Brothers and sisters: Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.
(from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians)
The second readings at Sunday Mass generally come from one of St. Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches. Through this past summer, we have read from his letter to the Christians in Rome. Today we begin reading from St. Paul’s relatively short letter to the Philippian Christians. We will continue reading from this letter in our second reading at Sunday Mass for the next three Sundays.
On his second missionary journey, St. Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor—what is now Turkey—visiting local churches and establishing new ones. When he had reached the west coast, St. Paul received a vision in a dream. He saw a Greek man saying to him, “Pass over and help us.” So the Apostle decided to set sail for Europe. Sts Timothy and Luke were with him.
The northern part of Greece, where the Apostles landed, is called Macedonia. In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great departed to conquer the world from the military city named after his father, King Philip. When the Romans conquered Philippi two centuries later, they found the place to be so beautiful that many of the soldiers retired there. Philippi became a Roman colony, and by the time of St. Paul, the Philippians enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizens, just like the citizens of Tarsus, St. Paul’s home city in southeast Asia Minor.
When St. Paul arrived in a new city, his custom was to go to the synagogue on the sabbath and preach the gospel. But there were so few Jews in Philippi there was no synagogue. St. Paul found the city’s small group of Jews at their meeting place by the river. Many of them were immediately converted to Christ.
In Asia Minor the Apostle had been well-received by the pagans but persecuted by the Jews; in Macedonia it was the other way around. He drove a demon out of a pagan girl who had been able to tell fortunes. The men who made money from her exploits were not pleased. They had St. Paul beaten and thrown into prison.
At midnight an earthquake shook the prison, leaving the doors open, but the Apostle remained inside to evangelize the guards rather than run away. This won over the town authorities, and they released him. St. Paul then left Philippi a free man, and he headed west and south to continue founding churches. It would be over five years before he was able to return to Philippi.
A quick read of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians immediately shows us that the church in Philippi was St. Paul’s favorite. In this letter, he does not correct his readers like he corrected the Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians. Rather, the Apostle thanks God for the Philippian Christians and congratulates them for their generosity. The letter to the Philippians is permeated from beginning to end with the sweetness of holy love. It has been called the ‘jewel’ or the ‘pearl’ of St. Paul’s writings.
This is all the more remarkable considering that St. Paul was languishing in another prison when he wrote to the Philippians. Perhaps he was imprisoned in Rome, perhaps in Ephesus; we cannot say for sure. What is clear is that, wherever the prison was, he had enough freedom in this prison to preach the gospel to his fellow-prisoners and to receive visitors.
One of the Philippian Christians, Epaphroditus, had come to St. Paul with a monetary offering from the Philippians. Epaphroditus planned to stay with Paul in prison and take care of him. But Ephroditus took deathly ill. As soon as he was healthy enough to travel, St. Paul sent him back to Philippi, and he gave him a letter to take back home. This is the letter we are reading from these four Sundays.
In the beautiful short section of the letter we heard this today, St. Paul put everything in perspective, including his imprisonment and the dangers he faced in his mission. He considered the whole situation in the light of his personal union with Christ. The Apostle reasoned this way: If he was faithful to Christ, then the Lord would be glorified no matter what happened, whether St. Paul lived or died, suffered or prospered. All that mattered was doing the Lord’s will.
This message can put everything in perspective for us, too. The best thing is always to strive to do God’s will. If God’s will means death, so be it. If it means fruitful labor for the kingdom of God here on earth, so be it.
We are not the masters of the grand plan. We do not measure out the length of our lives. God does the measuring. Our role is to live each day God gives us for His glory, setting our minds to our tasks, and giving generously in any way we can.
If we fall away from the will of God and sin, then we humbly confess it to a priest, do penance, and move on. The Lord is more patient and merciful with us than we imagine. He can even bring good out of our mistakes and failures.
All he asks is that we do the best we can to do our part each day. He will take care of the rest. If we can truly say with St. Paul, “for me, life is Christ,” then we have begun to live in eternity already. Everything we do here on earth is simply a matter of preparing things for the glory to come.