Third Sunday of Advent, Sermon #1, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men. The Lord is nigh. Be nothing solicitous; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

These four are the closing verses of Saint Paul’s short, beautiful, and most affectionate Letter to the faithful of the Church of Philippi, the principal city of Macedonia. These words of the Apostle need ho explanation, but they contain practical lessens of the utmost importance, which should claim your attention.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.” Saint Paul wrote this Letter at Rome, as is clear from the greetings at the close of it, to the faithful at Philippi; and during his first imprisonment, about the year 60 of our era.

This apostle was certainly a most wonderful man. He was subjected to every manner of trial and suffering and of these he has left us an account both in this and many other of his Letters. From Jerusalem he was brought in chains to Rome and there cast into prison under Nero; he saw death staring him in the face; he had been forsaken by many, even his own disciples had added to his grief in prison; and yet filled with a holy enthusiasm, an enthusiasm inspired by faith and charity, he writes to his beloved children and bids them “Rejoice.” He goes further, adding: “Always rejoice,” and still he repeats: “Again, I say rejoice.” But how can one rejoice in the midst of the fears and terrors of a persecution, with manacled hands, and distant only a few steps from Nero, that monster of cruelty! The Apostle lifts his eyes on high and fixes them in faith on God, and in Him, and in Him alone he finds comfort and that joy which he wishes to pour into the hearts of his beloved children.

There are two kinds of joy, one of heaven, the other of earth; one comes from man, the other from God; one gives bodily gratification, the other inundates the soul, thrills it, and is participated in also by the body. There is a joy of the avaricious man who looks with ecstasy upon his well-filled coffers; there is a joy of the proud and vain man, who delights in applause, and is intoxicated with the incense of an obsequious crowd; there is a joy of the glutton who finds his happiness in eating and drinking; there is a joy of the voluptuous man whose whole being revels in wantonness; these are low, vulgar joys, unworthy a man and incapable of making him happy, because they are fleeting and pass rapidly away, and if for a moment they satisfy our baser passions and the body, which perishes at death, they leave the soul empty, comfortless, and seared, as if a hot blast had passed over it.

Ask the favorites of the world, who have trodden all the paths of pleasure; who have plucked every flower that came in their way; who have accumulated their millions; who have reached the height of their ambition and look down upon the multitudes below; who have denied their appetite neither food nor drink, no matter what the cost; who have had everything that heart could desire or the passions crave, ask them: “Are you happy?” They will reply with one voice: “We are tired of life. Life is a burden. Our heart is empty.” Such is the joy of the world.

There is a joy of the humble man, who has no illusions about himself; of the poor man who is resigned and contented with his lot; of the man who is master of his passions and keeps them under control; there is a joy of the man who is chaste and just and charitable, a tranquil joy, ever the same, which inundates the soul, thrills its every fiber, which endures in the midst of the pains and hardships of this life, which is as a breath of heaven, bringing God near to us and making us almost feel His substantial presence. This is the joy of the Lord of which Saint Paul writes. Seek not the joy of the world, love it not, but the joy of God, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” This joy of virtue, this pure and holy joy sweetens the sorrows that are never absent from us on this earth, fills the soul with a marvelous strength and speeds our journey on the way to heaven.

Saint Francis of Assisi sang while in his agony upon his poor bed of straw and Saint Louis Gonzaga exclaimed: “Joyful we go forward.” Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Vincent de Paul, and Saint Philip Neri were always in good humor and joyful and happy amid the toils, the cares, and the hardships of this life. Theirs was the joy of the children of God, that which Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

“Let your benignity be known to all men.” The Greek word used by Saint Paul and which I have translated benignity, is a word of flexible meaning and may signify modesty, gracious manners, affability, kindness. The meaning of Saint Paul here is that in our external conduct, in word and deed and deportment, we should bear ourselves toward all in such way as to be agreeable to each and offensive to none. And all this is the outcome and the external expression of charity, which prompts us when possible to abstain from what may displease our neighbor and to do what may give him innocent pleasure. According to Saint Paul a Christian should be agreeable, amiable, and acceptable to those among whom he lives, because in whatever he does he acts under the inspiration of the charity of Jesus Christ.

And why should we exercise this benignity to all? “Because,” answers Saint Paul, “the Lord is nigh.” The Lord is nigh: does this mean, as some have said, that the day of final judgment is at hand? No, for Jesus Christ would not say when this day will come, and the Apostle himself in his second Epistle to the Thessalonians bids them not to be frightened as if the day of the Lord were at hand. The Lord is nigh, because the day of our death, and therefore the day when each of us must go to judgment, is ever nigh, no matter how long we may live, for life passes as a shadow; the Lord is nigh, because in Him we live, and move, and have our being; because He sees us at all times and in all places, and searches our thoughts and affections. Let us be always on our guard, for as Saint Paul says, “we are always in His presence.” What stronger motive than this could we have to live holily?

