Advent, week 3. Sunday. Words of THE WORD

Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
The Lord is near. (Philippians 4: 4-5)

O God, Who see how Your people
faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,
enable us, we pray,
to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always
with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12:6).

SCRIPTURE EXCERPT (click for all readings)
“Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness (ἐπιεικὲς, epieikes) should be known to all.
The Lord is near (ἐγγύς, eggus).
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer (προσευχῇ, proseuche) and petition (δεήσει, dehsei), with thanksgiving (εὐχαριστίας, eucharistias),
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:4-7).”

Sunday’s Word begins with the prophet Zephaniah: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” Then the psalmist sings: “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel,” continuing with a dose of confidence added for good measure: “I am confident and unafraid.” Not to be outdone, Saint Paul bluntly exhorts: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all.”

With the horror that unfolded in Newtown Connecticut this past Friday, it borders on the impossible to comprehend any type of joy, gladness, rejoicing – let alone living an anxiety free life. The Word appears so disconnected from present reality that in our confusion, anger, hurt and emptiness we might be tempted, really temped, to throw the whole kit and caboodle out the door. The only Scripture this Sunday that seems to make any sense is the Lucan Gospel wherein people of varying occupations and professions ask: “What should we do?” In Jesus’ day and in our day, the question is poignant and urgent because in the face of life’s horror we honestly do not know what to do because we get no answer to the gut-wrenching question, “Why”!
In his Letter to the Phillipians, Saint Paul offers a response to the Gospel question, “What should we do?” It begins with ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes), translated here at “kindness.” In present times and in many situations of tragedy and grief, we instinctively provide for one another. One’s presence to and with another, a hug, food, running errands, shopping for essentials – all sort of acts – flow one to another to provide comfort. Often these actions are couched in silence and tears as no human word provides any adequate insight. As used in Saint Paul’s day, ἐπιεικὲς speaks of ‘what is fitting or appropriate for life in a reasonable and useful way.’ In other words, there is ‘balance’ or ‘moderation’ that is brought to life as tragedy generally slams us to either side of life’s pendulum.
Yet it is still fair to ask, “how?” In the face of great tragedies and heartaches in life, one may legitimately wonder whether or not one has the necessary strength. Pauline teaching directs one to “prayer (προσευχῇ, proseuche) and petition (δεήσει, dehsei).” The reader may recall an earlier post dealing with “to ask” or “to petition” (δέησις deesis). It is interesting that even here in the translation, it appears that while “prayer” and “petition” certainly are related, they are not necessarily synonyms, although some scholars debate this point. When these nouns are viewed from their counterparts as verbs, the distinction becomes not only clearer, but helpful for Christian living. δέομαι (deomai) is the Greek verb “to ask” or “to petition.” When ‘prayer’ takes on more of a petitionary character, that is, specifically asking for something, δέομαι appears to be the preferred verb. However, when there is nothing specifically requested, προσεύχομαι (proseuchomai) appears to be the preferred verb. So if ‘praying’ (προσεύχομαι) is the activity and this activity is not about asking, what action best describes praying as προσεύχομαι? Saint Paul actually responded to that question earlier: “The Lord is near (ἐγγύς, eggus).”
Throughout the New Testament, ἐγγύς is often used to indicate the ‘nearness’ of the Kingdom of God or the ‘proximity’ of the Lord’s rule in one’s life or throughout the cosmos. ἐγγύς conveys the image of ‘being present to’ or ‘being in the company of another.’ As such, when Saint Paul directs the Philippians “to pray,” it does mean something different from ‘voicing petitions,’ an action that he specifically states following the directive “to pray.” One could conclude then that when Saint Paul speaks of ‘praying’ in the sense of προσεύχομαι, it has everything to do with being drawn into the presence of Jesus Christ. This is prayer that is wordless. This is prayer that is not directed by my present concerns, real as they are in the moment. This is a ‘being with’ that is made possible by the Spirit, a grace that draws us into communion with the Divine Persons and deepens the bonds of human interaction, especially in those moments of incomprehensible evil and tragedy.