25 Jan 2023 – The Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

25 Jan 2023 – The Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle

1st Reading: Acts 22:3-16

Paul’s account of his conversion, to his fellow-Jews, on the steps of the Temple

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

“A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, came to me; and standing beside me, he said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’

Responsorial: Psalm 116: 1-2

R./: Go out to all the world, and tell the Good News

Praise the Lord, all you nations.
acclaim him all you people.
Go out to all the world, and tell the Good News.
Strong is his love for us;
he is faithful for ever.
Go out to all the world, and tell the Good News.

Gospel: Mark 16:15-18

What missionary apostles will achieve and endure, in the name of Christ

Jesus said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”


A Man Transformed

In his book: Paul, a Critical Life Jerome Murphy O’Connor o.p. gave a fine interpretation of St Paul’s conversion. What a major reversal of values in the mind of Saul the Pharisee, on recognizing the reality of the risen Christ! As a young scholar in Jerusalem, Saul (later called Paul) already knew something about Jesus. He is unlikely to have persecuted Christians without knowing about the founder of the movement. He was in a position to know as much about Jesus as Flavius Josephus did. So we can assume that Paul knew that Jesus had been a teacher and a healer and that he had been crucified under Pontius Pilate; and that his followers believed him to be the Messiah. “It is unlikely that he would have been content with such bare bones. Pharisaic interests would have driven him to flesh them out.”

The Pharisees’ version of Jesus’ activities differed from that of his disciples. But Paul would have known that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah empowered to articulate God’s will; the Law was no longer the sole or final authority. While we cannot know what Paul the Pharisee knew about Jesus, we know what he thought of Christian claims. He dismissed the idea that God had intervened to raise from the dead a false teacher whose claim to be the Messiah while subverting of the authority of the Torah. Saul tried to turn Christians from their beliefs because he thought they were disastrously misled. In his mind, Jesus had deserved to die and his supporters should return to the fold of  Judaism. In later years St Paul said it was Jesus who took the initiative in the encounter that led to his conversion; there had been no preparation on Saul’s part.

But on the road to Damascus, how did Saul recognize Jesus, whom he had never seen in his life? Murphy O’Connor writes, “We can be sure that he had a mental image of Jesus, . What actually happened must remain a mystery unless we are prepared to invoke the vivid details of Luke’s accounts, in each of which Jesus has to identify himself. In any event, the reality and the mental image fused and Paul’s world was turned upside down.”

In his moment of sudden insight, Saul came to know that the Jesus who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate was alive in some new way. Now the resurrection of Jesus was as undeniable as his own reality. He knew that Jesus now existed on another plane. This recognition is all he needed, to transform his value system. No longer were the claims of Jesus the pretensions of a madman, but utter truth. Jesus must be precisely what his disciples claimed he was, namely, the Messiah.

Murphy O’Connor reckons that Paul’s conversion consisted essentially in the revaluation of ideas which he already possessed. When Paul later wrote “I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel preached by me is not according to man” it is an exaggeration, due to the polemic context. It meant that no disciple of Jesus had taught Paul about Christ or Christianity. He had never studied them in the way that he had studied the Law.

Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus would become the core of his gospel. Christ was the new Adam, the embodiment of authentic humanity. The Law was no longer an obstacle to the salvation of Gentiles; they could be saved without becoming Jews. And according to Paul, his conversion was for the sake of the Gentiles, ‘But when he who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the nations.’

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