For readily apparent reasons the feast of ‘St. Paul’s Shipwreck’ has special significance to Malta and its people. After all, it is stated in most editions of ‘The New Testament’ that the location of the event was on the island of ‘Melita’ (the islands Roman name) in around A.D. 60, making the country one of only eighteen modern nations to be mentioned in the Bible.
According to the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, however, the ship carrying him and some 274 others were caught in a violent storm only to be wrecked two weeks later on the Maltese coast, all aboard swam safely to land. Even though the actual site of the wreck is a mystery by tradition the event took place in and around St. Paul’s Bay and St. Paul’s Island, today a statue sits in commemoration of the event.
The remainder of his time of the islands is also described by St. Luke, as is the welcome the survivors were given.
“… later we learned that the island was called Melita. And the people who lived there showed us great kindness, and they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves …”
As the fire was lit, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but he suffered no ill effects, the Maltese took this as a sign that he was a special man. The Apostle then took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. During the winter stay, he was invited to the house of Publius, the Roman Governor at the time. It was here, that Paul cured Publius’ father of a serious fever, who is then said then said to have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta (The Cathedral of Mdina is said to stand on the site of Publius’ house).
This sequence of events has become particularly ingrained in the psyche of the Maltese people and predictably they feature strongly in the many religious works of art. Also, Malta is traditionally thought to have been among the first Roman colonies to have completely converted to Christianity. This is backed up by significant archaeological evidence found in the early Catacombs dotted around the country.
Today, these events are celebrated annually on the 10th February, making it the first major feast day and national holiday in the calendar, which additionally provides all with some initial signs that spring is approaching. As is traditional with most local celebrations the day is a time for family gatherings and observed by religious ceremonies and processions, the main focus of which will be at the Church of St. Paul Shipwreck in Valletta.
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