Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It is a miracle any time a sinner turns away from his sins and accepts the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ. But one of the greatest conversion stories in history - and probably the greatest conversion story of all - is that of Saul of Tarsus a/k/a St. Paul. It is so great that Holy Mother Church has actually made a feast day commemorating Paul's conversion.
The first reading, from the Book of Acts, describes the conversion of St. Paul. We are given a choice of one narrative from St. Paul himself, and another narrative describing the conversion in the third person which gives a little more detail.
The first time Saul a/k/a Paul is mentioned in scriptures is at the stoning of St. Stephen. Acts 7 describes St. Stephen's martyrdom, and 8:1 tells us: "And Saul approved of their killing him." Saul was the avowed enemy of Christians, and felt he was doing God a great service by literally killing them. No one outdid Saul in his zealous hate of Christianity.
At the beginning of today's readings, we find Saul of Tarsus on a literally murderous rampage against Christians. He is traveling to Damascus, Syria "to bring back [Christians] to Jerusalem in chains for punishment."
Then a great event occurred:
On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,Most of us come to conversion after a process of searching and questioning. It doesn't just happen in the a flash, but is usually a long process that in many ways lasts our entire lives. This was not the case with Saul. Saul was not looking for Jesus in any sense of the word. Saul was completely confident in himself and what he was doing. Saul felt he had all the answers to all the questions, and was so convinced of his righteousness that he was literally killing those who did not believe as he did.
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
As Saul was on his way to bring more Christians to their death, he was struck down in the middle of the road by a light so bright it completely blinded him. This Light was Jesus Christ Himself. St. Paul tells us that those around him also saw the light (although they were not blinded by it), but they did not hear the voice that Saul heard.
This was a terrifying situation for Saul. He was suddenly unable to see, lying on the ground, completely helpless. Then Jesus asks a most curious question of Saul:
"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"Now it must be remembered that Saul never met Jesus Christ as a human being. Saul never personally persecuted Jesus Christ when He walked the earth. Yet, Jesus was telling Saul that by persecuting Christians, Saul was persecuting Jesus Christ Himself. That is how completely Our Lord identifies with us. He experiences everything in our lives with us. When a Christian is persecuted, we are being told here that the real target of that persecution is Jesus Christ Himself.
Saul did not understand this question. Yes, he was persecuting Christians, but who was this?
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?'It is noteworthy that Jesus identifies Himself as "the Nazorean." As Philip had once said, can anything good come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)? Jews looked down on Nazareth as a kind of sewer of the world and had little respect for those who lived there. Saul, as a good Jew, would be very aware of this fact.
And he said to me,
'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
But Saul knew who "Jesus the Nazorean" was. This was the apostate Jew who, Saul believed, was rightfully crucified. As far as Saul knew, Jesus of Nazareth was dead, even though his followers foolishly claimed he had risen from the dead. But yet here this Jesus was, and Saul was helpless in His presence.
Saul immediately became a very humble man at Jesus' words, and after Jesus identified Himself, the only question Saul asked was:
What shall I do, sir?These five words should be the daily prayer for each one of us. If we are to really serve the Lord, we must let Him be in full control of our actions. We should never be making our own decisions, but allowing Him to direct us. We won't be given verbal commands as Saul was given, but if we are open to the Holy Spirit and in a state of constant prayer, He will guide us.
Jesus answered Saul:
Get up and go into Damascus,Saul still does not understand what is happening, but this does not stop him from obeying the voice he was hearing.
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.'
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.Saul was being humbled to the point where he needed others to help him walk. When he arrived in Damascus, he was met by Ananias, who had been visited by Jesus prior to this time, as we are told in the alternative reading. Jesus appeared in a vision to Ananias and told him to go the house where Saul would be and to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight. Interestingly, Jesus told Ananias that Saul would be praying at this house.
Now, Ananias was very aware of Saul's reputation as a great persecutor and killer of Christians, and he was more than a little wary of this, and he felt he needed to tell Jesus exactly how dangerous Saul was:
Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man,How often do we do this? We are told to do something that we don't understand, and we feel that we have to correct Jesus. But Our Lord is very understanding of our weaknesses, and He shows this by gently answering Ananias:
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.
Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mineI am sure this made no sense to Ananias. How can a man who hated Christians be a "chosen instruction" to preach the Gospel? Yet, this is what Our Lord said, and Ananias accepted it, and did as the Lord commanded:
to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.
So Ananias went and entered the house;Notice the words of love and acceptance that Ananias uses. Saul was a man responsible for the death and suffering of many Christians, but Ananias made no accusations against him, no words of recrimination in any way. I am sure that Saul was amazed and greatly touched by this, leading him more on the road to his conversion.
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.
St. Paul then tells us that:
At that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.Saul, who just a few days before had been persecuting and murdering Christians, was now one of those Christians and was devoting his life to preaching the message of Jesus of Nazareth and bringing as many people as possible to eternal life in Jesus Christ, no matter the cost to his own life.
Then he said,
'The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.'"
Saul wasted no time in his new mission, and his total transformation to Christianity amazed the world around him:
He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus,The responsorial psalm celebrates the conversion of Saul:
and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.
All who heard him were astounded and said,
"Is not this the man who in Jerusalem
ravaged those who call upon this name,
and came here expressly to take them back in chains
to the chief priests?"
But Saul grew all the stronger
and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus,
proving that this is the Christ.
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.Jesus took the greatest persecutor of Christians and converted him into the greatest evangelist of all time. Our Lord never works in the way we expect Him to, He never does things the way we want Him to. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. We must always remember that. We must be like Ananias, always ready to go in ways that we don't expect or even want. That is the only way He can work through us.
Praise the LORD, all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!
For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
The Gospel is Jesus' command to His disciples to preach the Good News to the world, and in this message, He tells us that nothing can harm us as we do His work:
Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:Some have taken these words literally, and think they can physically handle poisonous snakes and not be hurt, and some have actually died because of this. But these words of course are spiritual, meaning that we cannot be spiritually harmed by evil spirits. The devil and his demons have no power over us. They may hurt us physically, but they will never be able to take away our salvation.
"Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
Jesus performed many miracles when he walked this earth, including raising the dead. But there can never be a greater miracle than of raising a sinner from spiritual death to life eternal with Him.