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23rd Sunday after Pentecost: “Stand firm in the Lord, my beloved!”

We would have had a first selection from Philippians last week, the last Sunday of October, but the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost was superseded by the Feast of Christ the King in the Vetus calendar. Sunday’s reading from Philippians 3:17-21 and 4:1-3 is also used in the Vetus calendar on the Feast of St. Clement (for an obvious reason).  About the issue of the reading being from two chapters. This is not a case, as is so often happens in the Novus Ordo lectionary, of snipping out bits and pieces and gluing together the ends. In this case, the end of the third chapter flows seamlessly into the fourth. Paul did not write using chapters and verses. Those were added much later.

As always, let’s get some context.

We are drawing to the end of the liturgical year. Therefore, we will more and more have references to the Second Coming, the end of the world and the resurrection.  Pius Parsch in his The Church’s Year of Grace writes of this period:

In the Sunday liturgies of autumn time it is not too difficult to detect a progression in three stages. The first stage consists in the Sundays transitional from summer to fall (15th to 17th after Pentecost); the second stage embraces the four finest formularies in the Church’s Harvest Time (19-21); the last stage begins today and brings the season to its conclusion (23-24). Nevertheless, the liturgy is at all times concerned primarily with the present situation, even when her sights are directed momentarily to the end of things. It is no different today.

It is noteworthy that for the Offertory antiphon we sing from Ps 129/130 which is the De profundis

De profúndis clamávi ad te, Dómine: Dómine, exáudi oratiónem meam: de profúndis clamávi ad te, Dómine. … Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my prayer! Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.

Timothy is also a “co-signer” of the Letter to the Philippians. Paul had visited Philippi with Timothy and Silas during his second missionary journey (50-52 AD) and also during his third (53-58). Philippi was in north-eastern Greece in Thrace. Fathers of the Church thought Philippians was written when Paul was in custody in Rome for the second time. In Acts 16:20 we find they were accused of creating a disturbance in the city. They were beaten and imprisoned. This is when there was an earthquake while they were praying and singing hymns. Their chains fell off and the doors opened, leading to the conversion of their guard. Philippians has the famous poetic Christological passage about Christ (2:5-11) where we get the mystery of His “self-emptying” (Greek kenosis). Though He was equal to the Father, He did not consider being equal to God something to be “exploited/grasped at” (Greek harpagmón). Instead, the Son “emptied himself” taking the form of a slave/servant and was obedient to death on a cross. The hymn-like quality of this passage suggests that Paul had taught it to the Philippians for use in their local (and maybe elsewhere) liturgy.

In his letters, Paul usually stressed some characteristic of Christ and his audiences need to conform themselves to it. In this case, the trait is Christ’s humility.

There are little personal touches in Philippians, such as his mention of his background as a Pharisee (1:8), the aforementioned story about being in prison and the earthquake (1:12:24), the mention of disagreement between collaborators brought up in our passage for Sunday (4:19).

Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Immediately after this is when Paul writes:

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

Consoling for our own days.

The first verse of our reading for Mass has Paul telling the community to imitate him. However, he and Timothy are already imitators. At the very beginning of the Letter Paul and Timothy self-identify also as “servants,” which is the image presented of the Lord who self-emptied. The Lord is humble, so His servant leaders must be humble so the people can be humble. Christ is Paul’s model, Paul is their model: “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us” (3:17) and “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you” (4:9). This isn’t the only time Paul urges this imitation. For example, in 1 Cor 4:16-17:  “I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” Again, Timothy is involved. Again, we have an indication of Paul’s programmatic instruction as he moved about.

The humility that Paul preaches cannot be attained in a day.

Let’s circle back to one thing. Paul, as is often the case, is addressing a problem in his letter. In Philippi there are, again, false teachers, probably Judaizers who would impose also Mosaic practices on all Christians, non-Jews alike. He touches on this saying:

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (vv. 18-19).

I don’t think we should reduce the line about “their god is the belly” to mere sins of gluttony. It stands for living according to the flesh, according to the world, rather than the “commonwealth in Heaven” which comes next. Sometimes “commonwealth” (Greek políteuma) is rendered “conversation,” Latin conversatio, which is “conduct of life.”

We Christians must look beyond the world-bound to the Heaven-free, our true patria. In our own day we hear about those who would reduce those means of freedom for Heaven, including self-control, abnegation, to a relaxed complacency which ultimate reflects the chains of the flesh. In fact, there are calls by some to overhaul the Church’s perennial moral teachings according to “lived experience.” You might recall how, some years ago in matters concerning marriage and divorce, the concept of continence, chastity, was relegated to an “ideal” that not all could attain. As if God does not in fact offer sufficient graces and He lets people struggle under burdens they cannot bear. In other words, God has set for us impossible goals, “ideals” of comportment. We, on the other hand, can reinterpret those “ideals” through our “lived experience.” Taking note that most people don’t live according to the ideal upheld in the Church’s perennial teaching on morals, therefore we should – while not claiming to remove the ideal – simply go along with, tolerate those lapses from the ideal. People can discern for themselves whether the “ideal” is really for them or not. In effect, they come, with the seeming approbation of their pastors, to “glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

We must, as discussions about this approach build and multiply, be on our guard and not be seduced by them. To this end, review your catechism! Know well your Faith so you will not be confused when the cleverboots get going with their patter.

The Church’s perennial teachings on faith and morals are solid and dependable. Anything proposed that would erode the plain meaning of those teachings should be firmly rejected. Let our imitation of Christ and His humility to submit in the form of a servant even to the Cross be our model when we are faced with the temptation to live not for Heaven, but merely for the earthly.

Above, I mentioned the kenotic dimension of the Christology in Philippians, whereby Paul describes the self-emptying of the Son, talking the form of a servant. At His earthly end, He was stripped of every worldly thing and showed us the perfection of freedom. John in the Prologue of his Gospel says that they saw His “glory.” Also above, I mention how at Philippi Paul and Silas, were singing in prison and an earthquake broke their bonds. In the midst of their nothingness they were freed. I’ll close with a remark by Bl. Ildefonso Schuster about our attitude toward worldly goods.

How much easier it is to save one’s soul in the midst of poverty and in a humble and obscure condition of life! Not that riches or worldly position are in themselves blameworthy; but very often to these advantages are joined certain dispositions of one’s mind and one’s surroundings which render the service of God very difficult to carry out. Such persons begin by excessive preoccupation concerning their material possessions, and end by losing altogether the supernatural sense of Christian life and holy mortification, becoming at last inimicos crucis Christi, as St Paul sadly remarks.

Finally, now that we are in the month dedicated to prayer for the Poor Souls, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that you, too, will one day draw your final breath. No earthly advantage in that moment is going to raise you to the Beatific Vision. Only your love for and fidelity to Christ will do that. Practice dying well now by living better now, not according to the flesh and world, but in humble service of our Lord and Savior, especially in charity toward others.

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