention to the reality of sacrifice and suffering in our human journey. All of us have crosses that we bear as members of families, of communities and of organizations. Sometimes they may be medical, sometimes financial, sometimes relational, but they make demands of us and must be borne with faith and hope. None of us can live a single day without taking up our yoke and carrying it. These crosses mark us.
At the end of the Galatian letter, Paul maintains that he has stood firm in the proclamation and witnessing to the Gospel. He has the scars to prove it! His words can guide and encourage us as we reflect on the cross in our lives. We can reflect on the part that it plays in our Vincentian charism. Perhaps, with some humility and heartfelt desire, each of us can say:
I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.