I like to think of today’s feast as a day to celebrate two conversions: Saul of Tarsus and Ananias of Damascus. Saul we know, especially by the name of St. Paul the Apostle. Ananias, maybe a little bit less so. He was actually the disciple of Christ who baptized Saul. Deep in prayer one day, the Lord asked Ananias to be on the look out for Saul. You know, the guy who’s going around throwing Christians into chains and imprisonment. Go looking for your enemy, Ananias. But this man in humble prayer dares to wonder just what it is God might be playing at. But Lord, I’ve heard about this man, who has the authority and the zeal and the boldness to hunt people like me down. The Lord is quick to ease Ananias’ heart—Saul is chosen and changed. He will no longer be taking life, only giving it. So when the disciple of Damascus meets the one who has been hunting him, he does not call him his enemy—he whispers to the blind and hungry man, Saul, brother.
It may seem strange to speak of a “conversion” when it comes to the experience of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. After all, when we think of conversion, it may call to mind a choice one makes to change their religion. But what happen to Saul the Pharisee was not a choice to change from being a Jew to a Christian. That sort of explanation would not have made any sense to zealous, faithful Saul. Rather, what happened to this prodigy among the Pharisees, now newly among those whom he had sought to kill, was that he was a chosen vessel, the world around him standing firm while everything within him was now changed. Now he was to look at those he’d thrown into prison and see in them: That is what I desire most, to suffer with those who suffer, die with those who die, and rise with those who rise from the dead. I want what I have given them! I want what they have!
Anglican Scripture Scholar NT Wright sets the portrait of Saul of Tarsus as one with scripture on his mind and zeal in his heart. When Saul comes face to face with Christ, he encounters the One he had been serving his whole life:
“This was the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s Scriptures, but a denial of the way he had been reading them up to that point. God the Creator had risen Jesus from the dead, declaring not only that he really was Israel’s Messiah, but that He had done what the one God had promised to do, in person. Saul had been absolutely right in his devotion to the one God, but absolutely wrong in his thought of who that one God was and how his purposes would be fulfilled. He had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of Israel’s vocation, identity, and even the meaning of the Torah itself. His lifelong loyalty was utterly right, but utterly misdirected. He had a zeal for God, but had no idea what God was up to. Everything was now focused on the figure from whom streamed a blinding light.”
I hope you do not have to go through anything near as dramatic as Saul did, lying in those desert sands. But perhaps you already have. Either way, my hope is that whenever you approach the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, you realize you come face to face with the One Saul had persecuted, the One who would then choose and transform him from the inside out. You do not need to have nearly everything taken away to realize that everything is a gift. You do not need to fall to know that Christ will pick you up. You don’t need to go blind to realize that you can only really see with the eyes of Christ. But if you do, know that if God can use Saul of Tarsus to change the world, He can use me and He can use you. But if God is going to transform the world into His dwelling place, it won’t start until He finds His place in us, and we let Him make us new.