Fourth Sunday in Advent
The Epistle. Philippians 4.4.
Brethren: Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say: Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let you requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.
As some of you may have noticed, it is my usual practice to select one or two lines from the Epistle or Gospel lesson for the day and expound on that as the primary subject for the sermon. But as I was meditating in preparation I was struck by the entirety of this portion of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I think that particularly at this time, not only in the Church Kalendar, but also this point in history, we may use this passage to help us focus our hearts and minds towards that which is truly important, and to strengthen us in the days to come.
It is most ironic that on this fourth Sunday in Advent, just six days before we will celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation at the First Mass of Christmas, that we are perhaps a very troubled people. Some of us are no doubt feeling some small amount of anxiety because we know, and are constantly reminded, that there’s only “six more shopping day before Christmas”! We are concerned that we have properly prepared for Christmas dinner. We wonder about how difficult it may be to travel to the homes of our friends and loved ones, or we worry that they will come to our homes safely.
And on top of all that, we must realize that for some, there is not much reason for celebration. We constantly inundated with images of consummate evil; the murder of innocent children; acts of terrorism; shootings and riots and crimes perpetrated by those who seem to have no regard for the lives of others. How is it possible to feel joy at the coming of Our Lord in the face of such unspeakable immorality? How is it possible to feel excitement about God’s ultimate act of Love when we see evil reigned down upon those whom He loves the most? When we think of the lives cut short or forever changed for the worse, how can we truly rejoice?
Well, of course, the easy answer lies in our Faith. If we truly believe in God and love God, then nothing, not even the relentless assaults of Satan, can shake that Faith. But, as I said, that is easy to say. The difficult thing is, “how do we do that”? How, in other words, do we persevere in the face of such evil? How do we find a way, even now, to rejoice? Well, you just know that St. Paul will offer us the way.
Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say: Rejoice. OK, why start with this? After all, I’ve just gotten through listing all the reasons why it is so difficult for us to rejoice right now; and yet, Paul tells us, still, we must rejoice? Well, yes, we must rejoice first and foremost. And the reason we must rejoice is precisely because we know that evil exists in this world; always has and always will – at least until God sees fit to come again and put an end to it.
And yet in the face of all this evil, STILL God chooses to come to us in His Incarnation. He sent His Son to us knowing full well that Jesus Christ would be offered in Sacrifice for our sins. He grants to us this child, this baby, this Holy Innocence who will provide the ultimate victory over evil. And so, even as we see continually the presence of evil in this world we MUST rejoice, because we know that these acts of evil, no matter how heart-rending, are futile because God has already won!
And I must add that there is one key word in this statement; ALWAY. We might think that this word is the same as ALWAYS, but one of my priest mentors presented to me this difference in interpretations; ALWAYS means all the time and in every way that we can humanly perform. ALWAY is timeless, it is spiritual; it means that we rejoice in our hearts, minds and souls. It means that every facet of our lives is infused, strengthened, directed and influenced by our rejoicing in the Love of God. It is a mystical state, and one of the few that we humans are capable of achieving; if we want to, of course.
Let your moderation be known unto all men. Another word for “moderation”? How about “control”, “temperance”, “balance”? On the face of it, this statement might seem to be at odds with St. Paul’s command to us to “rejoice”, which implies a more ecstatic state of being. And more to the point, how do we maintain such “moderation”, “control”, “temperance”, and “balance”, when presented with the overwhelming displays of evil in this world?
The answer to this question lies in the Apostle’s next statement; The Lord is at hand. This statement is almost stunning in its simplicity. It provides closure to the questions raised by the first two declarations; why do we rejoice? Because the Lord is at hand! Why do we exercise “moderation”, “control”, “temperance” and “balance” in the practice of our Faith? Because the LORD IS AT HAND! It is our confidence in this declaration that allows us to both be joyous and balanced at the same time. It is this knowledge that provides us the inspiration to continue steadfastly in the Faith in the face of all evil.
Ah, but you just know that St. Paul will not let us off the hook. We, of course, have some responsibility in the matter; a responsibility to take action. But let’s just look at the responsibility that the Apostle places on us; Be careful for nothing: but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let you requests be made known unto God.
The definition of “careful”; “to be cautious in one’s actions”. How odd. On the one hand, Paul is telling us to be “temperate”, “balanced”, “moderate”, and then he tells us not to be “cautious” in our actions? “Be careful for nothing”? Well, to understand what is meant here, we must look to an older meaning of the word “careful”; “to be full of care”.
In other words, St. Paul is echoing what Our Lord told us in St. Matthew’s Gospel (ch. 6, v 25) “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment”?
“Be careful for nothing”. “Take no thought for your life”. Be not anxious! It is quite understandable that we should grieve and lament those examples of pure evil where young lives are lost and families are ripped apart. But we must NEVER let these events shake our Faith in God. We must NEVER let them weigh us down to the point that we forget, even momentarily, that there is something greater at stake in our response to such evil. We must always remember that God has and will respond to the prayers of His faithful people who seek to preach His Gospel and proclaim His Kingdom; “but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let you requests be made known unto God.”.
And at the end of it all these seemingly contradictory statements – which are actually in consummate harmony with each other – are possible because of that one quality that God Almighty bestows upon us particularly at this time of year: peace. The Peace of God.
The definition of “peace”; the” cessation of or freedom from any strife or dissension”. As human beings, we know that we cannot by ourselves overcome evil. We can fight against evil. We can call attention to evil; lament it, rage against it, grieve when evil happens in spite of all our efforts. But in the end, it is only God who can defeat evil. In fact, He already has.
And that fact is what gives us the freedom from any strife or dissension that evil may cause. It is that fact that relieves our anxiety over the evil events that occur in this world. It is that fact that provides us with the confidence to witness our Faith with all moderation, temperance, and balance. It is that fact that causes us at all times and in all ways to rejoice in the Lord. It is the Peace of God, which we as humans cannot hope ever to totally comprehend, that will help us to persevere not only during these trying times, but in the days ahead.
And so, even as we grieve and lament that evil continues to rear its ugly head in this world, let us look forward with joy to the coming Feast of the Incarnation of God; and let us always remember that no matter how horrific or terrible are the works of evil, still we must remain steadfast in our Faith, and rest in the Peace of God; rejoicing alway, because the Lord is at hand.
Brethren: Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say: Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.