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Sunday, December 16, 2012

From the Pastor - Gaudete Sunday

A weekly column by Father George Rutler.

Saint Luke, with his eye for detail, is patron saint of historians and artists. It is ironic that he was martyred, according to tradition, in Boeotia—a humid and swampy part of Greece whose people were not interested in much of anything beyond their uneventful daily lives. Homer mocked them, and they became the butt of jokes, especially among the Athenians who disdained their lack of interest in philosophy and the great questions of life, rather like the hapless people today who spend their time “tweeting” and ignoring what is going on around them.

If Luke died in Boeotia, he certainly was not Boeotian in outlook. His vibrant Acts of the Apostles record how some of the people of Thessalonika objected to what Paul and Silas had been preaching: they “have turned the world upside down” by “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This is exactly what is said in our own culture as Christianity is proscribed as politically incorrect.

In the next chapter, Luke describes Paul on trial before Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeus, proconsul of Achaia. Gallio, representing the best in Roman jurisprudence, threw out the case brought against Paul because it had nothing to do with Roman civil law. Gallio was the brother of the most revered Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Like Paul, the two brothers would die under Nero, but in their cases by forced suicide.

Stoicism was a grin-and-bear it philosophy: there is no point in expecting happiness in a future life, and therefore the only satisfaction to be had consists in a stiff-upper-lip attitude to suffering. Stoics did not perfectly practice what they preached, however, and Seneca himself indulged in a luxurious life. They did pride themselves on inner discipline. Seneca taught that if you fear losing something, you should practice doing without it while you have it. For instance, if you fear losing comforts, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘This is the condition that I feared.’” They called this “the premeditation of evils.”

Some mistakenly have thought that St. Paul exchanged letters with Seneca and was something of a Stoic himself. He does say: “We rejoice in our suffering because suffering produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3). But unlike the Stoics, Paul believed that hardships and spiritual disciplines serve to prepare the soul for the joys of heaven.

So on Gaudete Sunday in penitential Advent, a little unearthly light seeps into earthly darkness, and the Church chants: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6).


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