homily – January 25

Conversion of St. Paul

The Holy Father designated the year 2008-09 as the year of Jubilee for St. Paul the Apostle. Today we celebrate the feast of the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. It was a pivotal event in the life of Paul of Tarsus and in the development of Christian faith. There is a saying that “every saint has a history and every sinner has a future.” This is certainly true of Paul. He had his history. He was an intense follower of his Jewish faith. He was convinced that those Jews who followed Jesus were unfaithful to their heritage. He was determined to stamp them out. As we heard in the first reading – “I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Every sinner has a future. Again this is certainly true of Paul. Christ made Paul the persecutor a vessel of election and His disciple to the Gentiles.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul wanted everyone to know that the good news he preached was not a human message that he was given by others, even the other Apostles, it was something he learned only through a revelation of Jesus Christ. After his conversion experience he went off to Arabia and in prayer and solitude sought out the meaning of what his own relationship with Christ was all about and what it demanded of him. From the insights he gained in that time we can learn what our own relationship with Christ can be. We can make our own Paul’s great wish, “For me, to live is Christ and all I want is to know is Christ and the power of His resurrection.” Again Paul testifies, “I live now not I but Christ lives in me and the life I live, I live trusting in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave His life for me.” That trust is what saw Paul through all the struggles and opposition to his ministry.

Few people realize that the letters of Paul to several early Christian churches were written long before the Gospels. In these letters we find the earliest understandings of whom and what Jesus Christ was all about and what was demanded of those who would be His followers.

Before the gospels were written Paul taught us about the mystery of Christ becoming human, quoting a hymn sung at that time in Christian communities which says, “Christ did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as we are; and being as we all are, he humbled himself even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him a name which is above all other names, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This short hymn is about the shameful death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.

Paul gives us the first scriptural teaching on the Eucharist we celebrate today. In his letter to the Corinthians he writes, “For this is what I received from the Lord and in turn pass on to you; that on the same night on which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said, ‘this is my body which is for you, do this as a memorial of me.’ In the same way he took the cup after supper and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it do this as a memorial of me. Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.'”

For Paul the reality of the crucified Christ was the love of God made visible. Christ Crucified was central to Paul’s life. To those converts in Galatia who slipped back into seeking their holiness in keeping the Law he asked, “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you before whom Jesus Christ was shown as crucified?” Paul would say of himself, “All I want to know is Christ crucified and the power of His resurrection.” Through his prayer and ministry Paul sought to “put on Christ and grow to full maturity in Christ.” In the end Paul gave his life bearing witness to his faith in and his love for his crucified Lord.

In one of his letters Paul, speaking of himself, describes the struggle all of us deal with throughout our lives when he writes, “the good that I would, that I do not, the evil that I would not do, that I do.” But Paul could count of the grace of Christ to see him through all his struggles, just as we can.

As we continue to celebrate this feast of the Conversion of St. Paul we can pray for ourselves and for each other that our life time effort will be as was Paul’s – to be as Christ like as we can in the daily living of our lives. May the living of our lives echo the desire of Paul, “I live now, not I but Christ lives in me – for me, to live is Christ.”