Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Conversion of St Paul

Acts 9:1-22 / Matthew 19:27-29

Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?

Far be it from is to suggest that Our Lord Jesus Christ has made a mistake. All the same, there is something striking, and seemingly wrong about Jesus' question to Saul, breathing threats and violence on his way to persecute the Church in Damascus. Surely it is these Christians and not Christ whom Saul is persecuting. Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Mine? could be an acceptable question. We might even stretch the point and say that, in striking those whom Christ loves, one does strike at Christ himself. Lovers and their beloved share in both joy and grief in just this way, so surely the perfect love of Christ for his Church qualifies his claim to having been persecuted by Saul in the persecution of his disciples, the faithful of his Church. All the same, the accusation that Saul is wrong in persecuting the faithful is strikingly absent. They have been and are being injured by Saul in a way that Christ is not. He has ascended above the heavens where death no longer has dominion over him, where pain and sorrow are no more.

There is more to this question than simply a curious puzzle of our Lord's turn of phrase. Indeed, it touches upon a question close to the very heart of what it means to flourish as a human person: Do we relate to one another fundamentally in light of the irreducible individuality of each person, or do we make appeal to what it universal and shared among all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve? On the one hand, it seems as though we ought to judge our relationships with one another in light of the irreducible truth of persons. I am not you, nor either of us he or she. Each of us is his own person, and to relate to me is irreplaceable with any other relationship or encounter. There is something in each person which is his and his alone to offer the world, which he and he alone can draw out of me, as there is something of him which only I, or you, or we together, can draw forth. To bypass that particularity in favor of universal principles seems to miss the whole point of moral action in the first place. There is no humanity for me to love apart from this man, that woman, this child. To fail to see discrete and distinct persons, and instead to see only instances of a larger abstraction, is surely the beginning of the path which will trample on the good of real persons for the false nobility of serving the abstracted whole of the human race.

However, as noble as such a sentiment is, we know how easily it is to respond well, even at our best, as regards those whom we know well, whom we know not simply to be persons, but whom we know personally. On the other hand, surely one of the crucial measures of our flourishing as moral, loving persons is the degree to which we can respond happily, promptly, reliably and well to our fellow men simply by virtue of our shared humanity. Prior to engaging another man in the irreducible singularity of his personhood, and even in the midst of that relationship, do I not have to take into account precisely what it is he and I share in being human? Does not what ennobles my kindness and generosity to the men and women I meet find its roots not in the small circle of persons I happen to know well, but in my capacity to enlarge that circle to greet in openness and truth even those I have encountered but a moment before?

For human persons, there is no solution to this dilemma, as both concerns are true. However, in the depth of my encounter with any creature, however noble, even created persons, I will necessarily fail to see the whole truth, even of the person I want to know and love, unless I draw back and see him in light of other things. However, by drawing back and seeing persons in light of other considerations, I inevitably need to draw myself away from what is most individual, most personal of this, or that, or the other.

Yet, while this is true of human persons, of created persons, it is not true of the man Jesus Christ, who is God and Lord of all. Jesus is man, and in our relating with him, we fulfill rightly and truly what it means to be human, to be in relation with our fellow men. Jesus is God, a divine Person, the eternal Son of God. In relating with Jesus, we are thus attending at one and the same time to one who is irreducible Personal, indeed even more so than human, created persons, and we encounter that universal foundation, the Logos by whom and through whom all things were made. We do not constrain ourselves in placing all our heart, mind, and soul in Christ, for his radical particularity is the very ground of being in whom all things live, move, and have their being. In the theandric humanity, the divinized manhood of Jesus of Nazareth, we are not confined to a few decades in Galilee centuries past, but we touch the very manhood of God, the humanity of the Word, which takes us in as members, more fully united to him than our hands to our own bodies or our bodies to our own souls.

This is why Jesus makes no mistake in his accusation of Saul, and this is why in his conversion Ananias and the Jews of Damascus encountered in Paul in one and the same moment the same man struck blind on the road and the very Apostle of Christ the Lord. To be alive in Christ, to be a Christian, is to have Christ join us to his very body, his very divine life. He has drawn us up to himself and made us his, and in this joining, we do not lose anything of who we are in some murky distraction. To be one in Christ, to have Christ claim me as his own, in rather to be set up to be more fully myself than anything the world could ever give.

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