Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Conversion of St. Paul January 25th

Yes, this is a re-run.


When the Lord appeared to Saul, and made him an eyewitness of the resurrection, many things changed in his understanding. His righteous act of persecuting the Church was revealed to have been the sin of persecuting the Messiah himself, his own self-attained righteousness was shown to be a delusion, the curse that was evident in the manner of Jesus’ death was revealed to be atonement paid by the Righteous one for the many sinners, thus taking away the curse from those who deserved it, and the prophecies of scripture were revealed to have been speaking of two comings of Messiah, not one. How much of this was clear immediately and how much had to develop over time as he thought about it, is not clear. But, right away, in his conversion, is the revelation that would become Paul’s bold teaching about faith in Jesus Christ and the grace that he gives, himself our only Salvation.


Every winter on January 25th traditional churches celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. On that day we remember the story recorded in the Book of Acts, the history of how the persecutor of the Church saw the risen Lord Jesus Christ and became a convinced preacher of the Gospel. And, as we remember the conversion of the Apostle, we are presented with a puzzle that requires a little bit of explanation. The traditional calendar contains four colors, one of which applies to every day of the year (sometimes two colors on certain days).

White is the Lord’s color, and it is used as well for saints who are not martyrs. But, for saints who are martyrs the color is red; and Saint Paul is a martyr, for he was beheaded in Rome. The puzzle is that white, not red, is the color for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. White, the color for the Lord himself, is proper to such times as Christmas, the Annunciation, or Easter. But, the Church long ago decided that white was the appropriate color for this day. If we figure out that puzzle, and meditate on its meaning, we have the answer to the biggest challenge facing the Christian message in our own day and age.

The current challenge to the truth of the Gospel, coming from a school of philosophy that pretends to be a school of science, stretching from Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins, has to do with an evaluation of what sort of God, God ought to be. The challenge may seem to be an apologetic against Intelligent Design, since that is how it is being presented currently. However, it goes back to the days of Darwin, who considered the world as it is to be less than practical and efficient. The argument has developed along lines of philosophy, particularly of Ethics (part of the larger discipline of Philosophy). It contains criticism of such details as the design, or rather (seeing that it is difficult to come up with a phrase to fit the argument) the shape and form of the human back.

What the argument boils down to is simply this: If the universe were designed, it ought to have been designed better, so as to be more congenial to the people who have to live in it. Therefore, it could not have been designed. This assumes that the critics of God, those who have placed Him in, as C.S. Lewis put it, the dock, are correct about what would be the best way to go about making a world and its creatures. And, assuming their way is the better way, the argument is one of Ethics, that God ought to have made a better world, one that gives more consideration to our needs, and that demonstrates kindness on the Creator’s part. Furthermore, the whole scheme of this Ethics argument depends upon the Christian and Jewish paradigm of goodness. It requires, to summarize the Torah, not doing what is odious to others, as Hillel taught, and doing to others what we would have them do to us, as Jesus Christ taught.

Because this argument is about what kind of God, God ought to be, it is based on conjecture and speculation. Therefore, it places everything in a context that is theoretical, and being theoretical, concerned with logic based upon assumption, or even a kind of reasoning. What if, however, the Christian message is not based on any theory about how the world ought to be, what sort of designer the Creator should have been, or any other concept? What if we should brush aside all that is theoretical and speculative in favor of something evidentiary that is rooted in fact?

The Church’s use of white for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul points to the answer, summoning to the mind very strong accounts of reported history as contained in the Bible. It points to the testimony of eyewitness, in some cases to the testimony of martyrs. The message does not claim to answer any questions about what the Creator ought to have done, but instead it reveals how he has intervened in human affairs. It is fact based, not logic based. That is, it does not come to us as a result of reasoning through to a conclusion, but of accepting reports of fact. The only use of logic that we may use, in this case, begins with the facts rather than with mere conjecture.

We have been given a set of facts that rightly include both revelation and history. Revelation, because God has acted in such a way that the truth has been made known; and history, because the facts are recorded as eyewitness accounts. Testimony of this type constitutes evidence, and the record of it constitutes history, both of which are far more in the nature of science than of philosophy. The Christian message treats as irrelevant arguments that place God in the dock and judge His existence by the conjecture of a system of Ethics. Instead, it simply states a testimony, that of the eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus Christ.

