Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: St. Paul gives us the clue to living in joy even if we are afflicted with pain and suffering.

Third Sunday of Advent 2013 Extraordinary Form

From the epistle of Blessed Paul the Apostle to the Philippians:

Brethren: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6 Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

A continuation of the Holy Gospel according to St. John:

this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

+In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

Listen, if you would, to the first words of today’s Introit:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice!” The words, lifted verbatim from Paul’s epistle, give the name of this Sunday–Gaudete Sunday. In the days before the almost fifty-year-old liturgical calendar change, my parents’ physical reason to rejoice was that two weeks of the Advent fast were complete, and after the fast of the ember days during this week, the feast of Christmas was just ten days or so away. Today we might be looking forward equally to relief from the interminable playing of so-called holiday music that completely ignores the real meaning of the Incarnation. Still, it might be wise to reflect more deeply on the meaning of St. Paul’s exhortation in the light of the Gospel, and of the feast we just celebrated of Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

A cynic might hear Paul’s encouragement to “rejoice always” and respond, “just why should I rejoice?” There are reasons in every age to think St. Paul to be irretrievably naive. Today we think of the flood-borne suffering of the people of the Philippines, or the war-weary people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and especially Syria. We consider the persecution being suffered by Catholics and other Christians there, and in Indonesia and China, and even our own government’s attempt to mandate immoral poisons and procedures under the guise of “health care.” Is St. Paul mad? Why on earth would we rejoice about that?

Saint John’s Gospel today gives us an answer, when he writes about the testimony of John the Baptist. Now St. John was not a “baptist.” He was an authentic Hebrew in the mode of Abraham and David and Isaiah. He was witnessing to the Jewish sectarians of his day that they had it all wrong about their relationship to God. The Pharisees thought that keeping the letter of the Law made them pleasing to God, that the length of their tassels and tithes on their herbs were what mattered. The Sadducees believed that success in this life measured their devotion to God, and they were willing to collaborate with the Romans and defraud widows to get that success. The Zealots swung to the other side–they plotted to kill all the Romans and restore Jewish rule of the known world, and counted on God to send his angelic armies and the rest of the Empire to rise up to join them. John and Jesus knew otherwise. Only a change of heart and immersion in the will of the Father could bring about real justice and progress in the world. Societies don’t change without metanoia in the individual. Brute force cannot bring about a restoration of righteousness, because violence only begets more violence. Our paths are too crooked to save the world; our minds and hearts are too weak. The problem is in here [beat the breast], so the solution is interior revolution, and that, as John wrote, requires that my heart and yours be baptized, soaked–literally marinated–in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. So John saw rightly his mission–to make straight our paths in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. When the Christ rules, he rules well because our hearts are predisposed to obey the will of the Father.

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