Homilies - June 2011

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Saints Peter and Paul: June 29, 2011 by Fr. James

Saints Peter and Paul

  • June 29, 2011
  • by Fr. James

When St. Peter is depicted in Christian art, whether in statues or paintings, he is usually shown with several keys. The reason for this is obvious: as we just heard in the Gospel, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Symbols associated with St. Paul are not quite so obvious. When we see statues or paintings of him, he is often shown holding a book in one hand and a sword in the other. The symbolism of the book is clear enough, for Paul was the great proclaimer of the word of God to the Gentiles and was, indeed, the author of many writings within the New Testament. But why the sword? This symbol began to be associated with Paul in Christian art only in the tenth century, and even today art historians aren’t sure exactly why. Some say it was because Paul (also known by his Hebrew name Saul) had been a persecutor of Christians, pursuing them with sword-wielding fury. Others say it is because of the well-known phrase in the Letter to the Hebrews—long thought to have been written by Paul himself—about the word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword. Still others claim that the symbol of the sword was chosen because Paul is traditionally thought to have been martyred by being beheaded, something referred to in the solemn blessing that will conclude this feastday Mass. It’s possible that all three motives, or even more, were at play. For us, the interesting and important point is to understand why Paul changed from having been a truly fanatical persecutor of the Church to the person who, more than anyone else, ensured that the Christian movement did not remain a Jewish sect but became what we today call “a world religion.” The short answer to that question is that he had met the Lord Jesus as he was on the way to Damascus to arrest still more followers of Christ. Having heard the Lord speaking to him, he immediately ceased being a feared persecutor, although he did spend some years in retirement before beginning the first of his several missionary journeys.

That conversion, that “turning around,” really did require something extraordinary to bring it about, for there could hardly have been anyone more committed to the practice of the Mosaic Law than was Paul at that time. Even today we can sense the force of that law and tradition in the life and practice of Orthodox Jews, who, among many other things, will not drive a car on the Sabbath, let no food pass their lips that isn’t kosher, and insist that any of their male children be circumcised. Or to give another example, when we invite a person of that persuasion to give our annual T.V. Moore Lecture, as we sometimes do, we have to assure the speaker that the lecture will not take place until after sunset on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Such is the force of tradition, but such, too, is the force of a personal experience of Christ Jesus, of hearing words such as, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And if we have not shown a zeal even remotely approaching Paul’s in the latter part of his life, when he could actually say to the Philippians that he had accepted the loss of all things and considered them so much rubbish—things and practices that he had once valued more than life itself—if we have not shown such zeal, at least let us not take refuge in claiming that we haven’t heard what Paul heard on the road to Damascus. After all, we have heard far more words of Christ in the course of our lives than Paul ever heard that day, words such as “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” or “Pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father,” or “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and all these other things will be given you.”

For that reason, perhaps the best way of celebrating the feast of today’s two great saints would be to consider carefully what are the things that might be preventing us from seeking first the kingdom of heaven, what are the things to which we might be attached as fiercely as Paul was once attached to the Jewish Law, and then honestly ask ourselves whether we really think such things are going to bring us lasting happiness. Let us remember, too, that the Lord who comes to us in Communion is the very same Lord who spoke to Paul that day, and let us be silent and reflective enough to perceive what he might be saying to us about the direction of our lives and whether there might be a way that would take us even more directly and securely to the only goal that ultimately matters, of which Paul says elsewhere that eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him.

Abbot James Wiseman
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