Discern what is of value this Advent
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 7, 2003
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Christmas measures what we want. The gifts we hope for, the gifts we give and the ones we get measure our wants. Children, who live in a world of total dependency and fantastic dreams, exemplify these wants the best. They drive the marketplace that is Christmas.
Buried beneath the mounds of merchandise are values worth retrieving: knowledge of self, concern for another, awareness of need, desire for charity, and the religious ornamentation that gilds our annual expedition into the jungles of the marketplace.
When Christians cut through all the commercial gift wrap, they expect to unbundle a nativity scene. We justify the expense of Christmas because it is a religious holiday. We approach Christmas the same way we approach birthdays. After all, we are preparing for the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus, right?
Yes and no. The Advent season of the church year continually lifts our eyes forward, not back. We look not so much at the first Christmas in the past, but the second coming in the future. Advent does not really celebrate the past; it summons us to put our lives in order for the future.
People who observe Advent as the spiritual onramp to the Nativity of Jesus struggle to make sense of the second readings for this season. They do not prepare us for Bethlehem as you might expect. Rather, they prepare us for Armageddon.
Next weekend we will hear a passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians (1:4-6, 8-11), in which he twice mentions "the day" of Christ Jesus.
Traces of civilization in modern-day Phillipi go back several centuries before the birth of Christ, where people organized settlements known as Krenides and Datum. This northeastern Greek municipality had some appeal because of its location on trade routes. But Philip II of Macedonia annexed the region in the fourth century BC because of the gold and silver mines of nearby Mount Pangaeus. He then named the city after himself. Talk about measuring your wants. The very name of the town of Phillipi immortalized selfishness, hegemony and greed.
Romans settled the area, but it was already inhabited by people of other regions. Practitioners of religion worshiped a variety of different gods.
Paul came to this city on his first missionary journey around the year 50, and the Gospel took root "from the first day," according to next week's reading. Paul loved the Philippians. Of all the letters he wrote, this one carries the most warmth. "I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you," he wrote about the year 54. Paul composed these words while in prison, a place not known for its warmth and joy.
Paul returned to Phillipi after gaining his freedom, and Christianity continued to flourish there. The martyr Ignatius of Antioch, about the year 125, sent a letter to the Philippians indicating they were still a stronghold of Christianity.
Paul seemed to know this would happen. "I am confident that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it," he writes, "until the day of Christ Jesus."
The much anticipated "day of Christ Jesus" is the reason we hear this passage during Advent. Paul expected Jesus to return soon. The apostle's preaching and letter-writing ministry encouraged believers to be ready for the coming of Christ.
Specifically, Paul made this prayer: "that your love may increase," and that they might obtain "knowledge to discern what is of value." This love and true wisdom would make them "pure and blameless for the day of Christ." When Jesus comes, Paul expects the Philippians will be "filled with the fruit of righteousness." Apparently, it worked. People took the faith to heart, inspiring the likes of Paul and Ignatius.
As we prepare for Christmas, we face the challenges of Phillipi. During Advent, the Christian heart wants what is best - not just celebratory gift-giving, but love and wisdom. If Paul had his wish, each Advent our love would increase "ever more and more." And we would discern what is of value, not by taking advantage of reduced-price sales, not by increasing our gains in the stock market, not by finding ways to receive love without having to give it much, and not by avoiding livelihoods that might serve the community but pay rather poorly. We discern what is of value by spending time with family and loved ones, and by living out the charity we say we want. Then Christmas will measure our wants the right way.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron.