On every page of every letter of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, we can feel the tension between the fact of his physical removal from his audience and his desire to share what he has with them.
He loves the written word, because it allows him to communicate across the vast Mediterranean. But he hates it, because he would prefer to be there. In most of his letters, St. Paul writes to people he knows well, people he loves, people he would still be with—were it not for the inexorable impulse from above which keeps him moving to spread the kingdom of Christ.
Like all the “books” of the New Testament, St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the inadequacy of written words to convey the Gospel. I & II Corinthians, the canonical gospels, the entire New Testament: really just a beautiful shadow of the immeasurably more beautiful reality to which all these documents testify.
So: our passage from the first reading at Holy Mass today…
The context: I am writing to you again because I wrote before, and yet you still carry on like non-Christians. Yes, my letters have authority. But the real “letter” I want to write is: you Corinthians.
You, acting like members of Jesus’ Body, like redeemed children of eternity. That is the only letter I really want to “write,” and would that I could write it by standing there among you and teaching you in person!
Does St. Paul go on to compare himself to Moses, to the pre-eminent prophet who spoke face-to-face with God and returned to the children of Israel with skin blazing with divine glory? Yes, the Apostle does presume to compare himself to Moses. But only because Christ is Christ. Because Christ is God reconciling to Himself all the sinners who have broken Moses’ holy law.
If Moses’ face shone—if the face of the man who saw God inscribe the Law of justice, in words, shone—then how much more will the face of the Apostle of Christ shine? Christ Who is Justice and Who gives justice to the unjust. Christ the one and altogether true Word of divine love, Who makes all other words sound like gongs and clanging cymbals.
St. Paul wrote with a fire and a zeal, with a sympathy and an insight, that few writers could claim to possess. After all, he wrote as a chosen Apostle of the divine Redeemer, a messenger of Revelation.
But St. Paul would prefer not to write with words on paper. He would prefer face-to-face. Face-to-face with his audience to teach them about coming face-to-face God.