My friends, over the years, a lot of ink has been spilled by Scripture scholars over a somewhat enigmatic phrase that appears in our second reading taken from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. I am referring to the phrase, “….a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated…” What in the world was this ‘thorn in the flesh’ that Paul, the great evangelist, had to contend with in responding to the Lord’s call to preach the Good News of Christ to the world? Countless explanations concerning the nature of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ have been offered. They range from incessant temptation, dogged opponents, chronic maladies (such as eye problems, malaria, migraine headaches, and epilepsy), to a speech disability. No one can say for sure what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, but it probably was a physical affliction.
What we do know is that whatever this ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, it had a profound impact on St. Paul’s attitude as servant and messenger of the Lord’s good news. This physical or moral defect was a continuing and humbling reminder to St. Paul that the great vocation to which he was called, whatever transforming impact that he would have in other peoples lives, whatever conversion that took place in the heart of those who heard his words, came, not from him but from the Lord working through him.
No matter how many times Paul begged the Lord to be freed from whatever this impediment might have been in his life, the Lord permitted it to continue as a reminder to Paul that the Lord’s “power is made perfect in weakness.”
The “Lord’s power is made perfect in weakness.” My sisters and brothers that is an astounding comment when we stop to think about it. In a culture and society that praises the self-made person, that values over-achievement, that exults in being a mover and shaker in society, we rarely think that weakness in life can possess any power whatsoever. So often, our immediate instinct is to pity or despise the weak and the powerless. We kiddingly make fun of “wimps”. The strong so frequently bully the weak. Even the motto of the Olympics is the antithesis of everything that we consider weak and powerless: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (faster, higher, stronger).
Yet, from the Lord’s perspective, there is something wonderfully gifted, in acknowledging and embracing one’s weakness in life. There is probably no more powerful contemporary examples of this than the final years in the life of Pope Saint John Paul II. As a young priest I was fortunate to be present in St. Peter’s Square when he began his ministry in 1978 at the age of 58. He radiated energy, strength, enthusiasm and power. His pontificate spanned some 27 years. He was one of the most-travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. As part of his special emphasis on the universal call to holiness, he canonized over 483 saints, more than the combined tally of his predecessors during the preceding five centuries. There was no question about it, he was a power house of energy, power and strength.
And then we began to see the signs of decline. Parkinson’s disease began to take its inexorable toll on this giant of a churchman. In 2000, during the great jubilee year, I was privileged to meet him and saw the devastating impact that this disease was having on him. Experiencing difficulty in both speaking and walking, John Paul’s physical decline month by month, year by year was there for all to see.
Despite the devastating weakness that was overtaking his life, it has been said that these final years of his pontificate were in many respects his most eloquent as he literally carried in himself the dying and rising of Christ for all the world to see. He literally preached and imaged Christ crucified through his own body – often without speaking a word, drained of all strength and vigor and in time a silent witness to the Christ to whom he had given his whole life in service.
My friends, when we hold that image in our minds – that final appearance of him at his window to give a final blessing, unable to speak a word – then, I think, we gain an insight into the deepest meaning of Paul’s words to us this day, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is make perfect in weakness.”
Sisters and brothers, as we come together in worship this day, to be strengthened by Word and Sacrament, let us be grateful, for the weakness in all of us. May the Lord transform whatever brokenness we struggle with in life, physical or moral, whatever hardships that come our way, whatever ‘thorn in the flesh’ that we have been given, so that we might always know and give thanks for God’s powerthat is made perfect in our own weakness.