“The Lord is near,” says the Apostle (Phil. 4:5). That’s part of the Epistle reading for Palm Sunday in the Byzantine tradition, but it works just as well as we prepare for Christmas. In fact, there are several things in chapter four of the Letter to the Philippians that we would do well to think about as the day of Christ’s Nativity draws nigh unto us.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says. And just in case we had written that off as a cliché or merely passed over it lightly, he immediately refers us right back to it: “Again, I will say: ‘Rejoice!’” Christmas is nothing if not a feast of joy. The birth of Christ was described as “tidings of great joy,” and when the Magi saw the star over the place where the Child was, they “rejoiced with exceeding joy.” So St Paul sets the tone for us as we prepare to receive anew the tidings of joy, the mystery and gift of “God with us.”
Joy is the positive element of these holy days, but in order to enter into it, we have to root out the negative. The Apostle goes on: “Have no anxiety about anything.” Easy for him to say! I’ll bet he wasn’t behind on his Christmas shopping, baking, housecleaning, gift-wrapping, and decorating! Well, since it is the word of God, we can’t just assume that it is impossible. But at least he doesn’t say, “just do it.” He gives us some indication of how it might actually be possible: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Ah yes, let’s not forget about praying to God while we’re preparing for the birth of his Son. It is supposed to be our communion with God that frees us from anxiety, because we trust Him so much—right? The fruit of such trusting prayer is this: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Jesus is the Prince of Peace, remember, and that doesn’t just mean world peace. It means interior peace as well.
If the fruit of trustful prayer is peace, then the fruit of peace is contentment, and this contentment is the fruit—coming full circle now—of trust. The Apostle writes that he has learned how to be content, that is, at peace, whether he’s full or hungry, in abundance or in poverty, because he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That’s why he can tell us not to have any anxiety. He knows that nothing can separate us from the love and providence of God. But in case we’re still a little nervous about all that, he counsels us to revive our trust that “God will supply every need of yours according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Finally, brethren, the Apostle says: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we’re going to have a pure heart with which to receive the Lord this Christmas, we can’t have a cluttered mind, especially if there is any injustice, impurity, or anything dishonorable or contrary in there. We’ll not be too successful in removing negative or otherwise unwanted thoughts by simply trying hard not to think of them. That only makes us pay attention to them. We have rather to replace them with “whatever is true, honorable, pure,” etc. Think about these things instead. Fill the mental space with goodness and blessing. Otherwise, once we’ve angrily forced one bad thought out, seven worse thoughts will come in and occupy our interior space (see Lk 11:24-26).
So keep in mind that the Lord is near, and therefore have no anxiety about anything. Pray with confidence and with gratitude, and God’s peace will come to you. In that peace you will be able to be content with any set of circumstances, since you know that God will supply all your needs. Think about all things holy and good, so that the stresses and demands of these days do not bring thoughts that produce anger or discouragement or unrest. “Then the God of peace will be with you”—and isn’t that precisely what we long for in the celebration of the birth of Jesus?
I will conclude this post as the Apostle concludes his Epistle: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit.”