Friday, February 8, 2013

What St. Paul saw on the road to Damascus, and what mystics see

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!


Marko Ivančičević said...

It is obscure to me. Our Lord shewn Himself in His glorified body to Paul(like on the day of Transfiguration)?

Tom said...

Does this analysis apply to the Blessed Mother as well? For example when she appeared at Fatima did the children see her actually as though she came from heaven or did they merely imagine her in the same way the mystics see Christ?

optime said...

Such a high privilege! It also helps to understand the reason he had to carry so heavy Crosses during his life: To whom much is given, much is required.

bill russell said...

The term "appeared" in Corinthians is ambiguous: the detailed account in Acts speaks only of a light and a voice, and does not mention a physical form. Aquinas thus says in the Adoro Te: Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,: Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (to paraphrase, seeing not believing - only hearing is to be believed.) While Mary Magdalen did see Christ's physical body, only the voice persuaded her. - This is why the great artistic depictions do not show Christ' body but only the blinding light.

Clinton R. said...

Oh how the infinite wisdom of God is apparent in the conversion of St. Paul. To take a staunch persecutor of the Church and lead him to become an Apostle who suffered greatly for the Faith.

Sancte Paule, ora pro nobis

Spiritual Image said...

It is a very inspiring story of St. Paul. I hope more people will be inspired just as it inspired me.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Ryan,

Thank you for this posting. Have you ever considered or heard discussed the idea that Saul of Tarsus could have seen Jesus in or around the Temple before the crucifixion? Saul was a student of Gamaliel who was a leading scholar in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Also since he was seemingly in charge of the execution of Stephen less than two years after the crucifixion of Christ, he probably had been on the scene for quite a while before that. I realize this is total speculation, but intriguing all the same. What if Saul was involved in some of the debates the pharisees had with and about Jesus?

blessings on your ministry,

- Mark

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While it is true that the word "appeared" in and of itself would not lead us to necessarily conclude that Saul saw the physical body of Jesus ... the context makes this more than abundantly clear -- for St Paul sets his own encounter with the risen Christ on exactly the same level as that of Peter and the rest.

Thus, it could not merely have been a light ... no, it was a true apparition of the risen body of Jesus.

Further, the hymn of St. Thomas is speaking about Jesus' presence in the Eucharist -- a sacramental presence ... here we are speaking of the post-Resurrection apparitions.
While it is the same body and the same person present, he is present according to different modes -- hence your comparison fails.

In any case ... the Fathers and Doctors of the Church say that Jesus appeared in his proper physical body to St. Paul ... the Catechism teaches the same.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Not so much like at the Transfiguration ... rather, like at the Resurrection.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Interesting idea ... however, I think it pretty unlikely that Saul would have ever seen Jesus.
In fact, he was not really the leader in the execution of Stephen but was simply a young man who was standing by and was obviously in accord with the murder -- clearly he was known as a persecutor of Christians, but it is unlikely that he had any direct involvement in the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I find it quite notable that St. Paul never states that he saw Jesus (excepting in this apparition).

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

Feb. 9th...But if Jesus appeared physically, in His humanity as when He walked the earth, why didn't those with St. Paul see Him?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anon, please have the courtesy to use a pseudonym.

In any case, do you forget that not all saw and recognized Jesus in the resurrection appearances? Did he not vanish from sight? Did he not change his form?
Is it that hard to imagine that such would have happened in this case?

Marko Ivančičević said...

From your comment i concur that Christ revealed His glory more perfectly in Transfiguration than in Resurrection.

Are you thinking of the very moment of Resurrection or events postceding it? Iconography allways shows the Resurrection as a glorious event. Did Our Lord truly "let out" some of His glory at the very moment of Resurrection and then "toned it down" a bit for the upcoming events and encounters? Is there a distinction in "looks" of Christ's Body in the moment of Resurrection and after the moment?

James Joseph said...

It seems to me to reconcile why Peter and Paul has the two Apostles together in the Confiteor.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Mr. Russell: One is not constrained to adopt a particular idea if the fullness of truth is apprehended:

John 20:17

Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Fr. Did Our Lady appear nearly twenty times physically - eighteen, I think it was - in the Grotto of Massabielle?

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