25th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
September 24, 2023
Today, St. Paul wrote a disturbing line, “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better [Phil 1:23].” Did the great saint want to end his life?
We must understand the context of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians to answer this question. The letter to the Christians in Philippi is one of Paul’s prison letters. If we recall the life of this great apostle, we know that Paul was persecuted and arrested by his fellow Jews who opposed his preaching of the Gospel. During his trials, Paul used his privilege as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar. Thus, he was transported to Rome, the capital of the empire. While he was waiting for Caesar to hear his appeal, he was under house arrest, and he was literally in chains. Yet, he was allowed to continue preaching the Gospel and sending letters to different communities. One of the letters is to the Philippians [see Phil 1:14]. Paul could be proclaimed innocent, but there was also a big possibility that Caesar placed him on death row.
From this context, we recognize that Paul was completing nothing about suicide but rather his martyrdom. While suicide is willfully taking one’s own life, martyrdom is death brought by hatred of faith. However, what is interesting is how St. Paul reacted to his martyrdom. He was not afraid, not overly anxious, and undoubtedly not depressed. On the contrary, he was full of joy. If we read the letter to the Philippians, we quickly feel that the general atmosphere of the letter is joy. Paul even wrote, “Rejoice always in the Lord, I say, Rejoice! [Phil 4:4]. Now, this is highly puzzling. How could St. Paul rejoice when he was persecuted and facing imminent death?
Firstly, we need to recognize that here, Paul did not have a mental problem that made him unable to feel pain or regulate his emotions. If we read his other letters, Paul articulated his emotions well. He was angry when he needed to correct and to grieve when his children did not live according to the Gospel. So, why joy amid suffering and in the face of death?
The answer is that Paul has seen the actual worth of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have suffered the loss of all things for his sake, and I regard them as rubbish [Phil 3:8].” Paul has the correct hierarchy of priorities in his life. Everything, including life itself, should be in Christ and for Christ. Thus, Paul, who has given everything for Christ and lived in Christ, rejoices in the face of death because he knew he could finally be united with Christ.
Paul gives us a life hack to salvation: know the value of Christ, which is eternal. We need to set our priorities right. Yes, material wealth is substantial, food and shelter are essential, and education is necessary, but these are means to live in Christ and for Christ. We may lose money or material belongings, which is okay, but if we lose Christ, we may also lose our salvation and eternal joy despite our earthly success. Thus, rejoice because, for us, life is Christ and death is gain.
Valentinus Bayuhadi Ruseno, OP