Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, 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 4:6-7)
As we recall, our second readings at Sunday Mass for three weeks now have been taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will read from this letter once more next week.
Between last Sunday and this Sunday, our readings from Philippians have skipped a chapter. We missed one of St. Paul’s most famous exhortations: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” This is what the Apostle told the Philippians to do at the end of chapter two: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Perhaps this sounds strange, since in our reading today, St. Paul began by telling them to “have no anxiety at all.”
“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” “Have no anxiety at all.” Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?
Let us try to understand it this way. In the first sentence, St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race, weak sinners that we are. In the second, he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven. These two sentences were put together perfectly by St. Ignatius Loyola when he said: Work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.
When our Holy Father Pope Benedict came to visit us here in Washington and New York, his theme was hope. Hope is one of the three virtues which unite us directly with God. We believe in Him—faith. We hope to be in heaven with Him someday. We love Him because He is absolutely wonderful, and we love ourselves and everyone else because God loves us—charity.
We can fail in the virtue of hope in two ways. St. Paul’s words to the Philippians help us to avoid both.
“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” The past couple of weeks a lot of people have been nervous and afraid about our economy. When knowledgeable people warn us of possible economic catastrophe, it is perfectly natural for us to be afraid. May it please God to see us through these difficult times.
But when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing to be truly afraid of. God will always provide for us one way or another, so other than this one thing, we really don’t have anything to fear. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.
The one genuinely frightening thing is: H—E—double hockey sticks. When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we tremble. Not a good prospect. Not at all. We are right to take every care to avoid the bad place.
Hell is a real possibility. We sin against hope if we presume with God. Hope is hope, not certainty. I cannot assume I am going to heaven. It is not automatic. I have to strive to do good and avoid evil; I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy. Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.
On the other hand, St. Paul wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.” Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence in God’s generosity. If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble. But it is not up to us alone. We can trust God.
The good Lord, in fact, has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven. He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now. No matter what we have done or failed to do, until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a contingency plan to save us. He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him. He will always give us whatever we need to persevere on our pilgrimage, if we ask Him.
It is a sin to presume; it is also a sin to despair. Despair is a sin against hope. God will provide. He will give us the grace to repent of our sins. All we have to do is ask. That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray. And the good Lord has even given us the perfect way to pray.
At the end of today’s reading, St. Paul wrote, “Keep on doing what you have learned and received.” These words call to mind what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you…In the same way the chalice…saying, This is the new covenant in my blood.”
If we hope in God, we pray. The best prayer is the Holy Mass. In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven. And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some: He gives us Himself.
If we want to learn how to pray with hope, if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and despair, let’s ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass, and pray them ourselves. To pray the Mass is an act of perfect hope.