Monday, January 25, 2010

The Conversion of St. Paul

From the Acts of the Apostles:

"There was a disciple in Damascus called Ananias, and he had a vision in which the Lord said to him, Ananias!... Get up and go to Straight Street and ask at the house of Judas for someone called Saul, who comes from Tarsus… But in response Ananias said, ‘Lord, I have heard from many people about this man and all the harm he has been doing to your holy people in Jerusalem. He has come here with a warrant… to arrest everybody who invokes your name. The Lord replied: Go, for this man is my chosen instrument to bring my name before Gentiles and kings, and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name. Then Ananias went. He entered the house and laid hands on Saul. It was as though scales fell away from his eyes and immediately he was able to see again. So he got up and was baptised."

Today we celebrate one of the greatest conversion stories within Christianity. Saul, the one who lead the persecution of the early Church becomes Paul the one who leads the early Church’s missionary activity. But who is Paul?

Saul, or Paul, was born in Tarsus in present day Turkey. In his writings we are told that he was born a Roman Citizen but also born a Jew and became a Pharisee having studied in his youth in Jerusalem under Gamaliel – a famous Pharisees of that time. So Paul is a man of two worlds – the Roman world and the Jewish world.

Being a zealous Pharisee, Saul is anxious that nothing should stand in the way of the Jewish faith and so he strongly opposes the 'Way' of the Christians, seeing them as a threat to the faith and traditions of Israel. And so zealous is he that he begins a campaign of persecution and arrests. He believes that he is justified in doing so and he believes that he has the full force of the Jewish Law behind him, he believes that he is acting on God’s behalf – and so he instils fear in the disciples of the Lord. In Saul we have the first of many persecutors of the Church down through the centuries.

But on that road to Damascus he meets the Risen Christ. On that road he is struck blind and only then did he realise how blind he had really been up to that point. And Ananias is reluctant to go to him. Surely this is the man who wants to wipe out Christianity; surely this can’t be the Lord’s will? But Jesus replies: This man is my chosen instrument.’ He is chosen by God to be the greatest herald of the gospel the world has ever known. All the zeal and passion with which he persecuted the Church has been transformed and redirected due to his encounter with Christ and now he is passionately zealous for the gospel and the glory of Christ.

And that encounter with Christ became the reference point of the rest of his life. Everything he is, everything he says or writes, everything he does flows from his experience of Christ, comes from his knowing Christ. In his letter to the Philippians he gives us a glimpse of that passion for Christ which filled his soul when he writes:

"Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew, born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless. But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss… I can only say that forgetting all that lies behind me, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I am racing towards the finishing point to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus."

The supreme advantage of knowing Christ transformed Saul the persecutor into Paul the Apostle of the nations who brought the message of salvation to the known world. It was a message he vehemently opposed in his ignorance of Christ, but knowing Christ, that message became the centre of his life, the reason for his existence and so he gladly underwent constant suffering for bearing witness to the name of Jesus. Eventually he would die for Christ and the Gospel.

Pope Benedict speaks of Paul in the following words: "We see a determination in Paul that is explained only by a soul truly fascinated by the light of the gospel, enamoured of Christ, a soul sustained by a profound conviction: That it is necessary to take the light of Christ to the world, to proclaim the gospel to all. Let us pray so that the Lord, who made Paul see his light and hear his words and touched his heart profoundly, make us also see his light, so that our hearts will also be touched by his word and so that we too will be able to give today’s world, which thirsts for it, the light of the gospel and the truth of Christ."
May the great St. Paul pray for us that we will be light-filled witnesses who illuminate our darkened world with the message and love of Christ.
In the Hearts of Jesus and Mary,
Fr. B

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