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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.

To receive the joy of Christmas, we must deny ourselves courageously, which enables us to bow low humbly to receive the Infant King from the manger of the cattle stall to the manger of our hearts. If our hearts are clean of any sin that would block His royal entry into the deepest secret of our heart, we will be all the more ready to receive our Lord this Christmas with the greatest of joy.

During the liturgical season of Advent, we are challenged to prepare worthily for Christmas as we await with joyful patience the coming of our Lord Jesus. The days of Advent thus embrace a certain penitential spirit, as we are reminded of a world obscured by darkness before the birth of the Christ Child. The Rule of Saint Benedict, for all of its liturgical richness, seems at first to be curiously silent concerning Advent and even Christmas. However, upon deeper examination of the theme of rejoicing (from the Latin gaudeo, gaudere “to rejoice”), we come to understand how authentic joy arises in a heart that first has suffered:

“His heart quietly embraces suffering and endures it without weakening or seeking escape. For Scripture has it: Anyone who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mt 10.22), and again, Be brave of heart and rely on the Lord (Ps 27.14) … They are so confident in their expectation of reward from God that they continue joyfully and say, But in all this we overcome because of him who so greatly loved us (Rom 8.37)” ( Rule of Saint Benedict 7.35-39, on the fourth degree of humility).

During Advent, our world waits, and the longer night hours overshadow us … but they have a purpose for the Christian faithful in helping us to await with eager and hope-filled expectation the coming of our Lord Jesus born anew at Christmas. Such waiting involves a patience that at its very root implies a certain suffering, but it is not without spiritual purpose or benefit as trials of patience increase our hope if we are brave enough to enter into them. Patiens comes from the Latin verb patior, pati meaning “to suffer” and is the first element in Saint Paul’s great listing of the characteristics of love (cf. 1 Cor 13.4). Authentic love embraces a kind of long-suffering that endures over great lengths of time, and in that endurance, such suffering fortifies the one who is patient with an ever deeper love filled with hope. It is not a suffering without end as it leads ultimately to a great goal, the expectation of reward from God for hard labor and steadfast faithfulness in God. Such perseverance makes a fuller spirit of joy even possible, as the Christian realizes how God’s power has given him the brave courage to overcome the challenge at hand. Perseverance is full of hope-filled joy, knowing in loving faith that God will provide. In faith, we see that He always has done so before, in trust we see that He sustains us now in our present suffering, and we come to hope that He always will do so in the future … even though current circumstances may tempt to despair (from the Latin, de| spes, “away from hope”).

 A world in darkness suffers profoundly without the Light of Christ. However, the darker candles of our Advent wreaths have been pierced this week by the coming light of Christ in this time of Gaudete (Latin, “rejoice”), and the rose candle has been lighted to signify the great hope that “the Lord is near to all who call upon him, who call upon him in truth” (Ps 145.18). In lighting  the violet candle on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, by no means have we returned to a darkness absent of hope! Indeed, the rose candle remains aflame in eager, hope-filled, joyful expectation of the coming fullness of light to arrive upon the Nativity of our Lord, signified by the lighting of  the white Christmas candle soon to be lighted at center.

In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the reference to joy is curiously infrequent, but one reference that is teachable to the present theme connects joy to the penitential spirit of Lent in one who awaits the joys of Easter. Saint Benedict writes on the observance of Lent:

“We urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure … refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial … so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 1.6) … look[ing] forward to holy Easter with joy [gaudio] and spiritual longing” (RB 49).

Saint Benedict clearly understands here that for joy to be experienced in its fullness, suffering first precedes. Indeed, what makes prayer with tears, compunction of heart, and denial of self even possible is the hope that comes from embracing the joy of the Holy Spirit. We surely need the supernatural help of God’s grace to be capable of growing in holiness through the trials of suffering, however Easter is near every Lent and promises to bring the superabundant joy for which Lent longs. The suffering found in the longing of Lent precedes the joy experienced at Easter, and such Easter joy will be diminished in one who truly has not embraced first the disciplined penitential spirit of Lent.

In the same way, the Christian who jumps immediately to celebrating Christmas without adequate spiritual preparation — embracing a certain suffering that comes from longing during Advent for the more profound presence of Jesus in his life — will shortchange himself of the even greater joy that could have been at Christmas. As Christmas quickly draws near, may we use these days genuinely to ready ourselves for the coming of our Infant King ever more deeply in our lives. In these last days of Advent, we have a prime opportunity to be brave in readying our heart as a worthy home for the Christ Child by celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, casting away all obstacles to the Lord’s Coming fully to us. To receive the joy of Christmas, we must deny ourselves courageously, which enables us to bow low humbly to receive the Infant King from the manger of the cattle stall to the manger of our hearts. If our hearts are clean of any sin that would block His royal entry into the deepest secret of our heart, we will be all the more ready to receive our Lord this Christmas with the greatest of joy.

Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading … On Sunday also let all devote themselves to reading, except those who are appointed to the various functions. But if anyone should be so careless and slothful that he will not or cannot meditate or read, let some work be given him to do, that he may not be idle. (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 48)

In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the beloved Father of Western Monasticism emphasizes the importance of daily lectio divina, or sacred reading, as a primary means of growing in deeper intimacy with the Lord of Sacred Scripture.  Sunday is a day even more particularly devoted to such a practice, for Sunday is the great holy day when we as Christian faithful should seek to encounter the face of God most of all in our Sabbath rest.  God calls us to preserve the Sabbath as holy, a time when we seek to grow closer to God in communion with the Christian faithful, especially with our families and other loved ones whom we hold dear to our hearts.

