“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” These words are from today’s second reading (Phil 4:4-7) are also the “Entrance Antiphon,” that opens today’s Liturgy. Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent was known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word to “rejoice.” The reason for rejoicing is that “the Lord is near.” The Lord’s nearness certainly applies to the upcoming celebration of Christmas.
As we know, Christmas is more than a celebration of an event in the past but the increase of the presence of Christ in our lives. St. Thomas Aquinas considers joy a sign of spiritual progress: “When Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord, he urges them to make more progress… Anyone who desires to make progress must have spiritual joy” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians)
Thomas recalls the words of the Book of Proverbs: “A cheerful heart is a good medicine” (Prov. 17:22). Thomas reflects that the first “characteristic of true joy: is that “It must be right, this happens when it concerns the proper good of man, which is not something created, but God: ‘But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge’ (Ps. 73:28). Therefore, it is right, when there is joy in the Lord; hence he says, in the Lord: ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Neh.8:10)” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas notes that Paul declares: “Rejoice always!” as he also does in First Thessalonians 5:16. Thomas explains that a second characteristic of joy is that “It is continuous.” Sin interrupts continuous joy and, at times, sadness affects one’s joy. Thomas believes that such interruptions are signs that joy is imperfect: “… sadness … signifies the imperfection of joy. For when a person rejoices perfectly, his joy is not interrupted, because he cares little about things that do not last; that is why he says always” (Commentary on Philippians).
For Thomas, the reasons for joy are multiple. Thomas immediately thinks of the upcoming celebration: “If you rejoice in God, you will rejoice in His incarnation: [the angel announced to the shepherds] ‘I bring you good news of a great joy, which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior’ (Lk. 2: 10)” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas thinks we may rejoice “in your own activity and in your contemplation… Again, if you rejoice in your good, you will be prepared to rejoice in the good of others” (Commentary on Philippians).
We rejoice in the present and in the future: “If you rejoice in the present, you are prepared to rejoice in the future; hence he says, again I will say, rejoice” (Commentary on Philippians).
Paul instructs: “Everyone should see how unselfish you are” (Phil 4:5).
Thomas affirms: “The fourth characteristic of joy is that it be ‘moderate’: He says, let all men know, as if to say: Your life should be so moderate in externals, that it offends the gaze of no one; for that would hinder your manner of life” (Commentary on Philippians).
Paul proclaims: “The Lord is near” (Phil 4:5). Thomas comments:
“Then when he says, the Lord is at hand, he touches on the cause of joy. For a man rejoices when his friend is near. But the Lord is near with the presence of His majesty: ‘He is not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17:27); He is also near in His flesh: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ’ (Eph. 2:13). Again He is near through indwelling grace: ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you’ (Jas. 4:8); and by His clemency in hearing: ‘The Lord is near to all who call upon him’ (Ps. 145:18); and by His reward: ‘Its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged’ (Is. 13:22)” (Commentary on Philippians).
Paul announces: “Have no anxiety” (Phil 4:6).
Thomas reflects: “Then when he says, have no anxiety, he shows that our minds should be at rest: first, that anxiety is uncalled for … It was fitting to add have no anxiety [solicitude] after saying that the Lord is at hand. As if to say: He will grant everything; hence there is no need to be anxious: ‘Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on’ (Mt. 6:25)” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas realizes that people become anxious about their responsibilities: “This seems to be contrary to what is stated in Romans (12:8): ‘He that rules, [do so] with solicitude.’ I answer that anxiety or solicitude sometimes suggests diligence in seeking what is lacking; and this is commendable and opposed to negligence” (Commentary on Philippians).
However, there is an anxiety which is not good: “Sometimes it suggests anxiety of spirit with a lack of hope and with the fear of not obtaining that about which one is anxious. Such anxiety the Lord forbids in Matthew (6:25), because no one should despair, as though the Lord will not grant what is necessary” (Commentary on Philippians).
Paul tells us to present our concerns to the Lord: “Present you needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude” (Phil 4:6).
Thomas remarks: “In place of anxiety we should have recourse to God: ‘Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you’ (1 Pet. 5:7). And this is done by praying; hence he says, but in everything let your requests be made known to God” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas considers the appropriateness of making prayer to the Lord who is near: (Commentary on Philippians). “It is fitting, after he says the Lord is at hand, to speak of petition, for it is customary to make petitions of a new lord on his arrival” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas describes the necessary requirements for prayer:
“First, that prayer implies the ascent of the mind to God; therefore he says, by prayer: ‘The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord; he will not desist until the Most High visits him’ (Si. 35:17).”
“Secondly, it should be accompanied by confidence of obtaining, and this from God’s mercy: ‘We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but on the grounds of thy great mercy’ (Dan. 9:18); therefore, he says, and supplication, which is an appeal to God’s grace and holiness; hence it is the prayer of a person humbling himself: ‘The poor use entreaties’ (Prov. 18:23). We do this when we say: ‘Through your passion and cross…’”
Thirdly, because a person who is ungrateful for past benefits does not deserve to receive new ones, he adds, with thanksgiving: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thess. 5:18).”
“Fourthly, prayer is a petition; so he says, let your requests be made known to God: “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7)” (Commentary on Philippians).
Thomas affirms that these four aspects are found in the prayers of the Church: “If we reflect, we will notice that all the prayers of the Church contain these four marks: first of all, God is invoked; secondly, the divine benefits are thankfully acknowledged; thirdly, a benefit is requested; and finally, the supplication is made: ‘Through our Lord….’” (Commentary on Philippians).
Paul declares: “Then God’s own peace, which is beyond understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).
Thomas recalls that Augustine spoke of peace as the “tranquility of order.” Peace can be found in holy people: “It flows into saintly men: the holier he is, the less his mind is disturbed: ‘Great peace have those who love thy law’ (Ps. 119:165)…” (Commentary on Philippians).
God gives peace: “Now because God alone can deliver the heart from all disturbance, it is necessary that it come from Him; hence he says, of God: and this, inasmuch as peace considered in that source passes all created understanding … And the peace, therefore, will keep your hearts, i.e., your affections, so that you will never depart from the good in anything: ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life’ (Prov. 4:23); and your minds, so that they not deviate from the truth in anything. And this, in Christ Jesus, by whose love your affections are kept from evil and by whose faith your mind continues in the truth” (Commentary on Philippians).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to Thomas’ Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Philippians may be found on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/