Drama at Damascus: Saul becomes Paul
Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ
During the 6th Days of Christian Culture held in Czestochowa on 20 October 2008 Cardinal Stanislaw Nagy, SCJ, gave a talk in the conference hall of ‘Niedziela’, entitled ‘ The drama at Damascus: Saul becomes Paul’. He stressed that St Paul was the first commentator of the work and life of Jesus Christ and on the road to Damascus he changed his vision of God completely – he discovered God’s new face. After the encounter on the road to Damascus Christ became the sense of St Paul’s life. Below is the whole text of Cardinal Nagy’s talk.
I have been entrusted with the task of making a kind of summary of the fruits of the Pauline Year, proclaimed by the Holy Father Benedict XVI. And at the very beginning I must confess that I am troubled by this task since I think that only an expert in biblical sciences, like Rev. Professor Waldemar Chrostowski or Rev. Prof. Michal Bednarz, can do that, whereas I can do it as a theologian, a believing theologian. Therefore, it will not be a thorough analysis, which only a biblical scholar can provide. I am going to approach this subject in three points:
1. Saul transformed into Paul; Christ’s enemy becomes his apostle;
2. Commentator of Christ’s mystery and his salvific work;
3. Zealous Apostle to the Nations.
Saul transformed into Paul
At first, I would like to stress the significance of the proclamation of the Pauline Year. To tell the truth, so far St Paul has been an important ‘acquaintance’ of Christianity but also a great ‘stranger’ for ordinary believers. Now, after several months, he appears in the aura of genius, an expert in God, his Incarnated Son, the Redeemer of the world, and a zealous advocate of his message in the vast territories of the ancient world and finally, a holy Apostle and Martyr. However, I would like to stress what is included in the title, ‘Saul becomes Paul’. This happened on the way to Damascus where he was going to persecute those who had accepted Christ. It was this Christ that crossed his way, made him turn back and directed him in the opposite way, making him equal to Peter, James and the remaining members of the Twelve. Yet, there is one fundamental difference between them. It took them several years to become Apostles. They listened and followed Christ to hear at last ‘You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the world’ (cf. Acts 1:8). But Paul received the dignity of ‘his witness’ in this dramatic event at Damascus, in the light of Christ who revealed himself and made him temporarily blind, and in the long effort of penetrating the depth of Christ’s mystery and the richness of his salvific achievements. All these strange, great and unique things elevated Paul to be an authentic Apostle, to belong to the Twelve on whom Jesus built his Church and with whom he entrusted the treasures of God’s revelation. Paul was clearly aware of that and he would fight against those who had doubts about it. But above all, he gave his all in the zealous and extremely hard apostolic ministry to which he felt called and obliged. And how big was the area of this heroic work! Paul travelled across the bumpy trails of the ancient world experiencing hunger, cold, danger, on the earth and on the sea (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:16-36). Chapters 10-12 of 2 Corinthians are deeply moving. The Apostle defended his apostolic dignity, dramatically picturing the bulk of his work, the hardships of his apostolic efforts. However, the core of this fundamental transformation from Saul to Paul was his radical change of God’s vision. As a zealous Israelite, before the event on the road to Damascus, he was a true monotheist but in his deepest conviction this monotheism was that one God in his deepest ‘esse’ is Alone, I would like to say, Secluded. This was one thing and it led to another. This One God had a particular face: he was powerful and severe Creator, called Yahweh Sabaoth. The attitude that was proper to man, whose status was a creature, was the attitude of total servility, fear and worship and praise that followed them. This was the way the Jews believed and Saul saw God in that way, too. Furthermore, Saul was a fervent zealot of the strict One God; he was ready to destroy all that seemed to be dangerous to his belief. St Luke portrayed him in such a dramatic way, ‘Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord’ (Acts 9:1). And his vision of God fell apart as the consequence of the event at Damascus. Paul saw first of all a different picture of God in this event and what followed it. God remained the Only One but at the same time he became the Triune God, in Three clearly drawn Persons. But this was the first part of this dramatic transformation on the road to Damascus. Another part followed. This Only One and Triune God was still great, powerful, far with his foresight but at the same time God who was close because he was close to each of us, 'In him we live and move and have our being…’ (Acts 17:28). And in turn this thought has another consequence: it shows God as loving Father, i.e. God who is open to man, who acts according to his love for man. In his Letter to the Ephesians Paul would say in a religious vision, ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, in love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:3-5). These last words enrich the vision of loving God by adding a new vision of man who in the new constellation is an ‘adopted son’, who lives ‘so that we might exist for the praise of his glory’ (cf. Ephesians 1:12). Summing up, it means that loving God waits for love of his beloved man (cf. Ephesians 3:17). Thus the circle of this new vision of God and its consequences for man’s fate closes.