Lectio divina is a slow, prayerfully meditative reading of the Bible, in a relaxed manner over a significant period of time (at least 30 minutes), in a place that is free from any distractions with the goal of growing more intimately close to our Lord through his Word.  Praying through lectio divina is especially powerful in front of the Blessed Sacrament, where also we may encounter our Lord Jesus in his inestimable Love.

It is worth examining a selection of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI’s statements concerning this ancient monastic practice, which is said to have originated with Saint Benedict in the 5th century and Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, founded upon earlier Hebrew and Greek practices.  Pope Benedict XVI has spent considerable time over the course of his pontificate catechizing the Christian faithful on the practice of lectio divina, even leading the people of God in such practice in select audiences over the past few years.

In his message to the youth of the world “On the Occasion of the 21st World Youth Day” (9 April 2006), our Holy Father urges the young to “become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow.  By reading it, you will know Christ.  Note what Saint Jerome said in this regard: ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.” 

Benedict XVI highlights that lectio divina embraces a spiritual journey composed of four stages:  Lectio, which is “reading and rereading a passage from Sacred Scripture and taking in the main elements”; Meditatio, a “moment of interior reflection in which the soul turns to God and tried to understand what his Word is saying to us today”; Oratio, when we “linger to talk with God directly” in direct dialogue with God; and finally Contemplatio, which “helps us to keep our hearts attentive to the presence of Christ” in silent contemplation.  In this manner, our Holy Father emphasizes, “reading, study and meditation of the Word should then flow into a life of consistent fidelity to Christ and his teachings.”

In his address to participants of  the international congress organized to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ‘Dei Verbum’ (16 September 2005), Pope Benedict shares that such “diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart (cf. Dei Verbum 25).  The beloved Pontiff then enunciates with great enthusiasm, “If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.”

Anyone who has read Pope Benedict XVI’s first two volumes of Jesus of Nazareth notices immediately that our Holy Father “does not only talk the talk, but he walks the walk” when it comes to practicing lectio divina.  Both books are evidence of the immense fruit that transpires when meditating carefully on God’s divine Word.  These volumes comprise profound meditations on the Jesus of Sacred Scripture, in a living encounter where Pope Benedict succeeds in helping us to accompany him as he makes his personal search “for the face of the Lord”.

In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father introduces to us to the use of canonical exegesis that, working hand in hand with the historical-critical method of examining Scripture, allows the words of the Bible open up to us as relevant in our modern day.  We see that Jesus Christ is the “key to the whole” and learn from him “how to understand the Bible as a unity, presuppos[ing] a prior act of faith”.  In canonical exegesis, we “read … the individual texts of the Bible in the context of the whole”, carrying forth historical-critical interpretation in an organic manner “toward becoming theology in the proper sense”. 

In historical-critical interpretation, what is sought concerns the “precise sense the words were intended to convey at their time and place of origin”, but certainly the Word has deeper value than simply for that time and place through the course of our faith history.  Benedict XVI elaborates: “The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject – the pilgrim people of God – and lives within this same subject” (xix-xx).  It is such methodology that guides our Holy Father in his interpretation of Jesus in the New Testament, a form of examination that trusts the Gospels that “the Jesus of the Gospels … is a historically plausible and convincing figure” (xxii).

Pope Benedict’s approach finds deeper root in his earlier role as President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission when it released its landmark document in 1993 guiding the Christian faithful in its understanding Sacred Scripture, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.  Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger highlighted in his introduction to the document that “each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books”, but in light of its being human word and God’s Word together, “in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word, which is contemporary in every age”.

Within this same document, the Pontifical Biblical Commission highlights the importance of the canonical exegetical approach, which had originated in the 1970s out of concern that the historical-critical method at times experienced considerable difficulty arriving at truly theological conclusions.  Consequently, it was determined that the theological work of interpreting Sacred Scripture would enjoy more success “by beginning from within an explicit framework of faith: the Bible as a whole,” interpreting each Biblical text in light of the entire Scriptural canon “as received as the norm of faith by a community of believers” in order “to arrive at a presentation of Scripture truly valid for our time”, thus compensating for the weaknesses discovered in the historical-critical method.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission underscores a particularly important point for all Christians to keep in mind when seeking to interpret the meaning of Sacred Scripture: “It is the believing community that provides a truly adequate context for interpreting canonical texts.  In this context, faith and the Holy Spirit enrich exegesis; Church authority, exercised as a service of the community, must see to it that this interpretation remains faithful to the great tradition which has produced the texts” (cf. Dei Verbum 10).

In other words, in order to arrive at the most authentic interpretation of God’s Word, we must guard against the error of reading our own personal interpretation into the Biblical text (known as eisegesis) when it clearly is not consistent with the traditional deposit of our Faith.  The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches maintain that the Bible can be understood correctly only through the lens of Holy Tradition as passed down through the centuries.

May we ever seek to encounter our Lord more intimately through daily meditation upon His sacred Word, following the excellent example of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI as he testifies to his vibrant faith in the Jesus of Nazareth series.  His third volume on the infancy narratives on Jesus couldn’t come soon enough!  May these precious works of faith lead us ever more intimately in communion with God, giving us many opportunities to encounter the face of the Lord in Christ Jesus many times over!