“He who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High
will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients.”
Epiphany, the great 17th century Bishop of Durham, John Cosin, notes, turns our thoughts from considering “His coming in the flesh that was God” to “His being God that was come in the flesh”; in short, “to turn ourselves from his humanity below to his divinity above.” The entire season of Epiphany, whether short or long, is about teaching and learning. The gifts of the Magi-Kings are “sacred gifts of mystic meaning” that teach us about the one to whom they are given.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany presents us with the utterly unique story from Luke’s Gospel of the boy Jesus being “found in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” “Did ye not know,” Jesus says to Mary and Joseph, “that I must be about my Father’s business?” Something divine is revealed in and through his humanity. The Epistle reading that accompanies that Gospel provided one of Fr. Crouse’s favourite and frequent scriptural texts, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds”. Epiphany is emphatically about such transformative teaching.
Epiphany, too, is the season of miracles but they also teach us about the divine will and purpose for our humanity. Not just miracles of healing and wholeness but the real reason for the restoration and redemption of our humanity is signaled in the Gospel story for The Second Sunday after the Epiphany in the story of the water turned into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. We lack the wine of divinity in ourselves but Christ seeks our social joys not just providing for us but seeking the very best for us which is ultimately accomplished in the hour of his passion and death. Our humanity finds its real truth and dignity in communion with God in Christ without whom we have no wine. We are empty and lost. Epiphany in every way teaches us about God’s will for our humanity. Our thoughts are turned to Christ’s divinity above without which we are bereft below, empty and in despair, having lost our humanity.
What, then, are we to make of The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on this Sunday which is also The Third Sunday after Epiphany? Well, it, too, belongs to the logic of the Epiphany and so the Prayer Book appoints that if The Conversion of St. Paul falls on a Sunday in the Epiphany Season, as it occasionally does and has this year, then it is to be celebrated. In other words, The Conversion of St. Paul is an epiphany, too, and a very dramatic epiphany, we might say. It makes known or manifests conversion as transformation and speaks to the realization of our humanity as found in communion with God in Christ. It is about regaining our humanity. It brings out wondrously and clearly the Christian idea that our humanity finds the fullness of its truth and dignity in communion with Christ, with the God made man.
That means, I think, a deeper understanding not just of the Christian Faith itself but the nature of its engagement with other cultures and religions. The story of Paul’s conversion, after all, is pretty explicit about the collision between the cultures of Greece, Israel and Rome. About to be killed by the enraged mob of Jews who drag him from the temple, he is rescued by the Roman authorities who in turn suspect him of being a terrorist intent on overturning the rule of Rome. The Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures commits a most astounding misread of the Greek word used in Acts by the Roman tribune, Claudius Lysius, who asks Paul if he is “the Egyptian” who “recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness”. It reveals the collision of cultures which still bedevils us but the word ‘Assassins’ belongs to the 11th century and to a radical militant group of Shia Muslims in Syria more than a thousand years after the events of Paul’s story.
No. Acts uses a word found nowhere else in the New Testament, a word more frequently found in the writings of the great Jewish historian, Josephus, who is writing about the same time as Paul and the Evangelists. The term is sicarii, referring to a radical off-shoot of the Zealots who used a sica, a short curved dagger to kill Romans and Jews sympathetic to Roman rule over Israel. The sicarii are the ancestors, I suppose, of the assassins and, as an author on the knights Templar observes, “of the suicide-bombers of Hezbollah”. Ancient and modern terrorism conspire to give religion the colour of violence. Paradoxically, Paul’s conversion is his change from being a persecutor to witness and suffering; the persecutor even becomes the persecuted.
There are three accounts of his conversion in The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, a book which John Donne, echoing John Chrysostom, notes could just as easily be called “the Book of the Acts of Paul so conversant it is with his life”. It is, undeniably, the first book of church history and Paul’s story is absolutely crucial to that history. It is not for nothing that he is often regarded as the second founder of Christianity. With Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ goes global. With Paul, too, the Christian Scriptures come to birth. His writings, earlier than the Gospels, it seems, comprise the largest part of the New Testament. Without Paul, no Christianity, we might say. It is our privilege to commemorate his witness to Christ which is the meaning of his conversion. Saul undergoes the great transformation from “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” as Luke so concisely and vividly puts it, to becoming the great preacher of Christ and the Apostle to the Gentiles. It is quite a story and altogether worthy of being presented to us three times in Acts.
