Patrick Reardon reflects on the significance of Cornelius

Among the polarities employed in the Bible’s treatment of salvation, that of universality and holiness is perhaps the easiest to describe. Universality is wide and holiness narrow. We are bidden by the former, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11.28), while the latter declares, ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13.3, 5). The first is inclusive and brims with encouragement, whereas the second is restrictive and hurls out a challenge. Thus, when the principle of universality proclaims that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2.4), the principle of holiness answers that ‘narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few that find it’ (Matthew 7.14).

Theological tension, narrative tension

The tension inherent in this polarity is first theological, to be sure, hinting at the mysterious confrontation of God’s freedom with man’s. But because salvation is worked out in history, we are not surprised to find the tension between universality and holiness taking shape in discrete contingent forms. For example, against the backdrop of the Roman Empire’s political universality, the Acts of the Apostles portrays the strain that the early Church felt between her universal call to mission within that world and the stern demand laid upon her to be a people set apart from it. That is to say, the theological tension assumes flesh as a tension of history, and then again, issuing from the pen of St Luke, a tension of narrative.

Within Luke’s lengthy account of how that theological tension was maintained by the counterweights of history, the conversion of Cornelius and his friends is of central importance. So the story is worth revisiting under the aspect of that consideration.

Cornelius’ entrance into the Christian Church is especially significant, not only because he is a Gentile, but also because, in his military office, he represents the Roman Empire. In this representation Cornelius is prefigured by Luke’s earlier centurion at the foot of the Cross, who pronounced Rome’s final verdict, as it were, on Jesus of Nazareth: ‘Certainly this was a righteous man!’ (Contrast Luke 23.47, with Matthew 27.54 and Mark 15.39.) In this adjudication the representative of a political universality receives the grace to discern, by the light of universal norms of righteousness, that Jesus at least meets the common standards of a moral claim. In this respect he takes Rome’s first step in favour of Jesus and is, thereby, the forerunner of Cornelius. It is for this reason that the Acts of the Apostles will end in Rome (28.13–16).

Twice told and told again

The story of Cornelius is told with great care. Indeed, it is told twice, once by Luke as narrator and once by Cornelius himself. (Peter’s part is also told twice, by the way, once by Luke and once by Peter.) As angelic announcements solemnly indicated the beginning of the Gospel (Luke 1.11, 26; 2.9), so this coming mission to the Roman Empire is announced by an angel (Acts 10.3). The calling of Cornelius is, for Luke, a decisive step in the universalizing of the Gospel, foreseen by the prophetic Simeon’s ‘light to bring revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2.32). It is Peter’s reception of this centurion into the Church that prepares the universal mission (and trip to Rome) of Paul, himself converted in the previous chapter.

In the tale of Cornelius even the timeframe is easy to find. Since we know that the angel instructed him on one of the weekly Jewish fast days (Monday or Thursday), and since we should presume that Peter would not have travelled from Joppa to Caesarea on a Sabbath, we may be quite sure that the ‘four days’ of the story began on a Monday (10.9, 24, 30).

These references to fast days (and the maintenance of the ‘canonical hours’ –10.3, 30) are also relevant to our theme, for they indicate the ‘holiness’ pole in the tension of salvation. Cornelius represents not only the universality of grace but the restricting efforts of spiritual discipline. Luke describes him as ‘a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people and prayed to God always’ (10.2). Praying, fasting, and giving alms are not incidental to the story. Cornelius is told, on the contrary, ‘your prayer has been heard and your alms are remembered in the sight of God’ (10.31). Both universality and holiness pertain to the picture.