Friday in the Third Week of Easter
Acts 9:1ff. On the road to Damascus, the persecutor Saul becomes a disciple of the Way.
John 6:52ff. A promise of life: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
(Or: optional memorial of Our Lady of Fatima. Is 61:9-11; Lk 11:27-28)
Persecutor to Promoter
St Paul’s conversion is here presented for the first of three times in the Acts of the Apostles (see also 22:4-26; 26:12-18). Here it highlights the movement of the church beyond Judaism to the gentile world. This account is preceded in Acts by the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by deacon Philip and then followed by the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius. Both the Ethiopian and Cornelius were baptized without going through the full procedures of becoming Jews by circumcision and by accepting the Jewish dietary laws. The conversion of these foreigners shared an important feature with Saul’s conversion. Each took place because of special, miraculous intervention by God.
The Ethiopian was drawn to Christianity through his reading about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah Chapter 53. Philip explains the passage in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now in Paul’s case these same passages from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant describe the vocation of this new apostle. Jesus, in appearing to Ananias and instructing him to baptize Paul, draws ideas and phrases from the Servant Songs and applies them to Paul. Conversion, therefore, meant a sharing in the silent death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus, and in that order, first death, then new life.
Up till now Paul had been persecuting the Church, in Jerusalem and now (he had thought) in Damascus. His conversion, however, would bring an entirely new type of suffering to the small group of disciples. In becoming an apostle to the gentiles, Paul insisted that it was not necessary to be circumcised nor to follow Mosaic laws like those for food and drink, in order to be a follower of Jesus. This action on Paul’s part split the Church right down the center. The controversy comes to the surface in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians and in a later chapter in Acts. Paul, therefore, was considered a traitor by his own Jewish family and coreligionists, and he was to be isolated and calumniated even by his Christian community. When Jesus announced to Ananias that Paul “will have to suffer for my name,” he was referring not just to Paul’s eventual martyrdom in Rome but even more to a life of martyrdom within his own Church!
Membership of family and church bring the greatest joy but they can also spell the most intense pain. Such was the case for Paul and for Jesus. Against this background of family life and death, of family joy and pain, we can reread Jesus’ words. “… eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood I will raise up on the last day … who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in that person … will have life because of me.” The eucharistic bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, is closely associated with Jesus death, with “my body broken for you … my blood which will be shed for you” (Luke 22:19-20).
Because Jesus was so thoroughly immersed in the Jewish race (born of Abraham and of the family of David, as we learn in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38), neither he nor his Jewish community could ignore one another. They were bound together like members of a family. Even after Jesus was handed over to the Romans by the high court of the Sanhedrin and executed, his disciples continued to live and worship as faithful Jews. The Eucharist was celebrated privately at home. The love-hate relationship of every family existed here. The ones who brought the greatest joy inflicted the most intense pain! And on one another!
Wherever then we bring the good news of Jesus and the family love of the Eucharist, we are also instruments of suffering. Our lives are intertwined as closely as flesh and blood. Blood brings the strength and vigor for flesh to suffer crucifixion. Flesh keeps the blood circulating within a single body where we are all united.
Once Paul was converted, both he and the Church took the consequences. Each would suffer the effect of the other’s gifts, insights and apostolate. And as each one is strengthened further by Jesus’ eucharistic bread come down from heaven, each will be clearer in insights, more forceful in demands and expectations, even more impatient at the slow or indifferent reaction of others. This process of life, into death, for a new and greater life is the story of Jesus, Paul and each of us.
First Reading: Acts 9:1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lordsaid to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Gospel: John 6:52-59
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.