These words of St Paul in our second reading are among my favorite in the whole Bible, especially when they are joined to the preceding verses which go like this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice! Let your forbearance be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Phil 4: 4-6). I get such a lot of comfort and encouragement from this passage. I imagine there may be cynics who would say: “Huh! It is easy for Paul to talk. I bet when he was writing this, he was sitting in comfort with his feet up in an armchair, smoking a cigar, drinking wine, in front of a nice, roaring fire in the fireplace. I bet Paul wouldn’t be saying “Rejoice” and “Don’t worry about a thing” if he had the troubles I have.”
Well, in fact, I bet Paul would be saying exactly the same things if he did have the troubles many of us have, especially in this time of the coronavirus. He would still be saying “Rejoice” and “Don’t worry about a thing”. Because Paul is NOT in fact, writing those lines from our second reading while sitting in an armchair in front of a fire, smoking and drinking. Do you know where he was? He was in a stinking Roman prison. He would have been shackled to one or more guards, the butt of their abuse and cruelty. Any day could be his last. He never knew if the next person coming through the door was a friendly visitor or an executioner, about to take him outside and chop his head off. Would you be willing to exchange your troubles for his, brothers and sisters, would I?
And yet, Paul is still able to say “Rejoice” and “Do not worry about anything.” How can he do that? Well, he has done it before, many a time, in fact. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of his sufferings while preaching the gospel: his labours, imprisonments countless floggings, and often near death “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, the Jews, danger from the pagans, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship , through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (11: 23 -28). The Acts of the Apostles describes a time when Paul and his assistant Silas were arrested and thrown into prison in the city of Philippi, having been stripped of their clothes and given a severe flogging (16: 22 -34). What were Paul and Silas doing while they were there in their dingy, dark cell and with their feet fastened in stocks? They were praying and singing hymns to God, while the other prisoners were listening to them and thinking no doubt that they must be mad ! (verse 25) I mean, who does that sort of thing – would you, would I?
What is the secret? How do we rejoice and not worry about a thing, when we are up to our necks in trial and tribulation? I think St Paul himself gives us some important clues that we can apply to our own situations. First and foremost, in the verse immediately preceding our second reading, Paul declares “The Lord is near !” (verse 5). The Lord is near. There it is. Psalm 34: 18 also tells us the same thing: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit /Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (By the way, Psalm 34 in its entirety is also an excellent psalm to read when you are in trouble) . In prison, Paul could reflect that Jesus himself was also imprisoned, where he too would have been shackled and abused horribly. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus knew many trials and tribulations-sorrow and distress (think of that night in the Garden of Gethsemane), the loss of close friends to brutal, sudden death (John the Baptist for example), betrayal and abandonment by those close to him, homelessness — Jesus once said, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) — to say nothing of those agonizing three hours hanging by nails from a cross, while being mocked and spat upon by people passing by. Yes, the Lord is near in all our sufferings and can look us in the eye from the cross and say to us, “I know the burden of your sorrow because it is mine also.”
Secondly, because the Lord is near, we can rejoice “in the Lord”. It would take a person of extreme stoicism or holiness to be able to rejoice in the midst of suffering, and most of us are not stoics or extremely holy. But it is not we ourselves who are doing the rejoicing – God, who dwells in us by means of his Holy Spirit, is rejoicing within us, giving us the words to say in the midst of our affliction, as we gave the words of praise to the three young men in the midst of the fire in the book of Daniel (chapter 3). As Paul says in our second reading, it is God’s peace, a peace beyond all understanding , who keeps our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus” – in other words, united to Jesus, one with him in heart and mind. Recall what Jesus promised his disciples on the night before the terrifying shock and trauma of his death: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14: 27). I have found personally that it is useless to try to “psyche” myself up to feel peaceful when anxiety and dread torment me — the only thing I can do is try to immerse myself in Jesus, in prayer, in his presence, (before the Blessed Sacrament if I am able to) and abandon myself to him and ask him to fill me with His peace. And His peace does, eventually, come. And his consolation. And his love. And, yes, also his joy. His joy, not ours – a joy supernatural, “unspeakable”. To his disciples, Jesus promised “My joy will be in you, and your joy will be complete” (John 14:11).
Thirdly, St Paul tells us in that second reading today, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving , let your requests be made known to God.” We must pray, brothers and sisters, hard as it may seem at times. We must cultivate a practice of prayer when things are going relatively well for us, so that it will not fail us when the storms come in our lives. And it is a practice, because practice, as we say, makes perfect. Find that time and that place during the day when we apply ourselves to developing and cultivating the practice of prayer. And it will produce good fruits in the necessary time – love and joy and peace and patience, and all the rest (Galatians 5: 22-23). Those who are practiced in prayer may find, when a sudden disaster hits, that they are thrown temporarily, but always they return to prayer, because it is now a practice and a habit, a place of refuge to turn to, where they can meet with God and receive his help in time of need. “Let your requests be made known to God”, says St Paul. If we are already in the habit of doing that, sharing our needs and desires with the Lord, it will be easier and very natural, to do so in times of trouble and difficulty. If you have been in the habit of asking other people to do the praying for you, now is the time to learn to do it for yourself.
And finally, as Paul says “think about these things.” What things? As he tells us, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and worthy of praise.” I remember a poem from my youth: “Two men looked out through prison bars/ One looked at the ground, the other at the stars.” Where is the direction of our thoughts tending during the day, brothers and sisters? Is it to the trashy, insubstantial, mundane? Is it continually to things that entertain us, or make us fearful, or provoke us with irritation and indignation? Or to things that provide us with a deep peace and joy , that stir us to love and compassion? Jesus is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. How often do our thoughts and words turn to him in the course of the day, thanking him for the good things we are enjoying, instead of complaining about what is not going well for us? A proverb from the Bible says, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Hebrews 12: 1-2 urges us: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, our eyes fixed on Jesus, who began our faith and who will bring it to perfection.”
Paul had his Silas while in prison in Philippi, at other times he had Luke and Timothy. Who do we have? It is easier to do all the things I have been speaking about, when you have other like souls with you to encourage you . Which is why I believe that the church of the future will be rediscovering the importance of small home share and prayer groups. Some of these are already happening here in our parish, bible study, rosary groups, etceven if temporarily they are happening online, via Zoom or Google, or whatever. We need to discover the importance of these ways of gathering together, not just while churches are in lockdown and we are in quarantine, but beyond such times. The family that prays together stays together. So, does the church that prays together, the social bubble that prays together, the society that prays together, the nation that prays together..
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say it: Rejoice. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be make known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”