Commentator of Christ’s mystery
‘…to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:19)
Christ was a ‘Great Stranger’ on the stage of Saul, at least his misty enemy whom, as well as his followers, one should fight against. Saul travelled to Damascus ‘that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains’, says Luke in the Acts (9:2). And suddenly this misty Christ stood on his way, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him, and showed him a new face. It was not the face of some enemy that one should destroy but the blessed Reality that would become the sense of his life, which he would admit in his Letter to the Galatians, stating without any doubts whatsoever, ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (2:20). But before he realised this sensational maxim, which was the core of his whole existence, he saw Christ as Someone real, concrete, Someone whom in his Letter to the Ephesians he would describe using numerous epithets that were beyond man’s and any other creation’s cognition (cf. 1:1-14). I will quote only one of these attributes that identify Christ, ‘he [God] chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him’ (v. 4). What does it mean? Christ created an image of himself, being born in a stable, living poorly in Nazareth, travelling all over Palestine, giving his message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, dramatically praying in the Garden of Olives and then suffering and dying on the cross; in a word using the method of describing the facts that constituted his earthly life. This original description included the episodes pointing to his life in another, metaphysical order (for example the Transfiguration) but this description of him by using empirical facts of his earthly existence was a description of what is visible, and as if from the outside, what a material eye can see. The image of Christ as depicted by Paul was at first deepened not only as an image of man functioning in earthly time and space but also as a human being immersed in other, non-earthy, although concerning the earth, dimensions. Paul knows very well that ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4), and therefore, he knows Christ living in the dimensions of history very well. He focuses on Christ existing in the dimensions of God’s world, the history of man’s salvation, the ultimate sense of the world and man. The thing is, so to say, to make a penetrating commentary on what Christ wrote using this original script of facts of his earthy life. The commentary was written in the language of divine inspiration, deep and supernatural faith, and reasonable reflection, which is strictly connected with it and which is defined as theology. Based on such a method one can say that Christ is ‘the Mystery’ that was ‘announced to the apostles and prophets’ and which is closely related to the mysterious plan of God, ‘the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord…in whom we have confidence of access through faith in him’ (cf. Ephesians 3:3-12). The result is the second fragment of Christ’s identity about which Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, suggesting that Christ is the New Adam, giving a new beginning to humankind, without the mortal mark of the original sin. ‘Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned…how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many’ (5:12-15). How wonderful and deep this commentary to Christ’s death on the cross and its blessed effect, which was his resurrection is; and summing up, how wonderful his work of salvation is! And this is another title that identifies Christ ‘the Saviour of the world.’ We must admire the depth and at the same time the vividness of this interpretation of Christ and his salvific role that he fulfilled in his life and death. Speaking about Christ the Saviour we approach another element that sheds bright light on the issue of his identity in the holy commentary of Paul. It was closed in another genial abbreviation and at the same time equally genial synthesis that sounds
Zealous Apostle to the Nations
He is the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18)
The Church constitutes a factor of what was defined as the drama of the opposition of a convinced Jew, a member of ethnically isolated community, having clear organisation and ideological frames of the community of the Chosen Nation. Both had their values, about which St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans (see 4: 1-8; 9-12). But essentially, Israel was an episode in the history of salvation, closed in a narrow corner of the immense world, with a defined historical role of recess of the figure of the future, new, saved mankind, the new people of God. And this was the world, or rather a little world, of Saul with his narrow, ethnic, social and ideological frames. A radical change happened on the way to Damascus and in this dimension. Christ’s voice and the words it contained, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ (Acts 9:4) was the climax of the transformation. Since the words show that the new Chosen Nation was the community patterned on that Old Testament Chosen Nation but it was already fulfilled because it had the rich contents of Christ’s salvation and even himself. And again there is a genial synthesis and at the same time a concise message, expressed in one word – ‘Body’. The Church of the New Testament is the organism of Christ’s salvation, pulsating with the life of grace, for ‘we, though many, are one body in Christ…’ (Romans 12:4) and ‘He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell (cf. Colossians 1: 18-19). And what is that fullness? It is what the figure of the Church, Israel, the People of the Old Testament, foretold and therefore, these are numerous graces of salvation, commencing with the gift of God who made us his sons and a whole range of supernatural talents, which are various virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, with him as the first gift. And all these things are the work of Christ, dwelling in the Church that is his Mystical Body. In this perspective the question directed to Saul at Damascus, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ is understandable and meaningful. The Church that has been thus depicted has an all-human dimension, goes beyond borders of countries and nations – the catholic dimension. The Old Testament figure tells about this aspect of its fulfilment in the mission of the Messiah but in the awareness of Israel of those times this aspect is somewhat covered by the narrow nationalistic-political tendencies of the Jews. St Paul broke this narrow model of the Church, the People of the New Testament, in a decisive way. He did that saying briefly, ‘…So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). He referred to all people, including those who came from Judaism and those numerous non-Jews. It was God himself that decided to make Paul the apostle of the latter (see Galatians 1:15-16). Seen from this perspective the Church is what is generally defined as the invisible Church, which does not mean that Paul did not know about the visible stratum of the Church, her specific social-organisational structure the pillar of which was the mission of the Apostles with Peter as their head. The first idea is expressed in the zealous apology for his own apostle’s dignity (see 2 Corinthians 2:14; 3:1-17) and in the definition of the Apostles as ‘the foundation’ of the Church (see Ephesians 2: 19-22). The second idea is testified by his attitude towards Peter and even the dispute between them (see Galatians 2: 1-14). The presented picture of the drama of Saul’s transformation is not complete at all. However, it shows St Paul as a true giant of Christianity, making way to a better understanding of ‘the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way’ (cf. Ephesians 1:23) – Jesus Christ, Alpha and Omega of the world and mankind.