Losing our humanity. In the very ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest literary work known to our humanity, Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero of the epic, attracts the attention of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, a strange and yet not so strange combination. The ziggurat in Ur, the city of Gilgamesh, is under her patronage. She is, well, a force to be reckoned with. She sees Gilgamesh, this gorgeous hunk of a man, and, to put it bluntly, she wants him for her boy toy. Gilgamesh refuses and in a spirited way that goes to the whole point of the epic. Not just todesfurcht, the epic of the fear of death, as Rilke noted, but the beginnings of the struggle to understand what it means to be human. It is bound up in our relation to the divine but what kind of divinity?
Gilgamesh refuses her because he knows that to become her consort means the loss of his humanity. He knows that any dalliance with Ishtar results in being turned into an animal of one sort or another; animality eclipses the rationality of our humanity. The whole epic launches us onto the beginning of that great quest to understand what it means to be human. It is the quest for wisdom and it means understanding our mortality. It raises the question about our relation to the divine. Somehow to know your mortality is already at least the beginnings of the possibility of something transcendent, something which the later riches of ancient thought will discover. But not without some other interesting forms of the loss of our humanity.
The Greeks in their myths and stories present us with no end of examples of the confusion of rationality and animality. They result in monsters such as the minotaur or the Sphinx. But there is another story which is equally quite suggestive of the loss of humanity and in ways that speak to the contemporary world. It is the story of Ganymede, a handsome lad who is viewed as such by the Olympian deities who desire him to serve at their banquets. He is, perhaps, the first example, of the celebrated notion of transportation seen in Star Trek. He is the first, like Scotty, to be “beamed up”. But it means that he becomes an automaton, a kind of robot, a machine. He loses his humanity.
Now, time and ability do not permit to examine the myriad forms of the loss of our humanity in the course of the history of literature and ideas. Dante, above all others, chronicles brilliantly the loss of our humanity in the depiction of the souls in the Inferno of his Divine Comedy all of whom in their several ways “have lost the good of intellect”. His account reveals a very sophisticated understanding of human character and personality derived from the intersection of pagan and Christian thought.
But the examples of the loss of our humanity reveal two tendencies: either the loss of our humanity occurs through becoming animal or mechanical. In each case, too, there is the question about our relation to the divine.
This brings us to complexities of contemporary culture about what it means to be human.
In 1749, the year Cornwallis founded Halifax, a French rationalist, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, wrote Man a Machine, celebrating man not as a soul or spirit but as just a complicated machine. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, signaled the romantic reaction against such mechanical reasoning; Frankenstein is the scientist who creates the creature. The monster is really us. As the poet, philosopher, literary critic and Kentucky Farmer, Wendell Berry remarks, “the next great division of the world [may well] be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” You know there is a problem when Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, tells a graduating class: “Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us.”
You know there is a problem, too, when Stephen Hawking can say that the future of man is to become a machine. Not an animal, but a machine. What does this mean in contemporary culture? Techno-gnosticism, I am afraid to say, the idea that we might somehow transcend our humanity by becoming some sort of digital app. In this brave new world of confusion about identity, sexual or otherwise, the question is the biblical question which lies behind the Conversion of St. Paul, “what is man that thou art mindful of him?” What does it mean to be human? All of the forms of the loss of our humanity have to do with how we think about things.
As the brilliant and eccentric Slovakian philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek reminds us, “catastrophe is not our ecological ruin, but the loss of home-roots which renders possible the ruthless exploitation of the earth. Catastrophe is not that we are reduced to automata manipulated by biogenetics but the very approach which renders this prospect possible.” The catastrophe “is not the atomic self-destruction of humanity, but the relation to nature which reduces it to its techno-scientific exploitation.” In short, we are the catastrophe. Our problems, our fears and worries, have entirely to do with how we think about what it means to be truly human.
Epiphany speaks to the Christian answer, or at least to the Christian way of addressing the question. We are neither simply animals, qua the biologists, nor machines, qua the physicists, digital or otherwise. Something of what it means to be human is found instead in our relation to the God who cares, the God who cares to be engaged with our humanity. Therein lies our transformation, our change into what it truly means to be human. Paul discovers this in such an intense and personal way that it changed the course of history. We have, perhaps, forgotten what he learned on the road to Damascus. Perhaps we can learn again.
The conversion of Paul is a break-through of the understanding, the most marvellous epiphany of what it means to “be transformed in the renewing of our minds”. His witness is there for us to grasp again. It means paradoxically “seek[ing] the wisdom of the ancients.” Only so can we become moderni, ourselves. In the Christian understanding, it means that our humanity finds its truth in our relation to God in Jesus Christ. Such is the burden of Paul’s conversion.
“He who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High
will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients.”
Fr. David Curry
Choral Evensong of The Conversion of St. Paul
St. George’s, Halifax, January 25th, 2015, (sponsored by the PBSC of NS/PEI)
 Piers Paul Read, The Templars, p. xiii.