Click here for the Sunday readings - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Cycle A]
For Reflection on the Second Reading: Who are the Philippians (and why is Paul writing to them)?
Philippi is an ancient city in Macedonia, which is in modern-day Greece. Originally named Krenides, the city was conquered in 360 BC by King Philipp II--the father of Alexander the Great--who promptly renamed the city for himself, hence “Philippi.” Nearby, a rich vein of gold meant that the city was of significant economic value, and because the city is situated along a crucial pass between two mountain chains, it was enormous strategic importance from a military standpoint. Any army wishing to march East-West, for instance, from Greece or Italy, toward Turkey and Asia, would very likely need to march directly through Philippi. For this reason, the Romans built one of their primary roads through the town, ensuring its longterm prominence and prosperity.
The city was also the first in Europe to be visited by Paul on his missionary journeys. Of all the places Paul visited, Philippi, it would seem, held a special place in his heart. One of Paul’s earliest stops, Philippi became renowned for both the fervor and endurance of the faith community, who faced near ceaseless resistance from outside groups seeking to squash this emerging sect of Christians.
At the time Paul is writing this letter, he is imprisoned somewhere. We know he was imprisoned multiple times over the course of his ministry, but it is unclear whether he is in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea at this particular time. Regardless of the location, what we do know is that Paul is unusually attuned to the fact that he may very well die soon.
For this reason, it seems, he has taken it upon himself to write an especially personal and poignant pastoral letter to the people of Philippi, with whom he had a special relationship, and for whom his imprisonment would have been uniquely demoralizing. Paul comes across in the letter not so much as a “teacher,” or even “missionary,” but as a pastor, a person deeply and intimately concerned for the spiritual well-being of this particular community of Christians.
And the community at Philippi needs to hear Paul’s message. We are told that there is infighting and division among the members of the community, which in turn leaves the group more susceptible to external pressure as well. Paul reminds them that their focus must be on the highest things, the things that are of Christ Jesus and God the Father.
Paul is in prison and may very well lose his life for proclaiming the Gospel--he wants to make sure that, if he dies, he has not died in vain; that the communities he has founded are authentically on their way to becoming robust and enduring associations of disciples, not petty factions of an ephemeral movement.
So what advice does he give them? (And us)
First, he tells them to not to be anxious. Anxiety is an omnipresent component of human life. We hope for things, we strive for things, we work for things, and when those things do not go according to plan (or when we are not sure how they are going to go), we become anxious. Prayer, Paul tells the community is the antidote. But not just any sort of prayer; prayer specifically of petition and thanksgiving. Why those two?
Prayer of petition, i.e. asking God for things, is often seen as selfish, but the reality could not be further from the truth. When we ask God for things, we implicitly pay God a very great compliment--and in doing so, we humble ourselves. If you ask a friend to teach you how to cook Pad Thai or to assist you in understanding calculus homework, you are paying that person a compliment. You are, in effect, saying, “I believe that you are capable not only of knowing this yourself (i.e. you’re pretty knowledgeable about this area!) but also of teaching me how to do it (i.e. you’d be a good teacher!)” Moreover, you’re adding the very humble piece, “I need your help!” How significant is it in our society to admit we need help! How unusual is it that we pause and, instead of saying, “I’ll be fine,” or “I’ll figure it out,” the radically un-self-absorbed, “I can’t do this without you!”
When we say this to God, Paul reminds us, we not only place our trust in God, but we adore God in the process! We say to God, “I KNOW I’m not God, and I am asking YOU, God, to help me in my weakness!” As Paul recognizes, very often, just the very act of asking for help releases some of our anxiety. We have acknowledged our struggle, and we have put it out there for God (and possibly others) to hear. There is a great sense of liberation in that!
Next, Paul says, be grateful. Offer up prayers of Thanksgiving. It might seem silly, but you would be amazed at how effective that can be at releasing stress and combatting a negative mood. The next time you are feeling frustrated, angry, or upset, try this: stop what you are doing and write out all of the things you are grateful for that week. Some might be permanent fixtures of your life, like family and friends; other items might be one-time occurrences like getting a job offer or eating the best slice of cheesecake you’ve ever had. Either way, Paul reminds the community, it’s a lot harder to be anxious when you are grateful.
But he doesn’t stop there. Paul goes on to list positive things we ought to be focusing on. Paul understands human nature acutely, and he knows that many of us will lie awake at night fixating on something. The community at Philippi had begun to fixate on things that didn’t matter, like which member of the community was more important, or which rules had to be followed precisely if you wanted to be considered part of the in-crowd. So,Paul says, focus on the things that are: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious.
True, here, means real or authentic. Focus on what REALLY matters, not the superficial things of the day. That is, focus on making sure you make time in your schedule to “Keep Holy the Sabbath” each week, rather than fixating on whether or not the person sitting next to you wore the wrong outfit to Church.
Honorable--the Greek word here means characteristics that were attributed to the gods, words today that we’d probably describe as “noble” or “virtuous.” So be a man/woman for others. Be generous. Be a person of integrity. Be honest.
Just here is the famous Greek word dikaios, which means to be in right relationship with others. There’s a right way for you to be in relationship with each person you encounter... figure that out, and treat people accordingly. You have a relationship with the homeless, mentally ill veteran who asks you for change when you walk down the street. Justice doesn’t demand that you stop what you are doing, quit your job, and volunteer as an advocate on behalf of homeless vets, but it DOES require you both to treat that person with the dignity due to any human being, AND to ask in what way you can work for a society that does not allow its members to sleep outside on the sidewalk.
Lovely here means, “that which brings forth love.” You’ve met people who are just lovely persons, persons that you are attracted to, not for how they look, but for who they are. Be that, says Paul. Rather than allow yourself to be dragged down into the kind of vapid, self-centered, ultimately unfulfilling themes of the day, focus on these deep ways of living. Advice that still applies to us 2000 years later.
Questions for Reflection
1.) Are you ever anxious? What causes you anxiety?
2.) What sorts of things do you ask God for (petition)? For what are you grateful?
3.) How might you live a life that is: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious?