Feast of the conversion of St. Paul: January 25th

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

     Not all falls are the same.

     The boxer Robert Fitzsimmons, who was slated to fight the much larger James J. Jeffries in a heavyweight title match in 1902, supposedly quipped: “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”  While Fitzsimmons failed to demonstrate the truth of his remark on that occasion (he lost the bout to Jeffries in the 8th round), it has become something of a proverb.  How many times have we seen that the more formidable the opponent, the more dramatic the impact when he comes crashing down?

     The nascent Church faced just such an opponent in the days after the ascension of Jesus, an opponent much more formidable than James Jeffries and Robert Fitzsimmons put together.  This man “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).  Not satisfied with terrorizing the followers of Christ in Jerusalem, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, [he] went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). And yet this man, Saul of Tarsus, reached Damascus a very different man, because on the way he met the Risen Christ:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. (Acts 9:3-8)

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting . . .”

“Oh what a fall was there!”, as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony says of the death of Caesar.  And when Saul fell to the ground it was indeed a great fall, one which the Church commemorates tomorrow, as it does every January 25th, as the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.  Saul, of course, later calls himself Paul, and goes on to become Saint Paul. While both might have been great falls, each in its own way, Saul’s was a very different fall than Caesar’s.  Caesar pursued greatness to satisfy his own ambitions, and any lasting good that came of it was simply a happy consequence God’s working everything for good (see the quote from the same St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the top of this post).  This working-for-good  took a very different form in the case of St. Paul himself. When Paul arrives in Damascus the Lord tells a man named Ananias to “come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12).  Ananias has heard about Paul, and is afraid of him, but the Lord assures him that “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  Unlike Caesar, who lived only for his own glory, Paul now lives for the Glory of God or, as he himself puts it: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). While Caesar’s fall was the end of his life (“Now die, Caesar!”), Saul’s was the beginning of new, more glorious life.

The laying on of hands: Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) is made a cardinal.

     Likewise, any power that St. Paul and the other Apostles wielded was very different from the sort of power that Caesar fought for.  Caesar’s power died with him under the jealous daggers of conspiratorial senators, and it would take almost two decades of ongoing civil war before another man, his great-nephew Octavian, seized supreme command in the Roman Empire and had himself proclaimed Augustus, the first emperor.  It generally happened that emperors after Augustus gained power through violence and bloodshed, and lost it in the same way.
     St. Paul, on the other hand, was simply a conduit for the power of Christ, who tells him “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).  It is a power that comes from outside of him, which was before him, and which continues after him.  We can see this in the fact that tomorrow’s feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is followed by the next day’s memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, just as Timothy and Titus themselves followed Paul.  St. Paul made both men bishops by the laying on of hands, just as Ananias had laid hands on him, and wrote letters addressed to both that are now included in the canon of Sacred Scripture. Timothy and Titus likewise passed the power of Christ on to other bishops.  This power is still working through our bishops today, centuries after the bodies and the power of the Roman Emperors have crumbled into nothing.

     The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  We all fall at some point in our lives.  Let us pray that we fall not like Caesar, in a futile pursuit of worldly ambitions, but like St. Paul, born to a new life in Christ.

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