Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sweet, amazing, grace

SOLEMNITY OF THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL, January 25, 2009:

Join me in singing a song that I’m sure you all know:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.

Now we all know this beautiful hymn, but perhaps not as many of us know its origin. Most hymnals will say “words by John Newton, melody by unknown”. The story of John Newton is one of the great conversion stories ever told. John Newton was an Anglican priest and a well known evangelical preacher in England, but long before he became either of those things, he was the captain of a slave ship.

During a journey back to England in 1748, Newton found his ship in the midst of a horrible storm. The ship nearly sank as it began to fill with water. Moments after he left the deck, the crewman who had taken his place was swept overboard. In his fear and desperation, John called out to God for help. Although he manned the vessel for the remainder of the storm, he later commented that, throughout the tumult, he realized his helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God – that amazing grace – could save him. It was this moment that he would later mark as the beginning of his conversion to Christianity. The storm calmed and as the ship sailed home, Newton began to read the Bible. By the time he reached England, he had accepted Christianity in his heart and changed his life – eventually going from slave trader to abolitionist, from non-believer to priest.

As captain of a slave vessel, the unknown melody that would later become Amazing Grace would have been familiar to him as it is very close to a West African sorrow chant that he probably heard many times echoing from the voices of imprisoned slaves in the bowels of his ship. It was this melody that he naturally set his great hymn of conversion to – “how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Today, the Church does something extraordinary as we suspend the ordinary Sunday readings in order to present to us another great conversion story – that of St. Paul. We find ourselves in the midst of the Year of St. Paul decreed by our Holy Father Pope Benedict to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. His conversion was a momentous event in the earliest history of the Church, but is also an event that can move us to reflect on our own faith-journeys toward God.

Much like John Newton, the conversion of Paul was dramatic – from one who not only did not believe in Christ, but even persecuted those who believed, to becoming the greatest promoter of the Christian faith, spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Both of these stories – though dramatic in their externals – is essentially the same. God comes into our lives, wherever we may be – no matter how far away from Him and asks that we in turn follow Him. Our God has taken the initiative to come to us and meet us.

Today’s feast calls us to reflect on more than just John or Paul’s conversion; it calls us to reflect on our own. Each one of us has also been called by God. Each one of us has a vocation; God has something in mind for us; He has a purpose for you and me; we each fit somewhere in His plan. God offers, we respond, and our response tells us something about our own personal state of conversion. We are all constantly invited into a deeper response, a deeper conversion, a deeper turning of our lives towards God.

Many of us have heard of remarkable conversion experiences like that of John Newton and Paul, but for most of us conversion to God’s ways is made up of a series of small steps. Few of us have had a big event in which we experienced God’s presence in a special way and thereupon changed our lives. Changing our ways comes to most of us in the form of many small victories over what is wrong in our lives.

One of the best ways to keep moving forward in that way of conversion is to share our stories, our moments of conversion, with each other. One of the great joys of being a priest are the incredible stories of God’s action in the lives of His people that we hear each day. Although the dramatic might not be the norm, God’s action in simple, small, every day ways is happening constantly. Sharing these stories can really build up our faith.

The most important conversion story today is not that of St. Paul or of John Newton – it’s the conversion story of each of us here today. Jesus reveals Himself to us today in Word and in Sacrament. Once again He offers and once again we respond. What will be our response today? How is God asking us to change today in the way we relate to others? In the way we relate to God? How is He calling us to be more faithful to Him?

Let us all turn to our God more deeply so that we may say in the depths of our hearts, “I once was blind, but now, I see. Oh sweet, amazing grace.”

May God give you peace.

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