5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
[Christ] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once […] After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.
As St. Paul was traveling to Damascus in order to persecute the Church of Christ there, he experienced a most unique encounter with the Risen Jesus. As this event changed his own life, so too did it change both the Church and the world forever – since it was through St. Paul that God brought the Gospel to the nations.
However, what exactly was this encounter on the way to Damascus? Is St. Paul’s experience comparable to a vision? Did Jesus appear to St. Paul in the same way that he appeared to St.Faustina, for example? Or in the same way that he has appeared to many of the saints throughout history?
Upon consideration, we will see that St. Paul’s experience was most unique – something which will not be repeated until the end of time. And this is why the Apostle says that he was as one born abnormally, because an event like this apparition will never happen again.
When Christ appeared to St. Peter, and when he appeared to St. Paul
St. Paul puts his own experience of the Risen Lord in the context of Christ’s appearance to Cephas and the other disciples. Cephas is, of course, none other than St. Peter himself – since Cephas is the Aramaic translation of the Greek name Petros, both meaning “Rock”.
The appearance of Christ to St. Paul must indeed be on par with those apparitions granted to the other apostles, since St. Paul is surely an apostle just as they. One of the things required to be a true apostle – in the most strict sense of the word – is to have known Christ in his proper species (i.e. in his natural body on earth). However, it is clear that St. Paul did not know Jesus during the time before the Ascension.
Nevertheless, when St. Paul enumerates the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the Apostle lists his own experience on the way to Damascus among these apparitions. Just as Christ appeared to St. Peter on the first Easter Sunday, so too did our Lord appear to St. Paul many years later on the way to Damascus.
This claim is quite bold and truly quite surprising. For St. Paul is stating that, even though our Lord had already ascended into heaven, the apparition which he experienced of the Risen Christ is of the same category as those given to St. Peter and the others before the Ascension.
The bodily apparition of our Savior – not a vision
From this, it is clear, we must assert that St. Paul did not have a “vision” on the road to Damascus. It was no mere intellectual or imaginative “vision” – a purely mental reality. Rather, just as our Savior appeared in his true and proper body before the other apostles, so too did our Lord reveal his natural and proper body to St. Paul.
Consider the commentary of the learned Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide:
“It appears from this verse that Christ appeared to Paul, not by an angel, as Haymo thinks (Comment. on Apocalypse, c. ii.), but in person; not in a vision, as He appeared to him in Acts xxii. 18, nor in a trance, as is recorded in 2 Cor. xii. 2, but in the air in bodily form; for it was in this way that Christ appeared to Cephas, James, and the other Apostles; moreover, if it were any other kind of appearance it would be no proof of the resurrection of Christ. The appearance of Christ alluded to here is the one at Paul’s conversion (Acts ix. 3), when he saw Christ before the bright light blinded him.”
From this fact – that Jesus appeared in his one, natural body in which he had been crucified and which had risen and ascended into heaven – another follows:
“Hence it further appears that Christ then descended from heaven, for, as S. Thomas and others say, S. Paul heard the voice of Christ speaking in the air.”
This is precisely the great mystery of St. Paul’s election as an apostle – the Lord Jesus returned from heaven to the earth in his proper, physical, and natural body and appeared to the Apostle in just the same manner as he had appeared to the Magdalene outside the tomb.
This will never happen again, until the end of time
Speaking of the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (CCC 659):
“So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. Christ's body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys. But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity.
“Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God's right hand.
“Only in a wholly exceptional and unique way would Jesus show himself to Paul as to one untimely born, in a last apparition that established him as an apostle.”
This is what is most unique about the apparition to St. Paul, this is what makes it “wholly exceptional and unique” – the Lord’s body which was in heaven returned to the earth so as to elect Paul as the special vessel of his grace.
And now it should be clear that the apparition to St. Paul is radically diverse from every other vision granted to the saints. For, even if our Savior has sometimes manifested his Sacred Humanity to visionaries and mystics, we simply cannot possibly think that his body came from heaven to earth in its proper and natural state. This would be the Second Coming!
Rather, whenever a mystic seems to speak as though he has “touched” or “seen” the physical and proper body of Jesus (i.e. Christ in his proper species as he walked upon the earth and appeared after the Resurrection), we must understand this to be only a vision. For none other than St. Paul has seen the proper, natural, and physical body of Christ after the manner of the Resurrection appearances.
This is why St. Paul is an Apostle – because he saw the risen Lord just as did St. Peter and the rest. But this is also what makes him as an abnormal or untimely birth – he saw the risen Jesus in this most unique and exceptional way, for the Lord returned a second time to earth not to be seen by all (as he will in the Second Coming) but only to be seen by this one whom he would consecrate as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
St. Paul, pray for us!