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Commentary to the Conversion of St Paul

Fernando Armellini - Mon, Jan 24th 2022


Whoever enters Damascus from the eastern gate comes to Straight Street. The ancient decuman (inancient Rome—the main entrance of a military camp, facing away from the enemy and near which the tenthcohort of the legion was usually stationed) crosses the entire city from east to west. It has kept the name given by the Romans even to this day.

The author of the book of Acts recalls that the house where Paul was received, after receiving the revelation of Heaven, was along this road (Acts 9:11). He was not giving us trivial information but was communicating a message. The way: an image that is often used in the Bible to indicate a choice of lifestyle.

The God of Israel does not like compromises, so he proposed to his people an irreversible choice: “I set before you on this day life and good, evil and death. I command you to love the Lord, your God and follow his ways” (Deut 30:15). Arriving at a crossroads, one has to choose: either a road or the other. “Just are all his ways” (Deut 32:4), but how to discover them? They are far from our own “as the heavens are above the earth”(Is 55:9).

Eager to find them, the psalmist was pleading: “Lord, make known to me your ways” (Ps 25:4). Jesus also got back to this image: “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction. How narrow is the gate that leads to life” (Mt 7:13-14) and identifies himself as “the way” (Jn 14:6). Conscious of having met in Jesus the way of life, the early Christians loved to identify themselves as “those of the way.”

Paul was determined “to arrest and bring to Jerusalem man or woman belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2) when he walked toward Damascus. He was convinced of being on the right path, of walking the straight paths, those marked by the Torah and the sacred traditions of his people. Stubbornly anchored to his religious convictions, he was not even touched by the doubt that some of his ideas and some of his choices were to be called into question.

He was full of zeal, generous, disposed of even to give his life for the cause in which he believed. However, like all fanatics, he was intolerant of those who thought differently. He did not pose questions; he nurtured only certainties. Only light from heaven could dissolve the dense darkness in which he was immersed. In Damascus, it led him to the street called Straight, where the community of the followers of the Way would welcome and change him from persecutor to Apostle of the Gentiles.

To internalize the message, we repeat:“Lead me, Lord, in your ways, guide me to the right path.”


First Reading: Acts 9:1-22

Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He said, “Who are you, sir?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank. There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, that he may regain his sight.” But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call upon your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house; laying his hands on him, he said, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 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. He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus, and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were astounded and said, “Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?” But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Christ. 

“I have seen the Lord, he appeared to me, he showed himself also to me." Paul tells of his encounter with the Risen One (1 Cor 9:1; 15:6-8) with this biblical language. But what really happened on the road to Damascus? With a handful of temple guards, Paul leaves Jerusalem and, at full speed, rushes towards the Syrian capital to arrest the Lord’s disciples. He is almost at the gates of the city when a bright light strikes him, throws him off the saddle, and falls to the ground.

This is the dramatic picture of the ‘conversion’ of Paul that we have in mind and that artists have depicted. Yet, there is no mention of the horse or the military escort in the text of Acts. The travel companions who, at some point, take the apostle by the hand and lead him into the city are not soldiers but people who casually found themselves with him along the road.

To grasp the passage's message, we begin to remove from the scene the frightened horses and the clash of arms that have nothing to do here and distract the attention from the really important details: the light and the voice of heaven, blindness and the recovery of sight. Paul’s conversion has been a defining moment in the life of the early Church. From the tireless activity of this apostle, numerous and fervent Christian communities arose in Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. That’s why the author of the book of Acts refers not once but three times to the event on the road to Damascus. What is being proposed in the reading is the first; the others are narrated in Acts 22:4-16; 26:9-18.

If we compare these three stories, we are surprised that, although the same author wrote them, they contradict each other in several places. Today’s passage says that Paul’s companions in travel stop speechless; they hear the voice but do not see anyone (Acts 9:7). If we read the discourse that the apostle addressed to the Jews of Jerusalem, we are told: “The men who were with me saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me” (Acts 22:9).

