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Conversion of St Paul

  • January 25, 2011
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As an apostle, St Paul shares a common feast with St Peter on June 29th. In today’s celebration we recall the unique event which made him so: the apparition on the road to Damascus. It was so significant in Paul’s life that it is narrated three times within the same book, The Acts of the Apostles, an emphasis given to no other narrative in the Bible.

Paul himself was an expatriate Jew, born and brought up in Tarsus of Cilicia, which is in southern Turkey today. He was a devout pharisee and a rabbi by profession, knowledgeable in the Judaic law and its applications. He was also a Roman citizen by birth, and had trained as a public speaker in Greek and Aramaic. He was familiar with Jerusalem, having studied there as a young man, and was distressed at this new “way” of interpreting the Law and the Prophets supposedly started by the Galilean called Jesus. When Stephen, one of Jesus’s followers, was lynched by an outraged mob in the Temple precincts, Paul nodded in approval.

But this wasn’t enough. Paul determined to stamp out Jesus’s followers wherever they might be, and this is why he was on his way to Damascus with letters of authority from the high priest. What happened to him on the road to that city shattered his life forever.

What was this? Jesus made himself present to Paul and challenged him. This took the form of a blinding light, which dazzled Paul and his entourage and cast him to the ground, blinded. A voice called out, asking Paul why he was persecuting him. Paul asked who this was. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” the voice said, and told him to get up and continue into the city, where he would be shown what to do.

Paul had never persecuted Jesus; he had merely hounded his disciples. For the first time now, he realized – and it was a realization which never left him all his life – that in his disciples, in his Church, the Lord is present. It is a re-casting of Jesus’s dictum: ‘whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.’ Paul will later rephrase this in his own way, writing to his young Christians: ‘You are the body of Christ’.

As this feast of Paul’s conversion closes the week for Christian unity, may we be always reminded that we are indeed the Lord’s body, and make him present in the world.
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