From the facts of their testimony we draw logical conclusions about the sort of God that God is, rather than trying to figure out what He should be. So, we come to what may be called “The Gospel according to Paul.” This is in the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians, vs. 1-11. In this passage he declares to them the Gospel he had preached to them, and urges them to be faithful to it. After reminding them that Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose the third day, all in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, Paul gives a list of several eyewitnesses who saw the Risen Christ. All of these witnesses saw Him between the first Easter and the day of His Ascension. That is, except for one. The last witness who saw the resurrected Christ was Saint Paul himself, significantly later than the others.

The last appearance was to Saul on the road to Damascus, the day of the conversion of Saint Paul. The traditional celebration calls for white as the Lord’s color, white for Easter, though it falls in the season of Epiphany. It is Easter out of season, because of Paul’s own words: “And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” (v.8) The Church is teaching us that this day, the day of Paul’s conversion, is about the Risen Christ. And, not simply about Him in a theoretical sense, but in a historical sense. He was seen alive after His death, and the Gospel is not complete without the proclamation that witnesses gave us this testimony, reporting facts rather than trying to figure out answers to philosophical problems.

We are certain that in those facts every philosophical question can finally be answered. But, the Christian message is not that we can figure out what God ought to be like, and then pronounce a verdict either on Him or His existence. The Christian message is the Gospel as preached by eyewitnesses who proclaimed the revelation of God in Christ as historical fact, a testimony that was worth dying for. In this sense, the Christian Gospel is far more a matter of fact and history than it is of philosophy. To those who want to begin with their opinions and speculations, the answer of the Church is that we begin elsewhere; we begin with the facts. This testimony of the eyewitnesses is why, if you enter a traditional church on January 25th, you will see the priest and the altar vested in white.


Canon Tallis said...

Father Hart,

I think that a better case can be made for the Lord's colour being red and not white. Please check Isaiah 63. 1. which is easy to find as it is the Lesson for the Epistle on Monday Before Easter. "Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save. Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the wine-fat? I have trodden the wine-press alone, and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments and I will stain all my raiment."

There is also a verse from Genesis 49. 10-11: "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes; . . ." I believe that these verses are the reason that Lord's day was most commonly kept in red in the use of Sarum, which use alone was left standing in England and Wales at the time when the first English prayer book was introduced.

I would also like to point out that our Lord's appearance to Saul was not the last recorded in the New Testament. That, I believe, would be his appearance to St John as recorded in Revelation. I realize that which is written there some find very difficult and tend to avoid it, but as part of canonical scripture we have to deal with it.

These quibbles being made, my parish also follows the ancient use of the English Churches and tomorrow will be vested in white because we have likewise come "out of great tribulation," and washed our robes "and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Rev. 7.14)(But also see Rev. 19. 11-14.)
But the most important point, the climax of all, is my great gratitude that you and this blog work so marvelously to see that we continue "stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship . . ." so that we by His grace may merit to follow Him who "is called The Word of God" "clothed in fine linen, white and clean."

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I certainly have no problem with the appearances of the Lord in Revelation (even though he deliberately surrounded himself with symbolic items when he appeared to John in this Old Testament style vision). Furthermore, we know that the Lord appeared one more time to St. Paul when he was praying in the temple, suggesting that the Ascension is akin to what today we might call "sliding" into a parallel universe. He is not far away, but has stepped into another dimension as easily as walking into another room; and it seems from his appearances to Paul, that he comes and goes at will.

But, St. Paul singles out the appearance of the Lord to him as he went to Damascus, making it the same sort of appearance, somehow, that we see in the last chapters of each Gospel. Perhaps, this is because it had to do with establishing the Gospel message in that early period, and also establishing St. Paul as an apostle like the others who saw the Risen Christ.

My main point, of course, is that the emphasis for this day is on the Risen Christ himself, and his appearance to eyewitnesses. We have another day for Paul himself.

(What you say about red and white could get you into trouble with the Ordo Calender people. Let us hope they do not conduct their affairs like Vito Corleone.)