By continuing to browse the book of Acts, we find the third version. It’s still Paul who narrates: “On the way … I saw a light from heaven, more brilliant than the sun, that dazzled me and those who accompanied me. We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew: “… In vain do you kick against the goad”(Acts 26:13-14).

At this point, it becomes an arduous task to establish who has seen, heard, and fallen. It deals with—it is clear—minor inconsistencies; however, they exist. They are the author’s clear invitation not to read the episode superficially. It is almost about a simple piece of news. Using the biblical language, he proposes a higher goal than giving us information.

It introduces us to the inner plight of Paul—the fanatic persecutor—when one day, he was surprisingly and unexpectedly illuminated from Heaven. He made the discovery that radically changed his life. God made him understand the true identity of Jesus: He who had been refused by the institution, the damned and executed one, was instead the Chosen One.

In his letters, Paul often refers to the experience along the way to Damascus. The most important reminder is found in the Letter to the Galatians: “You have heard of my previous activity, in the Jewish community. I furiously persecuted the Church of God and tried to destroy it. For I was more devoted to the Jewish religion than many fellow Jews and I defended the traditions of my ancestors more fanatically. But one day God called me out of his great love, he who had chosen me from my mother’s womb; and he was pleased to reveal in me the Son, that I might make him known among the pagan nations” (Gal 1:13-16).

What is not mentioned here, as in the other letters, are extraordinary phenomena. It does not speak of horses and soldiers, but all further prodigious details also disappear like the dazzling flash, the falling on the ground, and the mysterious voice. In his letters, all is very sober and realistic. The Apostle does not specify how his encounter with Christ happened. He simply emphasizes that the discovery of the Lord happened as a free gift of the Father. The Father revealed the Son to him and entrusted to Paul the mission to announce him among the pagans.

From that day, his life has undergone a radical change. Before he knew Jesus in the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), that is, according to people's minds. Later, he recognized him as the Messiah and, from that moment, all that constituted for him a title of glory became ‘garbage’ (Phil 3:7-10). Educated in the strict religious traditions of his ancestors, he had assimilated the criteria for judgment of this world and of the Jewish institution. He was convinced that Jesus was a blasphemer, a heretic who preached a God different from the rabbis. Jesus taught that God is a Father who loves indistinctly the wicked and the righteous, who sees all people his children and welcomes in his house the bad and the good for the wedding feast (Mt 22:10).

How did Paul come to this sudden shock that turned him from a ferocious persecutor into an apostle? He was overwhelmed by the light of heaven, but—we wonder—was it a material light or—as it is more likely—an interior illumination? And if so, who did the Lord use to bring about this unexpected and unpredictable conversion to be recognized by all as prodigious? The light of faith—today’s passage clarifies—has come to the heart of Paul through the voice of that Jesus whom he persecuted, a euphemism that clearly indicates the Christian communities being persecuted.

The voice heard by Paul was not but the courageous witness of those who had come before him to believe in the Risen One. It is likely that, during the journey from Jerusalem to Damascus, a disciple of the Lord, met by Paul by chance ‘along the way,’ has led to the faith of the persecutor, passing from darkness to light.

Through this disciple that Paul persecuted, he presented himself to Paul and spoke to him about the Risen One. The radiant light, falling on the ground, the dialogue with the mysterious voice … are images used in the Bible to describe, with realistic language, the interior experience of the encounter with God (cf. Dn 8:18; 10:7-10).

Several details of our story seem taken en bloc from the book of the Maccabees, where the legend is told that King Seleucus sent Heliodorus to plunder the temple in Jerusalem. Arriving in front of the treasure room, he was confronted by a knight magnificently clothed in an armor suit. He fell to the ground, was hit by total blindness, and was carried away from that place. He was saved by the intercession of the high priest Onias and eventually turned to the Lord (2 Mac 3).

Too many similarities! It’s difficult to avoid the idea that the author of the book of Acts borrowed these images to convey his message. The image of the blindness and then the scales falling from the eyes is found in the story of Tobit (Tb 11:12ff). In our story, they indicate the blackout and subsequent illumination operated in Paul by the Gospel message. The Word of the Lord Jesus made dark in him the brief glow of this world’s reality and has opened his eyes wide to the true light, which allowed him to grasp the mysterious designs of God clearly.

