The excerpt at Mass yesterday from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians (4:4-7) surprises and makes us wonder. He calls us to rejoice in The Lord, and to do so always.... Always? Really? That is a little unrealistic, isn't it? How can we be joyful always when so often we experience the opposite, namely, sadness. Indeed, the world is enveloped in sadness right now because of the horrible mass shootings in Connecticut. We have been in mourning for quite some time over the terrible plight of the people of Syria. To say nothing of the abiding sadness over the destitution of so many on our planet.
Furthermore, St. Paul goes on in that same passage to say that we should not worry about anything. Yet, there are many things which cause us to worry and fill us with anxiety: serious illness, family difficulties, financial hardship, bleak work prospects and so on. How can the Apostle direct us not to worry?
The key to understanding lies in the all-important phrase that lies between and unites the two invitations: The Lord is near. Precisely because Jesus is with us, we need not worry and we do, indeed, rejoice. From this it is clear that Saint Paul is speaking less of an emotion than of a conviction. As Christians, we are utterly convinced, with every fibre of our being, that Jesus is here with us. He is not a God who remains aloof and indifferent to our plight. Through the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, he has shown his desire to draw close and become intimately involved in the details of our lives. By that same resurrection he demonstrated that his love is victorious over all evil, and that all will be turned to the good in accordance with God's plan to rescue his people. Therefore, we rejoice. Sometimes, this Christian joy will find visible emotive expression, at other times not. But at all times it abides deep within the heart, often invisible beneath sadness and worry, acting as that secure foundation that enables us to bear hardship without descending to despair.
That passage from Philippians is thus an invitation to faith, to hand over all things to Christ in confidence. Here St. Paul is giving his own answer to the question posed by the crowds to Saint John the Baptist in yesterday's Gospel passage. In expectation of the imminent arrival of the Saviour, they ask: "What must we do?" John's reply is that they must live just lives. Paul's reply is to have faith. The two responses are mutually complementary. By faith, we hand over all to Christ with trust in his love and power. This gives rise to a "peace which surpasses understanding", a peace which frees us from self-focus in order to give our attention to the injustices around us that harm our brothers and sisters. The act of faith is the wellspring of acts of justice. Concern for justice, in its turn, gives visible expression to the authenticity of our faith. (cf. James 2:14-26).
Rejoice always, indeed!