January 25 Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul
Readings: Acts 22:3-16; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 16:15-18
This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Usually this feast would not be celebrated if it occurs on a Sunday. In many dioceses throughout the world the feast this year is celebrated as a Solemnity, because Pope Benedict XVI declared a Jubilee Year of St. Paul from June 29, 2008 to June 29, 2009, celebrating the 2,000 years since his birth.
We all know the scene of St. Paul’s conversion. Saul of Tarsus was traveling on the way to Damascus leading a group of fervent Pharisees to go and kill the followers of Christ. There are imaginary paintings of Saul being thrown off his horse by a bright light with Christ in the middle, and of his companions falling in fear. Actually, there is no horse in the scripture, Saul probably couldn’t afford one, but that is beside the point. The point is that Jesus appears to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” In the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives a narrative from Paul himself, in which Paul in his defense admits that “I persecuted this Way to death.” The phrase “this Way” refers to Christians. Here Paul gives an account of his journey to conversion from being a Jew and an ardent persecutor of Christians, to being a committed Christian. After his conversion, Paul not only defends the faith, but also becomes an ardent preacher of the Good News to the Gentiles. It is because of Paul that we have received the Christian faith.
Although this feast celebrates that event, Paul’s conversion did not end on that road. It began on the road. He would go on to suffer for the faith. In Second Corinthians Paul states that five times he received forty lashes less one, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked along with all sorts of other persecutions. Far more difficult than these persecutions was “the thorn in the flesh” he speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12. What exactly was this? Was the thorn his temper? He often lost his temper, even with Peter Jerusalem. Was it some sort of temptation to sin? Was it a physical ailment? We don’t know. But we do know that Paul realized his complete dependence on Jesus, whose “power was made perfect in my weakness, (2 Corinthians 12:19.) One thing is for sure. Paul’s conversion began on the road to Damascus, but was not completed until his final moments of his execution in 65 AD in Rome by the Emperor Nero. The message we take home today may be summed up as follows: 1) The Church offers us this Jubilee Year of Saint Paul to offer us an opportunity to be inspired by St. Paul and his story of conversion; we too can walk the same path towards to conversion and holiness; 2) The Jubilee is also an opportunity to make better use of Pauline writings and spirituality so well expressed in the Letters Paul wrote; 3) One aspect of that spirituality is Paul’s identification with Christ when he says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
©2009 John M. Mbinda