Paul was ‘converted.’ He did not close his heart to Christ’s light when it shone in his eyes. Even if it cost him to admit his own mistakes, reviewing his entire life, he became aware that, until then, he had been enveloped by darkness.

His religious zeal was nothing but blind fanaticism. He will acknowledge it, writing to Timothy: “I had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a rabid enemy. However, he took mercy on me because I did not know what I was doing when I opposed the faith; and the grace of the Lord was more abundant together with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is true and worthy of belief: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1 Tim 1:13-15).

Even for us, conversion is not a ‘shift into reverse,’ but ‘to make a U-turn.’ To no one is given to relive his past; the mistakes done remain, cannot be erased, but can be redeemed by a turnabout, a radical transformation of the way of seeing and judging, working and loving. This change of direction of life is brought about when—as happened with Paul—we let ourselves be enlightened by the word of the Gospel, which comes to us through the brothers and sisters of the community, our fellow travelers ‘along the way.’ The Lord opened the eyes of Paul so that he too could “open the eyes of the nations that they may turn from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18). It is a prodigy that today the Lord wants to repeat on each of us.

Gospel: Mark 16:15-18

Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them: “Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

The last page of Mark’s Gospel presents to us an incredible scene: the Risen Christ appears to the Eleven reclining at the table. Before sending them to the whole world to preach the Gospel, Jesus reproaches them for their unbelief and hardness of heart in refusing to believe those who had seen him after he had risen (Mk 16:14).

The explicit reference to the doubts of the disciples is not marginal and may surprise us. How is it possible—we wonder—that, after being witnesses of the repeated manifestations of the Risen One, they remain unbelieving, hard of heart, and not even trust those who have already seen the Lord? No wonder: the journey of faith involves inner struggles, questions, dark moments, and uncertainties. Believing is a demanding choice. It was for the Eleven and also for Paul that only groping and accompanied by hand by fellow travelers he arrived at Straight Street in Damascus.

Can the disciple in whose mind doubts still crop up be a convinced preacher of the Gospel of Christ? The first part of the Gospel passage (v. 15) answers this question. Just the Eleven—the unbelievers, the hard-hearted—are chosen by the Risen Lord to be his witnesses. The mission of going to the whole world to preach Christ is entrusted to them.

Paul has also struggled a lot before coming to faith. Later—while experiencing moments of disappointment and discouragement—he has carried out the mission he was destined for with determination and perseverance (Acts 9:15-16). Someone has tried to quantify the number of kilometers Paul traveled in his apostolic trips to bring the Gospel to the ends of the known world. They calculated 1000 km for the first trip, 1400 for the second, 1700 for the third. If the apostle could realize his dream of reaching Spain (Rom 15:24), then the mileage could be doubled.

The apostle has left an impressive list of dramatic moments experienced on these trips: “Three times I was beaten with a rod, once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked, and once I spent a night and a day adrift on the high seas. I have been continually in hazards of traveling because of rivers, because of bandits, because of my fellow Jews, or because of the pagans: in danger in the city, in the open country, at sea, in danger from false brothers” (2 Cor 11:25-26).

In the early Church, not everyone immediately became aware of the Master’s will to let the proclamation of the Gospel reach all the nations. The universalist idea has struggled to establish itself; the apostles have hesitated to administer baptism to the Gentiles. They were convinced that salvation and the blessings promised to Abraham were reserved for Jews. They even asked if it was permissible to enter the houses and sit at the table of the uncircumcised.

Unlike them, immediately after his conversion, Paul had clear ideas. He understood that the Christian community could not remain closed within the narrow confines of the Jewish institution; he had to dissolve the moorings and embark boldly into the open sea in the world. He has dedicated his life to announcing the Good News to the Gentiles. There is an indication that may seem surprising in command of the Lord: the Gospel must be preached to every creature (v. 15).

