Prison letters are often profoundly moving and revealing. Think of Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. Think of Father Alfred Delp, S.J., writing during his Nazi imprisonment. St. Paul, too, “did time” and wrote letters from prison; and we are his beneficiaries. In his letter to the Philippians we get a glimpse of his personal faith that we might otherwise never have known. In today’s first reading we hear he say this:
I shall continue to rejoice, for I know that this will result in deliverance for me through your prayers and support from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The bolded words echo a phrase from the book of Job (13:16). Like Job, he knows he is innocent and he trusts that God will bring his situation to a good outcome—whether through death or release from prison. Why is this apostle in prison in the first place? Well, an itinerant preacher exciting little groups of people with talk about a foreign Anointed one—a king!—would understandably arouse the suspicions of Roman officials in charge of maintaining allegiance to the Emperor. There was, after all, “no king but Caesar.” So Paul became for them what the FBI today calls “a person of interest.” And he would be placed under guarded surveillance until it became clear that the teaching and preaching was a “Jewish matter” and no threat to Roman law and order. Meanwhile, incarceration gave Paul the occasion to deal with some basic personal issues. A judgment that he was a serious threat to Roman order could indeed result in early death. In this passage from Philippians we hear him deal with possibility.
My eager expectation and hope is that I shall not be put to shame in any way, but that with all boldness, now as always, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.
Talk about “Ignatian indifference”! This man is ready for early death or continued life. It is not that he is naïve about Roman power. It is simply that he has come to a point in his relationship with the risen Lord that he sees good prospects in either possibility--early death or continued life.
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.
For Paul, biological existence now has meaning only in terms of relationships—his relationship with Jesus risen and with those with whom he shares the life of the body of Christ, his few family of fellow Christians.
Can we compare this moment of Paul with the reports of those who have had a “near death” experience? There are striking parallels. Those who through some kind of trauma have begun to make the passage from this life to the next and are suddenly “called back” commonly report that, thereafter, they understood their life no longer in terms of possessions and achievement but entirely in terms of knowing and loving—that is, in terms of relationships. Paul had experienced this grace long before experiencing physical dying. Meditating on his words can open us to that same grace.
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