Face to Face

Face to Face

Fifth Sunday of Easter. Fr John O’Connor preaches on the extraordinary experience, and the extraordinary zeal, of Saint Paul.

In the Acts of the Apostles the suspicion of the early Christians in Jerusalem towards Saul is treated as perfectly understandable. After all, here we have someone who persecuted the early Church, who, only shortly earlier, was persecuting them and who approved of the killing of Stephen, one of their number. But now, after his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus where he encountered the Risen Christ, he declares himself to be a member of the Church. His zeal to stamp out the followers of Jesus Christ has been transformed into zeal for proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Saul would later be known as Paul, and would become one of the great saints of the Church and author of the celebrated letters, works that have been accorded the great honour of being included among the scriptures. Because all this is a well-known part of the story of the early Christian Church, we may lose sight of how astonishing it is. It’s the sort of story that, if we were to come across it in a novel or film, we might think far-fetched. But when we see how truly extraordinary what happened to Saul was, we may begin to gain some insight into what an earth-shattering experience it must have been to have encountered the Risen Christ in the way he did. And if that is what happened to Saul when he encountered the Risen Christ, might it not perhaps also happen to you or to me when we encounter the Risen Christ in our daily lives?

Most of us have lives that are much less dramatic than Saul’s life was. You may be glad to know that before I joined the Dominican Order, I was not involved in the persecution of Christians or any other group! Nor did I have a dramatic conversion experience, such as the one Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. That said, I have known some people who’ve had fairly dramatic conversion experiences, but, as far as I can gauge, none of them have equalled that of Saul.

Perhaps what Saul experienced may seem so far from the experience of ourselves and of people we know as to seem barely relevant to the vast majority of us. But to think that would be to miss an important point. Because the extraordinary events in the life of Saul tell us not only something about him and his life, but, far more importantly, they tells us a great deal about the reality that he experienced so intensely and powerfully in his conversion. To have encountered the Risen Christ in the way Saul did was capable of bringing about a truly radical transformation. It was capable of changing a heart fixed on destruction, and turning it round to radiate love for the very people whom he wished to destroy. To realise this is to grasp an important point, an important point about the depths of the reality we encounter when we encounter God.

As a Catholic I believe that I encounter the Risen Christ in the sacraments, in my fellow human beings and in prayer. But, as anyone who knows me will testify, I do not seem to have ever manifested such a radical transformation as Saul did. My zeal seems so mediocre compared with what his extraordinary zeal was like. Indeed, we may all feel pretty inadequate in comparison with Saul after his conversion! But, even so, what happened to Saul tells me something of the beauty, the wonder, the value of what it is to be a follower of Christ, to be a branch belonging to the vine that is Christ. It tells me something of the depths of the reality I celebrate in my Christian faith, where I profess faith in Christ who died and who rose from the dead, and who is with us to the end of the age.

As Saul would later write: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly; but then face to face.’ I have yet to see the Risen Christ in that direct fashion, face to face. But I think Saul did, or, at least, experienced something very similar. If it had that effect on him, we should clearly await this wonderful communion with the Risen Christ with great joy and expectation.

Readings:Acts 9:26-31 | 1 John 3:18-24 | John 15:1-8

Fr John O'Connor is Regent of Studies of the English Province and Regent of Blackfriars, Oxford.