Friday, May 9, 2014

“When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines upon you.”

If a man does what he can and is truly penitent, however often he comes to Me for grace and pardon, "As I live, saith the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live"; I will no longer remember his sins, but all will be forgiven him. -Thomas à Kempis (Imitation of Christ)

Scripture text: (ACTS 9:1-20)
Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him
for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that,
if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way,
he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
He said, “Who are you, sir?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.

There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,
and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”
But Ananias replied,
“Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man,
what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.
And here he has authority from the chief priests
to imprison all who call upon your name.”
But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine
to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,
and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”
So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus,
and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.

In our first reading today at Mass we hear perhaps the most miraculous (and certainly most imitated) story of conversion in all of human history. Paul – who is still Saul at this time – enters the story still “breathing murderous threats” against the new way of Jesus and exits it with scales falling from his eyes. It’s a complete turning around of a life that we witness today, one that requires much from Paul: openness, trust, courage, and enormous humility in admitting the prior misdirection of his life. It’s a beautiful story.

But it’s not the only beautiful thing happening in that reading. In fact, I think it’s not even the most beautiful. That’s a label I would give to the story of Ananias tucked snugly inside St. Paul’s.

I say this because it’s Ananias – who was himself going to be one of the targets of Saul’s murderous threats – who finds it possible to trust God, and not only to trust God but to forgive, and not only to forgive but to bless the very one at whose hands he would have otherwise suffered.

It must have been a shock for him to be asked by God to accept, forgive, bless one who was willing to use jail and torture to enforce religious unity. It was so much a shock that Ananias, obedient though he was willing to be, actually asked God whether he had it right, “are you sure it’s this man you want me to accept?” he asks. But despite a stammering beginning Ananias goes and accepts and forgives and blesses: “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,” he prays, “that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

We are often seduced by the instantaneous nature of Paul’s conversion – or at least I am. I feel like if I were getting this Christian life right I wouldn’t, after so many years, still have to resist the temptations to breathe my own version of murderous threats. But I do. I still do.

Which is why I think our Christian life is a lot more like Ananias’ than Paul’s. It’s not very often that scales fall from our eyes and our whole lives are turned around. Much more often what this Christian life consists in is being willing to forgive, bless, accept those who have wounded us. Much more often our task is the task of Ananias, the daily task of one who has been and is still being converted to God.

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