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3rd Sunday of Advent: Let nothing disturb thee

In the movie Bridge of Spies, set in the depths of the Cold War, Tom Hanks’ character is a lawyer assigned to defend an accused and obviously guilty Russian spy. Meeting in prison for the first time, Hanks explains to the spy that everyone wants to send him to the electric chair. The Russian spy doesn’t flinch.

“You don’t seem alarmed,” says the lawyer with a touch of irritation.

The spy calmly, “Would it help?”

This phrase would serve as a ritornello in the film. It could be a good phrase for us, too, when we catch ourselves fretting over things to the detriment of that which is truly important.

We have come to the 3rd Sunday of Advent, with its traditional rose or rosacea hued vestments, called “Gaudete… Rejoice.” “Gaudete in Domino semper … Rejoice in the Lord always,” from the first words of the first chant or Introit of the Mass, which also are from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:4-6.

Let’s remember our contexts.

Advent is a season of joyful penance as we prepare to celebrate the entrance of the Word made flesh into the light of this world at a historical time and place, the Nativity, His First Coming. It is also a time of penitential joy because we recognize that the Lord will have a Second Coming as Just Judge and King of Fearful Majesty, a fact that gives the attentive Christian an abundant serving of anxious gladness as well as glad anxiety. In the first two weeks of Advent, Mother Church stressed that the Lord is “The King who is to come.” With the 3th Sunday she stresses that “He is near! In our midst!” This week also will embrace the Advent Ember Days on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday: an austere liturgical, spiritual retreat on the verge of the final days before Christmas.

Last year in this column we focused on the Gospel passage from John 1 about John the Baptist. This year let’s stick to the Epistle, Philippians 4:4-7, one more verse than we hear chanted in the Introit.

Paul wrote to Philippians perhaps in 59-61 while in under detention in Rome (1:13). He encouraged the faith of the people of Philippi and thanked them for their financial support (cf. Acts 16). The missive’s main themes are suffering and joy, in fact suffering for and in Christ brings about that joy, which leads to the everlasting joy of the “commonwealth in heaven” and our transformation in glory (3:20-21).

Since it is short, we can see the whole Epistle pericope (RSV):

Brethren: Rejoice (Greek chairéte – an imperative) in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice (chairéte). Let all men know your forbearance (epieikés – “moderation, patience, gentleness”). The Lord is at hand.  Have no anxiety about (merimnáo ­– KJV “be care-ful”) anything, but in everything by prayer (proseuché) and supplication (deésis) with thanksgiving (eucharistía) 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.

That epieikés is related to the term epikeia, which in the ancient Greek writers such as Homer, the historian Herodotus, and philosophers Plato and Aristotle indicated a flexibility in applying justice. Think of, for example, the “quality of mercy” argued for by Portia/Balthazar, “an attribute to God Himself” manifest in this life when it “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and then “mercy seasons justice” (Merchant of Venice IV, i).

Merimnáo, “have anxiety… be full of care.” This verb is used by the Lord six times in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: 25-34. “Don’t be anxious about your life… clothing… meals…. tomorrow” (RSV – “take no thought” KJV). Christ calls Martha to remember what is truly important when she is “anxious” (KJV “cumbered much”) about serving (Luke 10:41). The Lord told her, not to rebuke her but to recall her: “there is need of only one thing.”

Eucharistía is supercharged. It could be that Paul is using it in its regular, generic sense of simple “thanksgiving.” I am not so sure. Paul in his missionary work was also liturgical. In our day we commonly quote that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of Christian life. If that is the case today surely it was also for the Apostles from the moment of the Last Supper, as surely it was for Paul from his conversion experience. The Eucharist was their “source and summit” no less than ours. However, I wouldn’t press our contemporary situation as being exemplary. These days from the Whatever High Atop The Thing there droppeth not anything like unto the gentle rain of mercy upon the faithful beneath. Liturgical expressions of eucharistía today are such that there is widespread lack of belief amongst self-identifying Catholics about eucharistía. But let that not trouble us any longer here.

As I write, a little statue of St Teresa of Avila, wearing her doctoral biretta, is looking at me as if to say,

Nada te turbe
nada te espante
todo se pasa
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia
todo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta
Sólo Dios basta. (Poesías)

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing;
God nevr changeth;
Patient endurance
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
God alone sufficeth.  (trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

These words were found handwritten in the margin of her breviary when she died in 1582. Some believe they were written there by her spiritual director St. John of the Cross.

In our short Epistle, Paul uses imperatives, command forms. “Rejoice!” “Let your gentleness be known,” is another imperative. “Be care-full/anxious about” another imperative with the object being “no thing.” And let your request “be made known,” yes, imperative.

From the beginning of Sunday’s Mass we have juxtaposed the concepts of anxiety about things of this world and the joy which is to come, a joy so great that it is already present. Just as at this point in Advent the Church is saying that Christ is already in our midst, both by His historical coming and His imminent eschatological coming, so too we are in our worldly circumstances informed by the joy so transforming that it already is at work in our minds and hearts as the antidote to any trouble. And the prescription that Paul gives to attain that antidote to the needs of the world that can take us from the Lord in anxiety is precisely “prayer” (“any pious address to God) and “supplication” (“earnest entreaty”) in – and this is a key – eucharistía, “thanksgiving.” While that certainly means being quiet with God in your room, it certainly also means being with God at Holy Mass, with eucharistía, the Sacrament and its liturgical celebration.

Is the eucharistía like that joy to come so mighty that transforms us here and now. Or is the coming and present joy like the Eucharist? I suppose the answer is “yes”.

At Holy Mass He is already in our midst, even as He is soon to arrive.

I want neither to make light of anyone’s pressing cares or suggest that we should ignore our duties, ignore the fires we must put out. But if we have to put them out, let us put them out not just with our own anxious, cumbered, effort but rather by our effort with “prayer and supplication in thanksgiving.” With grace and our elbow grease openly, joyfully before the Lord in eucharistía.

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. (John 16:20)

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7)

Drawing these threads together you might find this useful.

Remember with joy and thanksgiving that you are baptized. By your baptismal character you share in Christ’s priesthood. You are enabled to offer sacrifices (what priesthood is for) that are pleasing to God.

At the Offertory the priest says, “my sacrifice and yours.” He acts and speaks in the person of Christ, the Head of the Body, the Church. He calls the people, Body of the Church, into complementary unity. He invites them (you) to pray that his sacrifice, according to his manner of offering sacrifice as an ordained priest, and their (“your”) sacrifice, according to how the baptized offer gifts and sacrifices, will be accepted.

We all have both burdens and reasons to rejoice. Therefore, when the priest or deacon prepares the chalice, precisely when he puts drops of water (the symbol of the human) into the wine (the symbol of the divine) to be mingled (the lesser being transformed within the greater) try consciously to place into that chalice all your cares, anxieties, aspirations, sentiments of gratitude, petitions, supplications, and all that you are with thanksgiving. Let them all be poured in there, joined, comingled, and then be stupendously, miraculously transformed by God.

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