[re-post from March 2016 in honor of today’s Feast. It’s one of my most cherished insights]
On January 25, 2016, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I had one of those insights that, when you get it, makes you suddenly see everything a bit differently. It’s something I’d already in some sense known, but not from this specific angle.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. John Behr says that theology is knowledge of God acquired within the “matrix of the Scriptures” illumined by the light that shines from the cross and resurrection of Jesus. As I was praying that morning, immersed in the Mass readings for the day (especially Acts 22:3-16), my mind blazed with the light of epiphany as I inhabited Saul’s encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. It’s not critical exegesis as much as it is a spiritual read of the texts. Here’s the journal entry:
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The first Scripture of the New Testament was written at the command of Pontius Pilate and preserved in all four Gospels: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And Pilate is the inspired author: “What I have written [gegrapha] I have written [gegrapha]” (John 19:22).
Let me pause writing for a prostration.
The enthronement of the King of Truth on Golgotha was first inscribed in mock of God’s royal Son. Divine revelation chose to use for its “writing tablet” the wood of the Cross, with a parchment declaring God as guilty of treason for usurping Caesar’s lordship over the world. The declaration of Christ’s kingship is at once the rationale for having executed God: “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.” And it was written in the sacred language of Hebrew and secular language of Greek/Latin, to Jew and Gentile. The first Scripture of the New Covenant is as universal as the covenant itself. It’s Scripture: “What I have written,” sharing the same root word as Scripture, graphḗ – as in Matthew 4:10, “for it is written [gegraptai].”
My God, the first Scripture of the new covenant was written at the command of a Gentile and an enemy. In this sense, inscribed into the heart of the Gospel is the new commandment on steroids: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Sacred Writ is inscribed on the cursed Cross that tears down all dividing walls and reconciles all things by the bloodshed of the Beloved Son (Col. 1:20). No wonder the chief priests objected: “Do not write [graphe], ‘The King of the Jews’…” (John 19:21). Our God could never be such a King! Yet, He is.
Again, amazed. In this new covenant a strange divine economy unfolds, as men who cherish expediency, intending an innocent death to achieve their goals, unwittingly unveil the most profound mystery of God’s providence: His unfathomable mercy (John 11:49-51; Gen. 50:20). Like the Centurion who thrust his spear into the Heart of God in order to ensure His death, human malice only serves to provoke divine love to super-abound and unseals the fountain of life for all creation.
This is the heart of the mystery of mercy.
How equally marvelous that Jesus would chose Saul, an enemy of the Way (Acts 9:4), to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy to the nations (cf 1 Tim. 1:16) and serve as the ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20) whose core mission is to tear down the walls of hostility that stood between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:14).
How wonderful that God chose a blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13) to serve as a vessel of biblical inspiration for nearly half the New Testament, and a murderer (Acts 9:1) to proclaim the Gospel of life.
St. Paul’s revolutionary encounter with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus seared in his mind the merciful mind of Christ, who loves His enemies unto self-abasement (cf Phil. 2:5-11). The mind of the Word-made-flesh, who reserved His sweetest display of love for those who spat in His face and brutalized His body (Luke 23:24; Rom. 12:20-21; Gal 3:13).
“Such is our God, our God for ever and always” (Psalm 48:14).
All this to say that St. Paul was equipped in a singular way to proclaim the “word of the Cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). In fact, the Cross emboldened him to articulate the most radical expression of selfless love found anywhere in Scripture. These words still make me shudder whenever I read them. Speaking of his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus, as he once had, he said:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race (Romans 9:3).
Read that one more time: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”
May Christ make me always gratefully aware that I also am, by His mercy, also an enemy-made-friend (Romans 5:10). O Lord, fill me with the courage to live daily out of the riches of that same mercy toward my most difficult neighbors. Amen.
But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Luke 6:27-28