Jan 24, 2011

January 25th - The transformation of Saul

Conversion of St. Paul - Giordano

Acts 9: 1 - 19

Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him
for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that,
if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way,
he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
He said, “Who are you, sir?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;

So they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus . . .
There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,
and the Lord said to him in a vision, Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”

But Ananias replied,
“Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man,
what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.
And here he has authority from the chief priests
to imprison all who call upon your name.”

But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine . . .
So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized . . .”

On this inspiring Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul one may feel a bit jealous of the peripatetic Saul (Jewish name) who we have come to know as Paul (his Roman name). Normally, when someone feels the urge to explore the Christian faith in the Catholic Church, they enter a process called the Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). After a long period of reflection, prayer, discussion, and learning they arrive at the Easter Vigil and receive the beautiful Easter Sacraments of Baptism, if they are not yet baptized, Confirmation and Eucharist. And thus are fully initiated into the Catholic faith. For most that enter it is a powerful conversion experience and they begin a new life as a Catholic-Christian.

However, there was no RCIA process for Paul, no period of inquiry, catechumenate, no Rite of Election or presentation to the local Bishop. There was, instead, a mighty transforming experience of the risen Lord who spoke to Paul in a literal flash of blinding light on the road to Damascus. Saul was “breathing murderous threats” against Christians and had been intent on stamping out these people and their blasphemous faith once and for all. This Saul was indeed a force to be reckoned with; a terrible threat to the destruction of Christianity in this first century. But, God had another plan more powerful than any force Saul could inflict.

This conversion experience, literally divine intervention, was seemingly instantaneous in a way that Paul could not shun the power which overcame him. It began a radical change of heart and a 180 degree about face in the preaching and mission of Paul.

His RCIA process then took place at the feet of the Apostles themselves and by others who had embraced the new Christian faith known as the “Way.” Saul, now named Paul, was baptized and the Spirit of God used his natural talents, his energy and burning zeal for the cause of Christ and his Gospel. It was a powerful intervention and Paul becomes a legitimate Apostle in the same way that the other twelve did as they were called by Jesus himself as primary witnesses to the Gospel.

Jesus inquired, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” Christ lives in us as we are baptized into his death and resurrection. He lives in each member so intimately that what we do to one another we do to Christ himself.

I believe this Feast moves to a meditation on Matthew 25: 31-46 – “Amen I say to you whatever you did for the least brothers (sisters) of mine you did for me.” Likewise, Paul wrote in his letter to the restless Corinthians: "Now you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it . . ."       (1 Corinthians 12: 12-31).

Jesus lives in and through his Church and in every member. How have I treated the least, the poor, the weak that I have encountered? How have I treated my enemies or those who have done me wrong? Have I extended reconciliation to those I have harmed? To do so is to reach out to Christ himself.

Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel: “I am the vine, you are the branches. . .” (Jn 15: 1-10)