This year we celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of St. Paul, our heavenly patron. So on this feast day which he shares equally with St. Peter, we shall think about and meditate on his virtues.
St. Paul, whose name means "little," was a Pharisee, possibly a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, who was transformed by a visitation of Jesus on the road to Damascus to become a richly endowed missionary for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour. His intensity about life was matched by his faith and love for the Messiah. His greatest sorrow is the memory of his hatred of Christians and his sanctioning of their punishment, floggings and even murder. His greatest triumph is revealed in his zealous spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, that is, to nonJews, thus opening up, at the direction and inspiration of our heavenly Father, the grace of redemption for all mankind.
Saul of Tarsus gathered all the provisions necessary for his trip. Not only did he need food and clothing for himself, but no man would venture out on such a journey without assembling a caravan complete with guides and servants. Maps were scarce; bandits along the way were not. He was headed for Damascus from Jerusalem, an expedition that would take at least ten days to complete.
Saul's heart pounded with anticipation. This was an official visit, sanctioned and funded by the Sanhedrin. As a Pharisee, and possibly even a member of the elite council, Paul made his case to Caiaphas, the high priest. "Commission me to travel to Damascus," Saul petitioned. "I have received reliable word that there is a band of Jesus-followers who have infiltrated our synagogues there. Let me go so that I can arrest these troublemakers and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment."
Caiaphas was impressed with Saul's boldness and did not hesitate to do as he requested. "You have made a substantial proposal," he said, "and you are the right man for this noteworthy expedition. You may go. I will prepare the appropriate documents for you to take. You have my highest blessing. Saul although eager, hesitates, knowing the extent of the danger of this monumental trip he is about to take. Like a concerned parent, the high priest furrows his brow and focuses his eyes on Saul. "And may the God of our fathers go with you and inspire you."
Saul was flattered by the high priest's affirmation and confidence in him and buoyed by the zeal that was imparted him. He bowed before Caiphas and, as he stood, embraced him, kissing
him on both cheeks as an equal and intimate. "May God be with you," Caiphas repeats himself once again. "And also with you," was Saul's final reply.
The journey was arduous and uneventful. In spite of the potential for attacks from traveling thieves, all went according to plan. God was protecting them. By late afternoon on the ninth day, the caravan crested on a hill and saw the city of Damascus in the not too far distance. It was a beautiful sight. The men let out a collective cheering shout, "Damascus!" they hollered. "Damascus on the horizon, the site of our potential victory for the cause of our God."
It had been almost two days since they left Caesarea Philippi and any semblance of civilization; two days of toughing it out through the foothills of Mount Hermon and across the desolate Syrian desert. The sun was slowly descending toward the western mountains, and its rays flooded the city with bright gleaming light, outlining it against the late afternoon darkening sky. Damascus in the distance was cause for celebration and hopefully the scene and site of victorious conquering.
Unquestionably, Saul was pleased. His journey was coming to a close, but his assignment was only beginning. His mind raced speedily toward his objective, Finally, it had been entrusted to him that the will of Yahweh would be fulfilled; these divisive troublemakers would be removed from the scene of Jewish unity in faith. Suddenly, directly, overhead, a starling light appears. Like a descending star, its brilliance beamed against the progressing evening sky. Its contrast to the geographical surroundings was monumental. The men stood aghast as the light continued to fall, but their shock turned to abject tenor as they realized it was coming toward them. There was no time to run, no place to hide, so they followed instinctual behavior and shielded their faces from the glare that took away their breath.
The light came to rest right on top of Saul. Apparently he was to be the victim of its purpose. He was completely surrounded by it and it enshrouded him totally. It looked as through he was on fire. Saul fell off his horse to the ground in panic. How could he ever survive this? He had been protected all along for all these days in dangerous territory, when in the very sight of his objective, he was to be obliterated. How could this be? What was this amazing and astounding light all about?
"Saul!" A voice thunders from the amazing light, speaking to him.
The Pharisee covers his head with his arms, as if to shield and protect himself. "Saul!" the voice repeats itself.
"Why are you persecuting me?"
Saul was prepared to die. What conscious thoughts continued to stream through his rational mind? He felt no pain, no injury or even a scratch or even a slight burn. "What is this?" he cannot avoid thinking. "Who is this?"
"Lord, is that you?" Saul whimpers, afraid to hear the answer. A devout student of the Old Covenant, Saul read of encounters like this. Many of the men in the caravan were also familiar with the stories of Moses and Elias, even that of Jonah. They were terrified. Was the Lord there to encourage their zeal and protect it?
Then the voice bellows out again, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting." The ground began to shake and convulse.
"Jesus? Jesus! Saul repeats to himself in the depth of his inner being. "How can this be?" He peeks hesitatingly into the light and sees what looks like a form of a glorified man shrouded in bright light.
"Get up," Jesus commands. "Go into the city and someone will meet you. He will tell you what you must do." Saul opened his mouth to ask, but he was unable to make sound, not out of terror, but in response to the message and commission he just received. God was with him in spite of his ability to understand and comprehend. How could this be? But yet the message was distinctly plain.
