It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, busy with commerce and sharp elbows and shouting. From his place in heaven I am sure he laughs kindly as I stock shelves at retail on a quiet Tuesday. I think he must say in beautiful Greek something like "Yeah, wow. No."
But what I mean is only that I too live and work every day in the pagan marketplace. It is a mini-Corinth, a micro-Philippi, where Jesus Christ! seems to be practically unknown except as a sputtered, wide-eyed oath. (Nevertheless not forgetting, who knows? Maybe half the people I meet start the day with a Rosary. Be charitable.) Since we are asked to glorify God by our lives, I ask myself how to make him known, in my small way, without committing two preening mistakes. One is to equate "making him known" with walking around feeling smug among heathens. This is tempting to do because smugness comes naturally to me. And if you doubt you are among heathens, look around. The dogma alone is everywhere. It's Pride Month for example, so rainbows are everywhere. Incidentally we owe a debt of thanks to good Father Simon of Relevant Radio, who told us some time ago the secret that the Pride rainbow is actually the wrong one. It only has six colors, while the natural one has seven. It seems the enthusiasts forgot indigo.
Another mistake is to equate "making him known," outside the agora too, somehow with some sort of personal fame. This is harder to put aside since envy and ambition come naturally too. And every writer and blogger out there seems to be reaching more people than me, which is ipso facto to do God's work. Query, how do you get invited to join Feodvs?
At any rate, regarding "making him known," I wonder if pagan coworkers and neighbors, who seem to slip on a face of careful, pleasant unconcern when it comes to anything like church talk, would appreciate a sort of laying-of-groundwork approach. In other conversations they are more free. Their faces move. They acknowledge origins or reasonable assumptions, pertaining to any topic. "I have my filters that I interpret through, like everybody," a man said, as we discussed something serious. If I were to begin to make Jesus Christ! known by saying mildly, "It doesn't have to sound nuts -- there is an interior logic to it," I might try this.
- We're presupposing the supernatural is real;
- also that God did really choose ancient Israel to reveal himself and his moral laws to;
- that the Resurrection of Christ had to have happened because nothing else explains the might of the first Christian martyrs' witness to it;
- that one of the prime, life-changing demands of the Faith is sexual morality;
- and that it is St. Paul who bridged the gap between Gentile and Jew by clarifying that the God of the Jews, I AM, is the Lord of all in Christ.
This last bit of foundation is startling. Without Paul, as Bishop Robert Barron noted a long time ago, our spiritual choices would have been Apollo or Mithras or whatever, or, becoming Jewish. No getting around it. One might be able to get around modern frozen-face pagans by offering this, that perhaps the only vestige of St. Paul's work still looming pretty large in our pagan world is the idea of heaven. Ask them. How many of us go through life vaguely believing in God, and certainly presuming we and all our loved ones and all good people will go there? But only Christ could make heaven, as we say today, "a thing." Heaven must stem from the facts of the crucifixion and the resurrection. If it weren't for St. Paul clarifying this, Christ the Son of God is God the bridge between Gentile and Jew, then this last thing we cling to from Christendom -- eternal happiness after death (after repentance and forgiveness, which we tend to ignore) -- this last thing would logically have to go. Antiquity did not know any "heaven" for certain, not even the Jews. They still imagined the prophet Samuel only among the shades. Today if we are sophisticated we have the new choice of peacefully dissolving atoms maybe.
But here is part two. Even if we try to lay a groundwork and we make sure to credit Paul fully, it would be helpful to know exactly what he did and said. He had to have walked into the agora one day, as anonymous as we are.
In fear and trepidation wanting to know exactly what he did, I begin to read two of his shortest letters. I begin with the First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians; they are named for the city of Thessalonica, which appears on a map tucked high up into the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, in northeastern Greece. If you travel you know that Thessaloniki is today Greece's second most populous city and its "cultural capital," boasting a million souls.
Taking up most of these letters is Paul's rhythmic chant, in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, grace to you and peace ... remembering before our God and Father ... to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus ... the gospel of God ... the churches of God in Christ Jesus ... our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you ... this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father comfort your hearts ....
This is a man who, as a faithful and scholarly Jew, would never have dreamed that God the creator could be spoken of as having a Son. Something happened to him. In its aftermath he didn't necessarily exactly lay out attractive groundwork. He had a bomb. They could tell, which is why they beat him up and drove him out of town a lot.
Another thing that strikes me is Paul the exile's anxious waiting for news of the church he had founded, in that shouting, sharp-elbowed port on the Thermaic Gulf. We were willing to be left behind at Athens ... but now Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love (1 Thess. 3:1, 6). Can you imagine this man, waiting at the agora, Athens circa 50 A.D., to find out whether his converts still cared? Or whether maybe he and Timothy, and Silvanus, were nearly alone in the world? He had met God, the risen Christ himself.
It turns out they still cared. And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers (1 Thess. 2:13). Okay, but still, how? How did a face of careful, pleasant unconcern become a face that moved? We know the saints better than their congregations. We know of St. Paul but not the why of Evodia; we know St. Patrick but not so much his fur-clad fourth-century Irish tribesmen, and the individual decisions they made to come in. If we knew what struck them, that might help us witness better in our modern agoras. Okay, it was the word of God. But how? What actually slips through pagans' gracefully acknowledged filters?
We might as well ask ourselves. Grace and truth, I suppose. The truth part is actually a piece of groundwork we could add to our bullet-pointed list above. Along with "the supernatural is real" and so forth. But it is as difficult to understand as the others. For how long have we assumed, and been taught to assume, religion is a private taste or a human cultural tendency? Instead, St. Paul taught that the risen Jesus Christ! is truth, the foundation of every other truth we live with. Life. Day and night. Gravity. You name it. Love. This is why the Church went forth to teach and still does teach that no one has the right to stand outside it. What a thought.
What a moment. I would have liked to see when Evodia and Syntyche, Stephanas, and all the others, -- when their faces moved. "Mark" and "Luke" also. The smaller fry we can imagine as ourselves, the faithful. Evodia and Syntyche had some sort of female quarrel, as we might do. Mark and Luke, now! What brings them in?