Tag Archives: gentiles

Paul’s Conversion: January 25th

Caravaggio, Conversion of Paul

Our yearly church calendar celebrates saints from every age and place because saints are examples of God’s grace present always and everywhere. But some saints are singled out in the liturgy for their importance. One is St. Paul the Apostle, whose dramatic conversion is celebrated on January 25th. His martyrdom, along with Peter, is celebrated June 29th and we read extensively from his writings throughout the church year.

An account of Paul’s conversion ( Acts 22: 3-13) – one of three found in the Acts of the Apostles – is read first at his feast day Mass. St. Luke devotes much of the Acts to Paul’s  missionary journeys ending in Rome. In Mark’s gospel for the feast, Jesus, appearing to this disciples after his resurrection, tells them to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16: 15-18)  

Paul fulfilled that command of Jesus. He writes to the Corinthians: 

“I am the least of the apostles; in fact, since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. On the contrary, I have worked harder than any of the others: or rather, not I but the grace of God that is with me. (  1 Corthinians 15:9-10)

St. Paul is an example of how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights, and for that reason the church celebrates his conversion.  Paul never forgot that God’s grace raised him from the dust to become  a powerful force in his church and in the world. Paul never forgot he was a Pharisee, intent on eradicating the followers of Jesus who became one of his most loyal disciples. His conversion gave him a boldness that carried him fearlessly to the ends of the earth 

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Jesus says to him from a blinding light. From that meeting Paul received the gift of faith and a mission to bring faith to the gentile world. He never forgot the moment he was blinded by a light that made him see.

  

“Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them… ” ( St. John Chrysostom)                                                                                             

O God, who taught the whole world

through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,

draw us, we pray, nearer to you

through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,

and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

The Feast of St. Barnabas

St. Barnabas, 18th century anonymous

Saints share their gifts; they also recognize the gifts of others. That’s what St. Barnabas did. He was a gifted teacher of the Gospel; he also recognized the gift of Paul of Tarsus. His feast is June 11.

After his dramatic conversion on the way to Damascus, Paul preached the gospel in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, but his past caused some in Jerusalem to be suspicious of him. “They were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.”

“Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.” (Acts 9, 25-27) Barnabas recognized the grace of God in Saul.

Then, as gentiles in Antioch became increasingly interested in the gospel, the leaders of the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to see what to do. “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11,23-26)

Barnabas recognized Paul’s gifts once again and sought him out to bring the gospel to the gentiles. Previously, the Apostle Peter encountered the gentile Cornelius in Ceasaria Maritima and baptized him and his friends. Now, Barnabas chooses Paul to come to Antioch, and the two embark on a mission to the gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles refer first to “Barnabas and Saul”, then gradually it becomes “Paul and Barnabas.”

Paul emerged as a gifted apostle. The Acts of the Apostles follows him all the way to Rome. Barnabas is hardly mentioned at all.

But Barnabas first recognized Paul and his gifts.

Church Leaders

Peter the Apostle, Cloisters, New York

Keep Peter and the rest of the apostles in mind when thinking about church leaders. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles . Peter describes how he was called from Joppa to bring the gospel to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his household. Joppa, you recall, was the seaport where Jonah began his perilous journey into the gentile world.

In Joppa, the tired apostle goes to sleep on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house overlooking the vast sea and had a disturbing vision. Instead of his usual  kosher food  a gentile banquet is poured out before him, and as a good Jew Peter pushes it away.  Three times the vision invites the puzzled apostle to eat before vanishing.

Then, messengers appear at the door from Cornelius, a gentile soldier stationed in Caesaria Maritima, the main Roman headquarters just up the coast, asking Peter to come and speak about “the things that had happened.” It’s a gentile banquet that Peter is invited to attend in his dream.

“As I began to speak,” Peter says of their meeting, ” the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning.” It was a gentile Pentecost. He baptized the Roman soldier, his friends and his household. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but every nation is acceptable to him,” 

Did Peter truly understand where his visit to Cornelius would lead? Was the simple fisherman, who spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, who felt the pull of home, family and fishing boats, ever comfortable in a gentile world? Later, he traveled to Antioch in Syria and then to Rome, where he was killed in the Neronian persecution in the 60’s. Was he ever as confident in a gentile world as he was in his own? Was he ever completely comfortable at a gentile banquet?

Portraits of Peter in Rome usually portray him as a church leader firmly in charge of the church, holding the keys of authority tightly in hand. Clearly, he is a rock.

I saw another image of Peter years ago in the Cloisters Museum in New York. He’s softer, reflective, more experienced, not completely sure of himself. There’s a consciousness of failure in his face. He seems to be listening humbly for the voice of the Shepherd, hoping to hear it and ever surprised by the unexpected coming of the Holy Spirit.

