Work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation. It is God Who, in His good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement. In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing; prove yourselves innocent and straightforward, children of God without reproach (Philippians 2.12b – 15a).
The liturgical season of Lent gives us Christians the space to reexamine and ponder areas of our thoughts and actions that need repentance and change, both in terms of actions that we commit and in what we omit. As we reflect upon our lives in serious prayer during this holy season of penitential preparation for Easter, we discover where we need to refocus ourselves, in our search to conform our footsteps to those of Jesus Christ. We see in this passage from the Letter to the Philippians, excerpted from Vespers of the First Week of Lent (February 29th this year) that in any good we have been able to generate, it is God Who brings forth the fruit of achievement. It is God Who, in His good will towards us, generates even the desire to do what is good. He is the Source of the attitudes that He calls us to espouse here: innocence and straightforwardness. God calls us to think and act with a pure heart such that when all of our thoughts and actions come to light – in what we have done and in what we have failed to do – we will be shown as His sons and daughters, meriting praise for belonging to Him and deserving no reproach when following in His footsteps.
Christians have had to confront one threatening condition after another throughout their history, and sometimes several troublesome conditions at one time in ways that can be truly anxiety producing. In recent months, such threats have included severe governmental intrusion on fundamental human rights — most especially violating our freedom of religion and freedom of conscience — through the government’s attempted “contraceptive mandate”; nervousness about the upcoming U.S. presidential elections; and an economy that has been the worst in decades for so many Americans. People often are tempted to become depressed and give into helplessness, apathy or even despair when times get so rough.
However, this passage from the Letter to the Philippians demonstrates to us as believers where our anxieties really should lie. We ultimately should not be anxious over the things of this world … We certainly must embrace our responsibilities, regardless of their difficulty, with genuine love for God, neighbor and self as a matter of justice and duty. However, we are called to demonstrate complete trust in God through self-abandonment, giving everything to our Lord into His merciful hands, asking for His Providence to come speedily to our aid, casting out all worry and fear.
This passage calls us as the followers of Jesus Christ to work with great urgency for our salvation and for the salvation of all people around us … We are not to presume that we indeed already have obtained this salvation. Rather, we are called to live completely in hope, entrusting our salvation to our Lord. God is the One who judges each one of us on our last day, and when we each stand in the divine presence of the Lord, we will not be able to proclaim anything but the truth at the time of our judgment. We will know with profound self-knowledge what judgment Jesus must render as His Light penetrates our entire being, and His perfect Truth compels us to be truthful. The real meaning of life is to prepare for this great moment in our history, by longing throughout life to belong forever to Him and by demonstrating this belief through a Christian faith that is sincere and active. Our lives are called to reflect Jesus and His Ways at every turn. As Blessed John Paul II said in his audience on 4 August 1999 concerning the Church’s theological teaching on hell: “Hell is … the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.” A person freely chooses to go to hell by refusing to work with anxious concern during his life to achieve salvation, even until the last moment of life denying that he needs the Father’s mercy, made fully manifest through Jesus, the Son of God.
Remembering ourselves this message to the Philippians ultimately leads us to the primary questions of our missionary response ad gentes (ministering the Gospel to all people of the world) and in the New Evangelization (ministering to fellow Catholics): Do we have a burning desire to set the world around us ablaze with the fervor of God’s love? Does our thirst to live out our Christian Faith generate hope-filled joy in our souls, such that we are contagious in our eagerness to live out the Christian life whenever and wherever the public meets us … in our churches, in our schools, at work, among our neighbors and around strangers, with the young and the old and everyone in between? Are we anxious daily to pursue our own salvation as well as to work for the salvation of the people surrounding us? Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, wisely stated in his February 17th address to the Vatican’s Consistory of Cardinals that one of the main traits of an evangelist who communicates the Gospel — and who is always by nature a missionary — is that he must be a person of joy, for “joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.” A person who is genuinely united in his heart with the will of God is always joyful, regardless of whatever anxiety may come.
Focusing with a proper anxiety on our salvation helps us to keep Saint Benedict’s challenge firmly before us, “to keep death daily before one’s eyes”, knowing we will have to render an account on the last day of all we have done, or failed to do. We find this calling in the Rule of Saint Benedict 4.47, and doing so actually is referred in the Rule to being an “instrument of good works” … This makes sense if we think of such an attitude in light of “work[ing] with anxious concern to achieve [our] salvation”.
It is important for us to look briefly for a moment also at the Greek of our passage to understand the nature of this anxiety, though (Phil. 2.12b):
μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε
metà phóbou kaὶ trómou tēn èautōn sotērían katergázesthe
When precisely translated, katergázesthe (κατεργάζεσθε) means “to work out, to render fit for something so as to bring results”. But what results? Sotērían (σωτηρίαν) indicates our “deliverance, salvation from enemies, our future salvation – the sum of all benefits and blessings which Christians, redeemed from all earthly ills, will enjoy when Christ returns again”. How do we work out our salvation? Phóbou kaὶ trómou (φόβου καὶ τρόμου) signifies “with fear/dread/terror and trembling,” but this Greek is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts his own ability to meet all requirements completely for his salvation, but nonetheless he does his utmost religiously to fulfill his duty”.
Today’s reading challenges us to keep our minds urgently on what really matters: our own salvation and the salvation of each person to whom we minister – keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground even when the ground seems to shake with uncertainty. As long as we persevere, always depending joyfully on the grace of God, in the task set before us to fulfill our missionary responsibility ad gentes and in the New Evangelization, we will be Christ’s Church. As Cardinal Dolan so aptly elucidates in reference to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris missio, the Church does not have a mission; rather, “the Church is a mission”. When we live out our Christian Faith in such dynamism with the help of God’s grace, we will be able to trust in loving hope that God will honor our faithful obedience to Him on our last day and will grant us our eternal reward, saved forever in Him.