Today's readings invite us to examine an element abiding in every relationship, that of "power" – and to meditate upon it.
I have long yearned to understand the effects of power in human affairs. That yearning has sensitized me to the appearance of the word and now I see it or its effects everywhere – in newspaper articles, in interpersonal relationships and in business transactions.
It recalls the commonplace experience in which someone makes a passing remark such as "Look at all the big dark blue Ford pickup trucks on the roads." Sure enough, suddenly the highways and streets abound with big dark blue Ford pickup trucks. So it happened with thinking about power.
Accordingly, it did not come as much of a surprise to see the word "power" in today's reading from St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul quotes the Lord himself, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
At first glance, it looks paradoxical but reflection on it has us understand that in our state of weakness, Christ's power finds no obstacles set up by shallow self-assurance; it enters our being freely.
'Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.'
2 Corinthians 12.10
These few words of St. Paul explain a passage quoted by Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. He cites words of exquisite refinement from St. John of the Cross: "To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you have nothing."
I say "refinement" now, because until I considered St. Paul's words in today's reflection, fog clouded the meaning of that passage. As if he anticipated St. John of the Cross, St. Paul says I do not possess power, so I boast in my weakness; I "go where I have nothing" and the power of Jesus, which I do not now possess may come to me.
A devoted surrender.
The reading from Second Corinthians explains the dismissive reception Jesus received as he addressed the congregation in his hometown synagogue.
He speaks to those who "knew him when." People of influence, many full of themselves, their status, their own power and so unready and unable to recognize the beauty and meaning of what Jesus had to say. . . not "weak" in St. Paul's terms.
Till now, this essay has examined the meaning of power in its manifestations as Christ would have it. Like the big dark blue Ford pickup truck though, the word appears in other contexts.
Lord Acton, that British Catholic historian, for example, left us with his solemn, perhaps rueful conclusion about power. "All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely" – often misquoted as "power corrupts" in gloomy appraisal of some perceived act of folly.
In Litany for Dictatorships, the American poet, Steven Vincent Benét has a blistering diagnosis of the corrosive effects of the misuse of power, "We thought because we had power we had wisdom."
In St. Paul's frame of reference, such corruption could not occur.
(Ralph Himsl: firstname.lastname@example.org)