Church leaders never fully understand the mysterious ship they’re called to steer. They have to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and look for signs of the Spirit.

Scraps from the Table: Mark 7:24-30

syro-phonecian woman

We’re reading at Mass today the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to cure her daughter. Mark 7, 24-30

My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Once when I visited home after becoming a priest I said–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”

She replied, “You don’t live her. He does. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”

I could never understand all the logic of her answer, but I gave us trying to stop her. I remember her every time this gospel is read. She put me in my place.

Maybe that’s what the Syrophoenician woman did to Jesus when she met him on his excursion north into gentile territory near Tyre.

Father John Donohue, SJ, offers an intriguing commentary on Jesus and this woman in Mark’s gospel. (The Gospel of Mark, John Donohue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Sacra Pagina), Collegeville, Minnesota 2002. ) Their meeting takes place  following the feeding of the 5,000 in Jewish territory (Mark 6, 30-44) and Jesus’ announcement to the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem that “all food is clean.” As a sign that the gentiles too would receive the Bread of Life from his hands, Jesus journeys into gentile territory to feed another 4,000. (Mark 8,1-10)

Now, you would expect him to welcome any gentile he met near Tyre, but the woman who meets Jesus alone in a house is harshly rejected when she asks him to heal her daughter. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

The woman doesn’t take no for an answer. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps, Lord.”

Matthew’s gospel, written after Mark, says the woman’s daughter was healed because of her faith. Not so, Father Donohue says. According to Mark, it was because she got the best of her argument with Jesus, the only one who does that in the gospels. “It’s not right to ignore us,” the woman says to him. Jesus heard the truth from her and accepted it.

Signs of the Kingdom

Icon of Jesus and the Centurion

12th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday (Year II)

Matthew 8:5-17

Jesus’ fame as a healer spread far and wide in Palestine, attracting not only lepers but foreigners like the Roman centurion. Jews did not associate with either group; one was “unclean,” the other was “Gentile.” Both were sources of defilement. 

Jesus tore down walls of division by his compassion towards all people regardless of race, gender, physical and psychological condition, or social status. He must have felt an affinity for the centurion who showed such an unusual compassion for his servant, for under Roman law slaves were classified with tools and chattel. An infirm slave was considered disposable. As the noble centurion reached across social boundaries to help his fellow man, Jesus transcended racial boundaries and offered to go to his Gentile home—a transgression of Jewish law— and heal his servant.

The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion’s declaration of faith astounded Jesus. The Roman did not know Christ as the Son of God, but ascribed divine power and authority to him, intuiting by his spirit that Jesus could heal at a distance.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed.

The racially exclusive court of heaven suddenly widened to include Gentiles in Jesus’ vision of the eternal Kingdom. The presumed heirs may find themselves disinherited, Jesus warned. Heaven is not a national birthright, but the universal communion of the faithful. 

After the leper and the centurion, Jesus returned to Peter’s house where he was staying and healed a third person of marginalized status in Israel—a woman. Peter’s mother-in-law immediately began to serve him as soon as she was healed of her fever. 

Jesus’ love knew no bounds as he healed every disease and infirmity. God had truly come in the flesh to reveal the secret of heaven: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11). 

As wonderful as miracles are, Jesus wanted above all to lead his people to faith in his Father: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus admonished (John 4:48). He stood immovably silent in the presence of the sensation-seeking Herod (Luke 23:8-9).

The healing of body, soul and spirit in this world is a sign of the world to come when all divisions in the Body of Christ will be healed and brought to union and communion in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the miracle of miracles.

-GMC

20th Sunday A: Scraps from the Table

 For an audio of the homily:

My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Sometimes, when I visited home after becoming a priest I’d say to her–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”

She’d reply, “You don’t live here. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”

I could never understand the logic of her answer, but I gradually gave up trying to stop her. And I remember her every time I hear this gospel,

Jews and gentiles didn’t mix in Jesus’ time and as an observant Jew from Nazareth, Jesus usually avoided eating with them and entering their homes. After his baptism in the Jordan he saw himself sent first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But then, gentiles like the Roman centurion from Capernaum and this Canaanite woman from Tyre and Sidon came to him.

Matthew’s gospel says the woman was “calling out” to him from a distance, asking him to cure her daughter, but Jesus doesn’t answer. She keeps calling out in spite of his silence. “Send her away,” his disciples say, but the woman persists and even draws nearer.

“It’s not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus finally says. But the woman’s answer has a logic of its own. “Please Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that come from their master’s table.” “ Let it be done for you as you wish,” he says and God fed her from the table.

Jesus’ answer to the woman sounds hard, doesn’t it? But sometimes doesn’t the silence of God seem just like that? A daughter’s sick, a wife is dying of cancer, a child is taken away so young. Is the woman calling out to Jesus an example that persistent prayer is always heard, even if God seems silent, even when God seems not to care?