(Jer 28:1-17; Ps 119:29,43,79,80,95,102; Mk 14:13-21)
When a heart is converted to Christ, it is not only a cause for celebration – as we do at the Easter Vigil with baptisms of both young and old.
It is also a cause to reflect on the reasons for conversion and the impact of those conversions.
Today, the Church celebrates a biggie – the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Today’s readings recount the story of Paul, who had joined the persecution of the first generation of Christians (making him a very unlikely candidate for RCIA), coming face-to-face with Jesus on his way to Damascus.
Blinded by a light. Knocked off his horse. Left in the darkness until he learns and accepts his new mission in life.
“Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.” Acts 9 1-22
This was the turning point of Paul’s life, a true encounter with the risen Lord that not only stuck with him in his heart and his mind, but compelled him to abandon his previous life in order to spread the Gospel to all human beings.
He went from participating in the stoning of Christians to converting others to the faith of Jesus Christ.
Paul the Pharisee – who had once sought acceptance and good will for hunting down Christians – had suddenly become Paul the apostle, the first Christian theologian.
Certainly a headline-grabber. Imagine the hours of debate among the “experts” on cable news programs, had they been around back in those times. The news would have been scandalous for some, marvelous for others. Either way, it would have been big news.
Can you imagine the hyperbole? “Not since Moses abandoned his Egyptian heritage to become a savior to the Hebrews has the world of religion been rocked like it was today.”
Paul would not be the last to surprise the world of religion.
The Emperor Constantine … Augustine … Juan Diego … Bach … John Henry Newman …
Even in more modern times.
G.K. Chesterton … Dorothy Day … Thomas Merton … Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe).
The Church celebrates every conversion, from the headline-grabbers who often go on to convert many others by their works, their lives and their faith … to those who quietly convert in small church parishes around the world.
Paul compared his conversion to God’s creation of light. “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of God’s glory on the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6)
When hearts are converted, it usually follows that our minds and actions soon follow along the same path. Former religious faiths are abandoned, secular activities that had at one time been so important to one’s identity are often placed properly in perspective, replaced by faith and family.
In some cases, the conversions can be considered extreme … like Newman, who had been a nationally known leader and priest in the Church of England before converting to Catholicism and directing his work toward the theology of the Catholic Church (particularly on the development of doctrine).
Paul, too, experienced a major shift in his own understanding of faith. Up until the moment he was blinded by Christ and converted, Paul had a theory of salvation history that fell into three parts: Abraham to Moses (pre-law period); Moses to the Messiah (post-law period) and the coming messianic age (whenever that would be).
After his conversion, Paul became convinced that the messianic age had already arrived, giving rise to a brand new perspective on salvation history. In other words, the “end times” that had been anticipated for so long, had in fact already started.
Talk about scandalous!
As Paul spread this good news around the world, he no doubt shattered the beliefs and customs many had been holding onto. He would change hearts and minds. It would not be easy.
It reminded me of Sunday’s reading from Gospel of Luke … where Jesus pretty much does the same on what must have been a rather normal day in the synagogue, suddenly thrown into turmoil.
“He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
“Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Imagine the headlines, the scandals, the hype if Jesus suddenly appeared to you on this day and knocked you off your horse. How would you respond when the scales fell from your eyes?
As I noted above, the Church not only celebrates the conversions of Paul and other major headliners; She also celebrates the conversion of Adam, Bill, Charlie and Danny … Evelyn, Fran, Gina and Harriett.
All those who take the plunge at the Easter Vigil.
They take the journey home for a variety of reasons. And once they are here, their impacts can be enormous when you begin to consider the spiritual connection each have made and will make as they continue on their way.
May God continue to knock all of us off our high horses whenever he sees fit to remind us that it is He who must increase … and it is we who must decrease.