Today, January 25th, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Though not one of the Twelve Apostles, Paul converted after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and he preached the Gospel and wrote many letters that are part of the New Testament of the Bible. There are other feast days upon which St. Paul is honored; however January 25th is specifically focused on his conversion.
Saul, Persecutor of Christians
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it”
Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul was Saul, a Pharisee who persecuted Christians. He was very zealous in his persecution, noting of himself in his letter to the Galatians that he was more zealous even than many of his peers. Saul was present at and oversaw the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
“Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me.
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.' And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?'
And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles – to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'”
-Acts of the Apostles 26:12-18
Saul left Jerusalem to head toward Damascus around the year 36. His reason for the journey was more Christian persecutions. Saul had papers permitting him to arrest any possible followers of Jesus that he found; those followers were to be brought back to Jerusalem for questioning and execution.
He was not far from Damascus when Christ appeared to him. Saul was, as described in the above passage as well as other passages in the New Testament, struck by a brilliant flash of light that caused him and those with him to fall to the ground. After the above exchange took place, Saul’s companions helped him the rest of the way to Damascus, as he had been rendered blind. For three days, Saul remained blind and did not eat or drink.
A disciple in Damascus, Ananias, also received a vision from God, instructing him to go to the house where Saul was, to heal the man who had once persecuted so many of Christ’s followers. Ananias mentioned what he had heard of Saul, but God replied to him “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” ( Acts 9:15-16). Ananias did as God instructed, going to the house and laying his hands on Saul, saying “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ananias also baptized the former persecutor, who took on the name Paul. Paul then went out to do the task given to him – to preach about Jesus. He traveled and preached for many years, and converted many. Paul was eventually arrested and martyred sometime between 60 and 65 AD.
June 2008 through June 2009 was the Year of St. Paul.
In honor of this feast day, here are two readings – one from one of St. Paul's letters and the other from St. John Chrysostom – from the Liturgy of the Hours.
A Reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1:11 – 24 –
“The fact is, brothers, and I want you to realize this, the Good News I preached is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learned only through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You must have heard of my career as a practicing Jew, how merciless I was in persecuting the Church of God, how much damage I did to it, how I stood out among other Jews of my generation, and how enthusiastic I was for the traditions of my ancestors.
Then God, who had specially chosen me while I was still in my mother’s womb, called me through his grace and chose to reveal his Son in me, so that I might preach the Good News about him to the pagans. I did not stop to discuss this with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were already apostles before me, but I went off to Arabia at once and later went straight back from there to Damascus. Even when after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days, I did not see any of the other apostles; I only saw James, the brother of the Lord, and I swear before God that what I have just written is the literal truth. After that I went to Syria and Cilicia, and was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judaea, who had heard nothing except that their one-time persecutor was now preaching the faith he had previously tried to destroy; and they gave glory to God for me.”
A Reading From a homily by Saint John Chrysostom, bishop (347-407 AD) –
For love of Christ, Paul bore every burden . . .
“Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what man really is, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue this particular animal is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardor and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them.
Thus, amid the traps set for him by his enemies, with exultant heart he turned their every attack into a victory for himself; constantly beaten, abused and cursed, he boasted of it as though he were celebrating a triumphal procession and taking trophies home, and offered thanks to God for it all: Thanks be to God who is always victorious in us! This is why he was far more eager for the shameful abuse that his zeal in preaching brought upon him than we are for the most pleasing honours, more eager for death than we are for life, for poverty than we are for wealth; he yearned for toil far more than others yearn for rest after toil. The one thing he feared, indeed dreaded, was to offend God; nothing else could sway him. Therefore, the only thing he really wanted was always to please God.
The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned, than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.
To be separated from that love was, in his eyes, the greatest and most extraordinary of torments; the pain of that loss would alone have been hell, and endless, unbearable torture.
So too, in being loved by Christ he thought of himself as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise and countless blessings. Apart from that love nothing saddened or delighted him; for nothing earthly did he regard as bitter or sweet.
Paul set no store by the things that fill our visible world, any more than a man sets value on the withered grass of the field. As for tyrannical rulers or the people enraged against him, he paid them no more heed than gnats. Death itself and pain and whatever torments might come were but child’s play to him, provided that thereby he might bear some burden for the sake of Christ.”
Are you interested in finding out more about the remarkable life and teachings of St. Paul? After reading his letters in the New Testament, try watching this DVD “Paul: Contender of the Faith” from the Footprints of God series. You might also want to read this excellent biography “Paul: Least of the Apostles.”
St. Paul, Great Apostle and Martyr, pray for us.