Here follows a verse in which Saint Paul gives us a practical rule by which to regulate our lives as Christians: “Be nothing solicitous In the midst of our occupations, trials, and privations, even when we have an abundance of this world’s goods, we are easily worried and we worry those with whom we live. We are filled with hopes and fears and anxious desires and we keep ourselves in a perpetual ferment, and thus all peace is banished from the heart.

When Saint Paul says: “Be nothing solicitous,” he does not mean that we should neglect our business or that we should live thoughtlessly, unmindful of tomorrow, stupidly affirming that we have given our every care into the keeping of divine Providence. If this were so, Saint Paul would have preached recklessness, inculcated sloth, spoken in condemnation of his whole life, and given us a command to tempt Providence. He means that we shall discharge our every duty and then commit ourselves to the providence of God, perfectly resigned to His holy will and perfectly at peace, knowing that He will arrange all things for our good.

And what really happens? Unfortunately, in our conduct we frequently fall into two extremes. Now we rely wholly upon our strength, upon our talent, and our ability, forgetting that if God is not with us all must fail; again, we expect God to do everything, as if we ourselves have nothing to do and as if God puts a premium on idleness and sloth. The truth is, my friends, that the aid of God and our own efforts must always go together in whatever we do, and if either is wanting it is folly to hope that the undertaking will be a success. Can the light of the sun reach our eyes if we do not open them! Will the fields be covered with grain if they are not sown with seed and cultivated? Can our lungs breathe if there is no air? Never forget that while God has created us without ourselves, He will not save us without ourselves. Let us work and do our duty without being anxious, assured that if we do what we can God will not fail to do His part, and the union of the two forces, the divine and the human, will successfully accomplish whatever we undertake.

What must be done to banish the anxiety which so frequently disturbs our hearts? Saint Paul tells us: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God.” When we are fearful that our affairs are taking a bad turn and our soul is borne down with trouble and anxiety and is in a turmoil of agitation, let us lift our thoughts to Him who sees all and is all-powerful, to Him who is ever near us, and who tenderly loves us; and, as children would to a loving father, let us open our souls to Him in prayer; and if the tempest of the soul is not stilled, let us continue to pray still more fervently, and our prayer will then become supplication. Here the difference between prayer and supplication is brought out. Supplication is prayer with insistence and fervor; when the need is more pressing our prayer should also become more urgent and thus pass into a supplication.

If God hears us we should give Him thanks for the favor received; if in His wisdom He puts off listening to our petition and leaves us still to battle with the storm, we should thank Him just the same, because He strengthens and comforts us, because He is acting for our greater good, and because His blessed will is ever our inviolable law. My friends, let us never forget this valuable lesson of the Apostle, that in all things we must have recourse to God, that prayer is the medicine of a sick soul and the anchor of our salvation.

The Apostle closes the portion of the Epistle I have read for you with this wish, than which there could not be a more touching one: “And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your minds and hearts in Christ Jesus Our Lord.” Peace, there is no sound sweeter to the ear, nothing more ardently desired, or more jealously guarded than peace. All seek it, all yearn for it, all salute it as the greatest good that can be had here below.

What is peace? It was defined by Saint Augustine as the tranquillity of order. When we observe order, that is, when we observe justice, we have peace. We all have duties toward ourselves, toward our neighbor, and toward God. We have duties toward ourselves to watch over our thoughts and affections, to repress our disorderly passions, our pride, our ill-regulated attachment to the things of earth, our sensuality and intemperance, our envy, anger, and all other passions that rise in rebellion against us. Would we have peace with ourselves? Well, then, let us re-establish order in our soul, conquer our rebellious passions and reduce them to obedience, set up the reign of virtue and make faith the rule of all our actions.

Again, we have duties toward our neighbor and many. There are fathers and mothers and children, masters and servants, rich and poor; let each do his duty, always and faithfully; and in doing his duty let him be careful not to trespass upon the duties of others. Let us have great sympathy with all and true and generous love toward all; let us seek the interest of others as we would our own, and then we shall establish order or peace between our neighbor and ourselves.

Finally, we have duties toward God, and these are primary duties and the foundation of all others. Let us keep His law, fear His judgment, love Him as a father, never doing anything that can give Him offense, and then we shall have order and peace with God.

Peace! How can he have it who lives in sin and knows he is an enemy to God? One who knows he has committed a crime and is deserving of the supremest punishment, who knows that the officers of the law are upon his tracks seeking him, has not an hour’s peace. Every noise, the rustling of the leaves, the sight of a man approaching him – everything disturbs him, frightens him, fills him with suspicion and dread. But think of one who has offended the omnipotent God, from whom there is no escape, the God who patiently waits and into whose hands he must fall in the end; can this man ever have true peace? It is impossible. He alone has true peace, the peace of God, the peace that comes from God, who masters his passions, who loves his neighbor as himself, who flies sin, and who lives in God’s friendship. Happy man! This peace, of all treasures the most precious, will guard his mind and heart and allow him to taste here on earth how sweet and good the Lord is to those who love Him.