Has something like this ever happened to you? A close family member is struggling with faith. You and other loved ones tell him that if he prays for faith, he’s liable to find it eventually. He seems pretty dubious. Then, one day he comes back from college, where he has just had an involved discussion with one of his professors. The family member tells you, in a revelatory tone, “You know what Prof. ______ told me? He said if I pray for faith, I’m liable to find it eventually. Maybe I should try it . . .”
This is an old story, isn’t it? It goes back at least as far as St. Augustine, who seemed unmoved by his mother’s prayers and entreaties, but was won over by the voice of St. Ambrose. Even when Grace is present, God often chooses to reach us through other people.
Today (25 February) we honor one of those people whom God called to be a channel of God’s Grace, St. Ananias. We first meet him in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles. The man who will become St. Paul, on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, has just had a profound, dramatic, and utterly transforming encounter with the Risen Christ. It looks like Jesus is doing without any intermediaries in this case, but it turns out to be a little more complicated than that. He doesn’t finish the job himself. Instead the Lord tells Paul (who at this point is called Saul: he takes the name Paul later on): “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:6). There, a man named Ananias restores his sight, baptizes him, and sends him on his way (Acts 9:10-19). So, even when Jesus knocks Paul down and turns him away from the course he had been following, the future Apostle remains blind, literally and spiritually, until Ananias puts him on the path that transforms Saul, Persecutor of Christians into St. Paul, Apostle of Christ.
The scriptures tell us very little about St. Ananias directly, other than what he does for St. Paul. The only description of him we can find comes from the mouth of St. Paul himself, who later refers to Ananias as “a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” (Acts 22:12) On the other hand, in the story of Ananias we also hear scriptural echoes of other people whom God chose as his instruments. For instance, in Acts we read “The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” (Acts 9:10). Compare this passage to the calling of the prophet Samuel in First Samuel: “Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” (1 Sam 3:4)
The first response of Ananias when he hears about his mission likewise brings to mind the angel’s Annunciation to Mary in the Gospel of Luke. When she hears that she is to bear a child, Mary replies: “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34) In a similar way, when Ananias hears that he is being called upon to restore sight to Saul, he offers an objection: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13) Like Mary, he accepts the answer to his objection; he asks for no sign, and offers no further objections, but willingly goes about his appointed task. Like Mary and Samuel, Ananias is one of those people whom God chooses in a special way to bring about his will on Earth.
It’s an intriguing feature of God’s interaction with humanity that he is so actively involved, but at the same time leaves so much of what he wants done up to us, his creatures. The road to Damascus isn’t his only direct intervention with St. Paul, for instance. When he leaves Damascus he doesn’t immediately seek out the Apostles, but instead spends three years in solitude in the desert of Arabia, so that he can tell the Christians of Galatia:
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
And yet after this Paul nevertheless goes to Jerusalem to confer with Peter (Galatians 1:18), and again fourteen years later, when ” I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain.” (Galatians 2:2). Even though he learned the Gospel from our Lord himself, St. Paul feels the need to work with the other Apostles.
This pattern is repeated countless times throughout scripture, and salvation history generally. We can see God’s preference for reaching us through other human beings even in his greatest intervention in our world since the Creation. When he decided to come Himself into the world to redirect the entire course of human history, he didn’t burst upon us in a blaze of Divine Glory, he “took the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:7) He became one of us.
There’s a message for us here, embodied in the person of St. Ananias and others like him. God wants us to love Him, through each other. When Jesus is asked, for example, what is the greatest commandment, he answers:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
We might say that God is calling all of us to allow ourselves, imperfect as we are, to be channels of His Grace, to be Ananias to the Sauls in our life.