Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
We have already seen how the Gentiles, in the person of the Three Magi, offered their mystic gifts to the Divine Child of Bethlehem, and received from Him in return the precious gifts of Faith, Hope and Charity. The harvest is ripe; it is time for the reaper to come. But who is to be God's laborer? The Apostles of Christ are still living under the very shadow of Mount Sion. All of them have received the mission to preach the gospel of salvation to the uttermost parts of the world; but not one among them has as yet received the special character of Apostle of the Gentiles. St. Peter, is sent especially, as was Christ Himself, to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel (Matt. 15: 24). And yet, as he is the Head and the Foundation, it belongs to him to open the door of Faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14: 26); which he solemnly does by conferring Baptism on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.
But the Church is to have one more Apostle, an Apostle for the Gentiles; and he is to be the fruit of the martyrdom and prayer of St. Stephen. Saul, a citizen of Tarsus, has not seen Christ in the flesh, and yet Christ alone can make an Apostle. It is then from Heaven, where He reigns impassible and glorified, that Jesus will call Saul to be His disciple, just as, during the period of His active life, He called the fishermen of Genesareth to follow Him and hearken to His teachings. The Son of God will raise Saul up to the Third Heaven, and there will reveal to him all His mysteries: and when Saul, having come down again to this earth, shall have seen Peter, and compared his Gospel with that recognized by Peter, he can say, in all truth, that he is an Apostle of Christ Jesus (Galatians), and that he has done nothing less than the great Apostles (2 Cor. 11: 5).
It is on this glorious day of the Conversion of Saul, who is soon to change his name into Paul, that this great work is commenced. It is on this day that there is heard the Almighty voice which breaketh the cedars of Libanus (Ps. 28: 5), and can make a persecuting Jew become first a Christian and then an Apostle. This admirable transformation had been prophesied by Jacob, when upon his deathbed he unfolded to each of his sons the future of the tribe of which he was to be the father. Juda was to have the precedence of honor; from his royal race was to be born the Redeemer, the Expected of nations. Benjamin's turn came; his glory is not be compared with that of his brother, Juda, and yet it was to be very great—for from his tribe is to be born Paul, the Apostle of the Gentile nations.
These are the words of the dying Prophet: Benjamin, a ravenous wolf, in the morning shall eat the prey, and in the evening shall divide the spoil (Gen. 49: 27). Who, says an ancient writer, is he that in the morning of impetuous youth goes like a wolf in pursuit of the sheep of Christ, breathing threats and slaughter against them? Is it not Saul on the road to Damascus, the bearer and doer of the high-priest's orders, and stained with the blood of St. Stephen, whom he has stoned by the hands of all those over whose garments he kept watch? And he who in the evening, not only does not despoil, but with a charitable and peaceful hand breaks to the hungry the bread of life—is it not Paul, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Apostle of Christ, burning with zeal for his brethren, making himself all to all, and wishing even to be an anathema for their sakes?
Oh the power of our dear Jesus! How wonderful! How irresistible! He wishes that the first worshipers at His Crib should be humble Shepherds—and He invites them by His Angels, whose sweet hymn was enough to lead these simple-hearted men to the Stable, where, in swaddling-clothes, He lies Who is the Hope of Israel. He would have the Gentile Princes, the Magi, do Him homage—and bids a star to arise in the heavens, whose mysterious apparition, joined to the interior speaking of the Holy Ghost, induces these men of desire to come from the East, and lay at the feet of a humble Babe their riches and their hearts. When the time is come for forming the Apostolic College, he approaches the banks of the Sea of Tiberias, and with this single word: Follow Me, He draws after Him such as He wishes to have as His Disciples. In the midst of all the humiliations of His Passion, He has but to look at the unfaithful Peter, and Peter is a penitent. Today, it is from Heaven that He evinces His power: all the mysteries of our Redemption have been accomplished, and He wishes to show mankind that He is the sole Author and Master of the Apostolate, and that His alliance with the Gentiles is now perfect. He speaks; the sound of His reproach bursts like thunder over the head of this hot Pharisee, who is bent on annihilating the Church; He takes this heart of the Jew, and by His grace, turns it into the heart of the Apostle, the Vessel of election, the Paul who is afterwards to say of himself: I live now, not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. 2: 20).
The commemoration of this great event was to be a Feast in the Church, and it had a right to be kept as near as might be to the one which celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen; for St. Paul is the Protomartyr's convert. The anniversary of his martyrdom would, of course, have to be solemnized at the summer solstice; where, then, place the Feast of his Conversion if not near Christmas, and thus our own Apostle would be at Jesus' Crib, and Stephen's side? Moreover, the Magi could claim him, as being the conqueror of that Gentile world, of which they were the first fruits.
And lastly, it was necessary, in order to give the court of our Infant King its full beauty, that the two Princes of the Church—the Apostle of the Jews, and the Apostle of the Gentiles—should stand close to the mystic Crib; St. Peter with his Keys, and St. Paul with his Sword. Bethlehem thus becomes the perfect figure of the Church, and the riches of this season of the Cycle are abundant beyond measure.