The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.

From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.

For the world in its present form is passing away.

(I Corinthians 7:29-31)

This year we mark 2,000 years since the birth of St. Paul the Apostle. Today we commemorate the day when St. Paul went from persecuting Christians to being a Christian.

Perhaps you noticed last week that in our second readings at Holy Mass we have begun to read from St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. We will continue reading from these letters until Ash Wednesday.

In his letters to them, St. Paul answered the Corinthian Christians’ questions. The verses we heard today come from St. Paul’s response to one of their questions.

Corinth was a very depraved pagan city. The Christians in Corinth lived among sophisticated, cosmopolitan people–sophisticated, cosmopolitan people who approved of prostitution and sodomy.

Last week, we read St. Paul’s exhortation to chastity. The Apostle reminded the Church that Holy Baptism has consecrated our bodies to Christ. We belong to the Lord. We have no right to indulge ourselves.

balt-cat

Some of the Corinthian Christians, however, reacted to the sexual self-indulgence and perversion around them by over-compensating in other direction. They were teaching that Christianity requires celibacy. So chapter seven of First Corinthians is St. Paul’s answer to this question: Does Christ require all His followers to renounce sex completely?

If you are getting nervous, don’t worry: The short answer to this question is, No. It is not a sin to get married and have children. Getting married and having children is a good thing.

There is more to St. Paul’s answer, though, as we can tell from the verses we heard a few moments ago. Yes, the Apostle insisted that marriage is good. But he also insisted that consecrated celibacy is better.

The Lord Jesus lived a celibate life. St. Paul lived a celibate life. Why? Both renounced marriage because the Kingdom of God was dawning. The turning point of history had come. As St. Paul put it in today’s reading, “The world in its present form is passing away.”

Before we go any further, let’s pause to recognize that there are different states of celibacy. Some celibate people are still young, looking forward to the possibility of marriage in the future. Some people live the single life because of particular personal circumstances. Some are not celibate by choice.

Michelangelo's Coversion of St. Paul fresco

Michelangelo’s Coversion of St. Paul fresco

Among the many celibate Christians, some of us have consecrated ourselves as celibates, like the Lord Jesus and St. Paul did. One consecrates oneself by permanently renouncing marriage and making a formal commitment to live for God’s Kingdom alone. In chapter seven of First Corinthians, St. Paul points out that this state of consecrated celibacy is at the heart of the Christian mystery.

Before his conversion to Christ, St. Paul was completely committed to defending the Old Covenant and the ancient nation of Israel. God led the people of Israel out of slavery and gave them a homeland where they could prosper and multiply. He gave them kings and priests and a Temple. In battle, God fought on their side. He gave them many sons and daughters. He Himself became a son of Abraham.

God’s promises, however, were not completely fulfilled by the Old Covenant. After his conversion, St. Paul saw how it was not possible for the Israelites to be happy on earth, no more so than any other nation could be. Even though Israel was the Chosen People, the Israelites still sinned, and they still suffered. The Old Covenant was never meant to be permanent.

Christ came and revealed that all of God’s promises would be fulfilled in heaven. God’s Kingdom is not of this world. The New and everlasting Covenant is eternal life in heaven. On the road to Damascus, St. Paul perceived all this for the first time.

The Lord Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven. We will live forever in glory and never die. We will all be bound together by the pure love of God. There will be one family, perfectly united in Christ. Everyone will belong to everyone; there will be no jealousy, no misunderstanding, no selfishness. Consecrated celibacy on earth bears witness to all these realities of heaven.

God does not ask all Christians to consecrate themselves as celibates. But all Christians must live by the light that consecrated celibacy shines. Life on earth is short, eternity is long. We have no lasting city here. We are pilgrims on our way to a better place.

So, as St. Paul wrote, we should use this world—but not use it fully. If we buy something, we remember that we do not really own it. If we are happy now—or sad now—we remember that it will pass. If we marry, it is until death—not forever.

Time is running out. The bell will toll for each of us before we know it. So, yes: Let us be good and diligent citizens of our city, our nation, our planet earth. If you are young, get married if you want to, have lots of children, and raise them up to be good Christians.

But let’s not get too comfortable here.

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