Being nailed to a cross was not only a torturous form of execution but a slow and humiliating one, during which the onlookers watched dying person’s gasps for breathe. Usually this painful and shameful form of execution was reserved for slaves and revolutionaries, as a warning to others.
A good number of St. Paul’s Gentile listeners considered death on a cross as a shame and an indignity. Nevertheless, Paul is straightforward in affirming that he glories in the Cross (Gal 6:14).
St. Thomas comments that a person glories in what he or she considers great. For instance, Thomas notes that some people glory in wealth, some people glory in friendship with great people. Thomas explains that Paul found in the Cross the very things that others seek:
… this friendship the Apostle found most of all in the Cross, because there an obvious sign of divine friendship is shown: ‘God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). For nothing shows His mercy to us as much as the death of Christ. Hence Gregory writes, ‘O inestimable love of charity! To redeem the servant, He delivered His Son.’
Thomas adds that some glory in knowledge. Paul did not claim to know anything but the Cross: “For I judged not myself to know anything among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). In fact, the Cross contains the most important truths, as Thomas points out: “For in the Cross is the perfection of all law and the whole art of living well.”
Thomas recognizes that some people glory in having power but Paul, on the contrary, glories in the Cross because ultimately it is investing in God’s own power: “The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18).”
Some glory in their freedom but Thomas points to Paul’s assertion that lasting freedom comes through the Cross: “Our old man is crucified with Him that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer” (Rom 6:6).
Some find camaraderie by acceptance into special groups but, as Thomas affirms, Paul realized that we find acceptance with heavenly beings through the Cross: “Through Him to reconcile all things for Him, making peace by the blood of His Cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven” (Col 1:20).
Some rejoice in conquests but Paul saw our real triumphs coming from the Cross: “And despoiling the principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (Col 2:15).
Paul chose to glory in what was essential rather than in the superficial values of society: “… by the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14); “I consider everything as a loss for the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them to be so much rubbish…” (Phil 3:8).
For a person who glories in something treasures it and desires to make nothing known except what pertains to the Cross of Christ; therefore he glories in it alone… As if to say: I carry the marks of the Cross and I am considered dead. Therefore, as the world abhors the Cross of Christ, so it abhors me; ‘For you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Col 3:3).
According to Thomas, Paul set his energies on what is important: “He glories mainly in that which avails and helps in joining him to Christ; for it is this, the Apostle desires, namely, to be with Christ.”
Paul states: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Thomas draws out the implications of this statement:
Therefore, faith informed by charity is the new creature. For we have been created and made to exist in our nature through Adam, but that creature is already old. Therefore the Lord in producing us and establishing us in the existence of grace has made a new creature… And it is called ‘new’ because by it we are reborn into the new life by the Holy Spirit: ‘When You send forth Your Spirit, they are created and You renew the face of the earth’ (Ps 104:30) and by the Cross of Christ: ‘So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away, new things have come.’ In this way, then, by a new creature, i.e. by the faith of Christ and the charity of God which has been poured into hearts, we are made new and are joined to Christ.
Paul wrote: “I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body” (Gal 6:17). Thomas reflects that slaves were branded with certain marks by means of a hot iron, so that no one else could claim them. Thomas concludes: “… the Apostle says he bears the marks of the Lord, branded, as it were, as a slave of Christ; and this, because he bore the marks of Christ’s passion, suffering many tribulations in his body for Him, according to the saying: ‘Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps’ (1 Pt 2:21); ‘Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body’ (2 Cor 4:10).
The quotations from Thomas Aquinas are from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, translated by F. R. Larcher, O.P., (Albany, NY: Magi Books Inc., 1965), pp. 202-206.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.