Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday of Advent
Philippians 1:4–6, 8–11
December 5, 2021
The second week of Advent begins today. As we saw last week Advent is divided into two parts, the first which extends from the first Sunday of Advent until December 16 awaits the return of Jesus in glory, the second part which goes from Dec 17 to Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Both the prayers and the readings for the Masses of the day revolve around these themes. We are still in “Early Advent” and the Collect—opening prayer—of the Mass is:
Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.
These are the preoccupations of Early Advent. The church reminds us that our lives must be directed to meeting the Lord should he come in our lifetimes but that earthly concerns may hinder us from grasping the necessary knowledge for the task. Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians examines and expands on this insight.
Phillipi was a town based on commerce. Although there was a Jewish community, the town’s base was a settlement of Roman soldiers from the entire empire who were given land and positions there. Most of Paul’s attempts to bring Jews and Gentiles together ended in argument and discord as his teaching were interpreted differently by Jews and Gentiles. This misunderstanding usually ended in conflict and enmity. The Philippians seemed to get along quite well together, and Paul is sending them not so much a letter of encouragement – as we saw last week when we read the 1st Letter to the Thessalonians– as one of friendship. But as we learn friendship in the ancient world had its consequences.
The passage beings with a line we do not read today:
I thank my God every time I remember you,
This would not have been uncommon in this world. It would have been expected that a polite writer would thank the gods for the good things he had received or expected from those who received the greetings. Here it is not a pagan god who is thanked but “my God”—the Father—and because
of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Sharing the gospel means more than simply believing the same doctrine about the good news as Paul but in sharing the responsibly of spreading it. What we now call evangelization.
This is more than pro forma politeness but rather heartfelt enthusiasm for people who heard and took up his message:
constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,
Because of this he is confident:
that the one who began a good work among you
will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ
Completion here means more than an end but fulfillment reflecting the Jewish idea of the day of the Lord. By the time of Paul, the day of the Lord meant when God would set up his rule and all would see his justice. For Paul, the Day of Jeus Christ would be when he would return in glory and begin his kingdom.
This reflects the idea in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that the Kingdom was begun with Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice but would not be completed until he returned.
This completion is not purely intellectual knowledge.
And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
The word he uses for knowledge is epignōsis, knowledge from experience. He is assuming that people will engage with the world and, in that way, will come to know what is of value and importance.
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless
for the day of Christ
The word he uses for pure originally meant tested by sunlight. People would hold up wine to the sunlight to see if it was clear and thus pure. Our lives will be inspected to see if we have acted with a pure heart.
This had a great and specific meaning in his world. Christianity’s competition was not the traditional religion of Zeus and his pantheon of Gods. If believed at all they were for public worship to bind the empire together. It was all rather dry and emotionally unsatisfying. “Mystery religions” provided a more engaging experience. They had powerful rituals and claimed to know the secrets to the mysteries of the universe. This was usually in the form of secret knowledge and the deeper one entered into them the more one knew and the further one could explore the word.
A good image is a series of doors with combination locks. A member of the mystery cult would be given the combination of more doors the longer he belonged. This continued after death when a fully initiated member would have the key to heaven.
Christians however believe that salvation is through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate in it not by knowing the answers to mysteries but by participating in this sacrifice both liturgically and practically. Paul’s prayer is for knowledge that brings forth practical and moral action. The Christian is
…filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ
for the glory and praise of God.
A righteous life is one which gives glory to God and is what Jesus will look for when he returns.
The Gospel this week is the beginning of the ministry of St. John the Baptist. He is foretold in the book of Isaiah as a voice crying out in the desert. In ancient cultures, the beginning and the end of an event are intimately connected. John’s preparation is not just for Jesus’ birth but for his return. His call to reform one’s life and community is ongoing until “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”