The Risen also indicates inanimate creatures as recipients of salvation. Paul shows to have grasped the meaning of this order when he invites to cultivate the hope of the redemption of people and all creation. To the Christians of Rome, he writes: “All creation is eagerly expecting the birth in the glory of the children of God … for even the created world will be freed from this fate of death” (Rom 8:19-21).

A spirituality of the past, steeped in Greek culture than of biblical anthropology, did not give due emphasis to the intimate bond that unites humankind to creation, to mother earth and all her children: to the water flowing in the streams and to field turf, the flowers, to the trees laden with fruit, the animals of the forest and then to the sun, comets and the stars that shine in the firmament. We are not told that creation will return to nothing but that everything will be transformed into the mysterious ultimate reality that all beings that God has called into existence tend.

Unfortunately, in the creation that the Lord had entrusted to us, sin intervened, which upset the plan of God and enslaved inanimate creatures to evil and death. The Gospel message has in itself an irresistible force—the Spirit of the Lord—that changes the hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezk 36:26-27), opens minds to the understanding of God’s plan for the world, and communicates the impulse to commit oneself to bring it to fruition. However, listening to the Gospel is not enough. Jesus sums up God’s answer into two verbs that God expects from us: to believe and be baptized (v. 16).

Paul indicates the way to attain salvation in a famous text of the Letter to the Romans: “You are saved if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and in your heart, you believe that God raised him from the dead. By believing from the heart, you obtain true righteousness; by confessing the faith with your lips you are saved. But how can they call upon the name of the Lord without having believed in him? And how can they believe in him without having first heard about him? And how will they hear about him if no one preaches about him? And how will they preach about him if no one sends them? As Scripture says: How beautiful are the feet of the messenger of good news ... So faith comes from preaching” (Rom 10:9, 14-17).

To know Christ and his proposal, announcement above all is necessary; then comes the belief and then baptism, first and a decisive sign that happens in their adherence to Christ. Paul was ‘a chosen instrument’ to lay, with his preaching, the solid foundation on which the faith is based. Writing to the Corinthians, he thus clarifies the ministry to which he was called: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim his Gospel”(1 Cor 1:17). In the last part of the passage (vv. 17-18), the Risen One lists five wondrous signs that will occur for those who will believe in him. Some of these signs seem rather strange: they were never made by anyone, not even by Jesus.

Mark wrote his Gospel for Christians who knew the Scriptures, who could interpret the biblical symbolism and grasp the references to the Old Testament text. In the promise of the Risen One—they will pick up snakes—they hear immediately resonating the psalmist’s assuring words directed to the just trapped by the enemies: “You will tread on wildcats and snakes and trample the lion and the dragon” (Ps 91:13). For the disciples, the message of these images is clear: they need not fear the wicked because the divine power—the Spirit—they received from the Risen One makes them invulnerable and sure winners.

They also perceive the reference to the prophecy of Isaiah: “The lion will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid, and the child will put his hand into the viper’s lair” (Is 11:6-8). They know that the prophet was not referring to the change of the aggressive and dangerous nature of the beasts, but the struggles and the hostilities that exist in the world. In God’s kingdom, there will be no place for hostility, rivalry, and mutual aggression.

The Christians of Mark’s communities grasp the good news in the Risen Lord's promises: the new world promised in the Holy Scriptures began. Diseases of minds and hearts strayed by passions will be cured. Also, all that is a diminution of life—misery, pain, hunger, ignorance, discrimination—has its days counted: it will be won by the work—the laying on of hands—of the disciples.

Today’s people expect that the announcement of the Gospel will be accompanied by signs, by facts that prove, irrefutably, that the new world is born. If the proclamation of the Christian does not prove capable of transforming society, if it fails to end the strife, wars, abuses, if it does not build peace, people will not believe that the Lord is risen.

Since he was accompanied to the Straight Street, Paul has not moved away from the path marked out by Christ. He was certainly the most active, the most committed of the apostles. He says: “I was sent to the pagan nations, dedicating myself to the service of the good news of God exercising the priestly service of the Gospel of God as a minister of Christ” (Rom 15:16). For this, he could also contemplate the signs of the new world in his life.

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