Today is the feast day of the Conversion of Saint Paul.
For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, 39 neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ, our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Born in Tarsus to a noble family, Saint Paul was at first named Saul. His family, given the laws at the time, were bestowed the rights and privileges of citizens of the Roman Empire. Saul grew up instructed in Mosaic Law, which he strictly observed. Sent to Jerusalem to study, Saul mentored with the strictest and most prideful sect of Pharisees. As was the Jewish rule of the time, he also learned the craft of tent-making. During this time (36 A.D.), Christianity was spreading throughout the region, but was not to be tolerated. (10)
from the Liturgical Year, 1904
We have already seen how the Gentiles, in the person of the Three Magi, offered their mystic gifts to the Divine Child of Bethlehem, and received from Him, in return, the precious gifts of faith, hope, and charity. The harvest is ripe; it is time for the reaper to come. But who is to be God’s labourer? The Apostles of Christ are still living under the very shadow of mount Sion. All of them have received the mission to preach the gospel of salvation to the uttermost parts of the world; but not one among them has, as yet, received the special character of Apostle of the Gentiles. Peter, who had received the Apostleship of Circumcision (Gal. ii. 8), is sent specially, as was Christ Himself, to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel (St. Matth. xv. 24). And yet, as he is the Head and the Foundation, it belongs to him to open the door of Faith to the Gentiles (Acts, xiv. 26); which he solemnly does, by conferring Baptism on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.
But the Church is to have one more Apostle–an Apostle for the Gentiles–and he is to be the fruit of the martyrdom and prayer of St. Stephen. Saul, a citizen of Tarsus, has not seen Christ in the flesh, and yet Christ alone can make an Apostle. It is then, from heaven, where He reigns impassible and glorified, that Jesus will call Saul to be His disciple, just as, during the period of his active life, He called the fishermen of Genesareth to follow him and hearken to His teachings. The Son of God will raise Saul up to the third heaven, and there will reveal to Him all his mysteries: and when Saul, having come down again to this earth, shall have seen Peter (Gal. i. 18), and compared his Gospel with that recognised by Peter (Ibid. ii. 2)–he can say, in all truth, that he is an Apostle of Christ Jesus (Gal. i. I), and that he has done nothing less than the great Apostles (II. Cor. xi. 5).
It is on this glorious day of the Conversion of Saul, who is soon to change his name into Paul, that this great work is commenced. It is on this day, that is heard the Almighty voice which breaketh the cedars of Libanus (Ps. xxviii. 5), and can make a persecuting Jew become first a Christian, and then an Apostle. This admirable transformation had been prophesied by Jacob, when, upon his death-bed, he unfolded, to each of his sons, the future of the tribe of which he was to be the father. Juda was to have the precedence of honour; from his royal race, was to be born the Redeemer, the Expected of nations. Benjamin’s turn came; his glory is not to be compared with that of his brother Juda, and yet it was to be very great– for, from his tribe, is to be born Paul, the Apostle of the Gentile nations.
These are the words of the dying Prophet: Benjamin, a ravenous wolf, in the morning shall eat the prey, and in the evening shall divide the spoil (Gen. xlix. 27). Who, says an ancient writer (These words are taken from a Sermon, which for long time was thought to be St. Augustine), is he, that in the morning of impetuous youth, goes like a wolf, in pursuit of the sheep of Christ, breathing threatenings and slaughter against them? Is it not Saul on the road to Damascus, the bearer and doer of the high-priest’s orders, and stained with the blood of Stephen, whom he has stoned by the hands of all those, over whose garments he kept watch? And he, who, in the evening, not only does not despoil, but with a charitable and peaceful hand, breaks to the hungry the bread of life–is it not Paul, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Apostle of Christ, burning with zeal for his brethren, making himself all to all, and wishing even to be an anathema for their sakes?
Oh! the power of our dear Jesus! how wonderful! how irresistible! He wishes that the first worshippers at His Crib should be humble Shepherds–and He invites them by His Angels, whose sweet hymn was enough to lead these simple-hearted men to the Stable, where lies, in swaddling-clothes, He who is the hope of Israel. He would have the Gentile Princes, the Magi, do Him homage–and bids to arise in the heavens a Star, whose mysterious apparition, joined to the interior speaking of the Holy Ghost, induces these men of desire to come from the far East, and lay, at the feet of an humble Babe, their riches and their hearts. When the time is come for forming the Apostolic College, He approaches the banks of the sea of Tiberias, and with this single word: Follow me, He draws after Him such as He wishes to have as His Disciples. In the midst of all the humiliations of His Passion, He has but to look at the unfaithful Peter, and Peter is a penitent. Today, it is from heaven that He evinces His power: all the mysteries of our redemption have been accomplished, and He wishes to show mankind, that He is the sole author and master of the Apostolate, and that His alliance with the Gentiles is now perfect:–He speaks; the sound of His reproach bursts like thunder over the head of this hot Pharisee, who is bent on annihilating the Church; He takes this heart of the Jew, and, by His grace, turns it into the heart of the Apostle, the Vessel of election, the Paul who is afterwards to say of himself: I live not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. ii. 20).
The commemoration of this great event was to be a Feast in the Church, and it had a right to be kept as near as might be to the one which celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen, for Paul is the Protomartyr’s convert. The anniversary of his martyrdom would, of course, have to be solemnized at the summer-solstice; where, then, place the Feast of his Conversion if not near Christmas, and thus our own Apostle would be at Jesus’ Crib, and Stephen’s side? Moreover, the Magi could claim him, as being the conqueror of that Gentile-world, of which they were the first-fruits.
And lastly, it was necessary, in order to give the court of our Infant-King its full beauty, that the two Princes of the Church–the Apostle of the Jews, and the Apostle of the Gentiles–should stand close to the mystic Crib; Peter, with his Keys, and Paul, with his Sword. Bethlehem thus becomes the perfect figure of the Church, and the riches of this season of the Cycle are abundant beyond measure. (1,4)
Two central aspects of Paul’s vision of Christianity
The two central aspects Paul’s vision of Christianity can be seen from:
- his refusal against the Judaising party to force new converts from paganism to be circumcised; he wanted to ensure that Christianity would be a universalist not an exclusivist religion; and
- his vision of how the religious world was changed through Jesus: justification comes through faith in Jesus and not through adherence the Mosaic Code or human good works.
These radical views gave Paul a standing and a boldness that enabled him to stand up to and correct even Peter when he was, as Paul said, “manifestly in the wrong” (pussyfooting with exclusivism – Galatians 2:1-14) and to bring his mission through Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.
He deserves his title: “Apostle of the Gentiles”. (11)
Image: The Conversion of St. Paul, artist: Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, circa: 1600. (13)
Research by REGINA Staff