And then, just as suddenly as the light appeared, it vanished. Its purpose was accomplished and its message delivered. The men unshielded their eyes and sat up. Saul still crouched on the sandy ground. He looked about and perceived nothing, but blackness. His sight left him. The eyes he used to understand his environment all his life, would not function. What was he being called to see now? What new truth was he being called to comprehend?
"I cannot see," he barely whispers. "I can't see," he continually repeats until the message becomes distinct. He is being called to envision a new beginning for his life outside the darkness of his present condition and the life he always lived. A light is given to be used for the glory and purpose of the Christ who addressed him. And astoundingly, the light is Christ himself. Finally, he shouts out loud enough for his companions to hear. "I am blind," he continually repeats until someone comes to help him. "Help me!" he repeats incessantly.
The men quickly gathered around Saul and lifted him to his feet. Once they gained their strength, having themselves been drained of all natural energy by this event, when their composure finally returns and they continue on toward Damascus, taking and guiding their blind leader by the hand. Their destination was the home of a man named Judas on Straight Street. When they arrive, Saul is inconsolable. For three days he would not eat or drink and hardly spoke a syllable. A lifetime of study and deep-seated conviction is dashed in a single moment. Every one of his relationships, whether with friend or foe, had been forged by what he believed. And now he sees all he believed and treasured was misdirected and without foundation.
On the fourth day he had a visitor. "Brother Saul," the kindly voice of a man named Ananias spoke, his hands resting on the disheartened Pharisee. "Jesus has sent me to touch you so that you can see again. The Holy Spirit has come to fill you and I am going to baptize you."
At that moment, Saul sees again. What a dramatic event. Looking up into the face of his newfound friend, Saul stands and embraces Ananias in gratitude as a new sense of conviction takes control of his heart, assuring him that our heavenly Father will provide whatever he needs to accomplish the purpose for which he had been created.
Saul in baptism becomes Paul and except for Jesus himself no one in history had greater impact on the formation of Christians and building up the Church than Saul of Tarsus, the apostle Paul.
Scripture has a great deal to teach us about Saul before he was baptized, before he was transformed by his encounter with Christ. He was as grounded in the law as well as the orthodoxy and the traditions of Judaism but he came to realize God brought him to a new destiny, for a new and purpose, an ever nobler reason for living. "Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse," Gamaliel read to his student from the fifth book of the Law of Moses." "You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance." Saul believed that the law was truth, and he knew the details of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As far as he was concerned, Jesus was cursed by God. In addition to his beliefs abut Jesus, Saul was also apprehensive about the growing number of Christians, especially among the Jews. This pollution had to be cleansed.
A short time before Saul's journey to Damascus, Peter and a handful of disciples had been brought before the Sanhedrin, of which Saul may have been a part. They were charged with healing the sick in the temple courts and teaching people about Jesus. Furious about the
endeavor of the disciples, the high council refused to listen to their defense. "Kill these traitors," one of the Pharisees shouted. "Yes, we must destroy these heretics" shouted another.
But Gamaliel, now an old man, stood and spoke. "Leave these men alone! Release them and let them go!" Saul was shocked. Had not this wise man among the Jews etched the law into his head as a youth? Now he was telling the Sanhedrin to ignore the law? Gamaliel continued. "These movements come and go. If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will inevitably fail. But if it is from God, even we will not able to stop them; we will be fighting against God and we will fail."
"Do not speak in the matter of Jesus again," the disciples were ordered They appeared before the Sanhedrin and Saul knew they would not cease. He was astounded by such resolve written across their countenances. And in a few days, the members of the Sanhedrin, with Saul in their midst, were able to vent their rage as they took Stephen the deacon outside the city and crushed his body under a volley of stones.
But now in Damascus, Saul is faced with the unthinkable. The disciples had been right. Christ is right, Stephen was innocent and victimized by godless rage which he knew also filled him until the unthinkable event before the city of Damascus. Jesus is the one who was spoken of by the prophets. He is the Saviour, the expected Messiah. Before long, Paul is transformed, completely changed. In fact he goes to the synagogue and begins to preach, "Come to Jesus; He is the Son of God. Repent and be saved."
The priest in Damascus sends word to Caiphas, "Good news is that Saul arrived in Damascus; bad news is that he is talking like a lunatic."
For a long number of years before he met his martyrdom on this day at the hands of Nero, Paul spread his "lunacy" throughout the known world. We live the lunacy of Christ and Paul. We live because our God has placed us in this community to establish a church for his glory. Through his love for Christ, Paul preached and lived the life of Christ. Because of the example of our patron saint, we too live as God expects of us. We too want to exalt his name and the precise reason for our faith with a new parish church. We wish to change those who are God's greatest adversaries, including ourselves, into his beloved friends and disciples. This is what the will of God calls us to do. If we have been doubtful about success, let us ask for the same powerful grace Paul received, let us be transformed from zealous Sauls into believing Pauls. Let us seriously and sincerely seek after a transformation and elevation of our thinking and living that ours becomes the mind of Christ. Let us not be enemies of the Lord, but his greatest
champions. Let us so live that all we do and say brings honor and glory to Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Messiah.