The National Catholic Review

Ash Wednesday, whose ashes symbolize mourning and penitence, is also, it seems to me, a period of joyous return. The Apostle Paul captures this sense of joy in the second reading today, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2. Paul has written earlier in 2 Cor. 5 that the love of Christ urges him on in his ministry or reconciliation, since he is convinced that Christ has died for all (vv.14-15). Because of what Christ has gained for us, eternal life, Paul writes of a transformation of being in which humanity can now share. There is also a transformation of spiritual vision, which captures the true reality of things – "we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, a new creation!" (vv.16-17). My modification of the NRSV translation focuses more on Paul’s literal Greek especially his exuberant "a new creation!" Generally, this is translated "there is a new creation" (NRSV) or is linked to the phrase prior to create one sentence ("So whoever is in Christ is a new creation": NAB). The Greek itself is simply kaine ktisis, "a new creation," a shout for joy of the new transformed humanity in Christ.

Paul continues on in vv.18-19 to state that this new creation is not from Paul, or his co-workers, but from God, who through Christ reconciled the world to himself. Paul has this ministry of reconciliation from God. As an official representative, Paul and his co-workers – Timothy is the co-author of this letter, but there could be other co-workers to whom he refers– are "ambassadors" for Christ’s mission of reconciliation. The word "ambassador" preceded Paul and early Christianity, of course, and generally referred to an emperor’s or king’s legates. Paul actually uses in 2 Cor. 5:20 the verb form, presbeuo, which gives this an active sense: "we are ‘ambassadoring’ on behalf of Christ." The plea is clear: on behalf of Christ, we ask you to accept his gift of reconciliation.

Verse 21 probably creates the greatest sense of theological difficulty, but should be seen in the context of reconciliation which Christ has gained for sinful humanity: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (v.21). If we see this as the means by which reconciliation was achieved, then it seems that we are on the right track. Christ, throughout the New Testament (John 7:18, 8:46; Hebrews 4:15, 7:26; 1 Peter 1:19, 2:22) is understood as sinless; Paul, I think, points to Christ’s role as the one who takes humanity’s sin upon himself in the crucifixion and therefore becomes the means of reconciliation between God and humanity. Through this reconciliation we can share in God’s righteousness (v.21).

Paul warns us, however, not to accept "the grace of God in vain" (6:1). What does he mean by this? He cites immediately after this statement Isaiah 49:8 (LXX- Septuagint): "at an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you" (6:2). In the historical context of Isaiah 49, the prophet speaks of the time of the restoration of Israel, when all will acknowledge not only the people of God, but God himself. This servant song, however, Paul implicitly argues, has found its fulfillment in Christ and in the call for reconciliation which the ambassadors for Christ bring. Isaiah 49:8 speaks of a time when Israel will be brought home. Paul says, that time is now. That fulfillment is found in the reconciliation of Christ. "See, now is the acceptable time;see, now is the day of salvation!" (6:2). As we approach God in mourning and penitence on Ash Wednesday, our hearts should be full of joy, for "now is the acceptable time;see, now is the day of salvation!" As we prepare for Lent, let us be reminded that "if anyone is in Christ, a new creation!"

 John W. Martens