Tuesday of week 31 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Phil 2:5-11

Yesterday we saw Paul urging the Philippians to greater unity and he gave them some motivating reasons to help bring it about.  Today he gives what is the strongest motivation of all: the example shown by Jesus.

“Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.”  He begins by asking that the Philippians make their own, assimilate into the very core of their being, the thinking patterns of Jesus himself.  He then shows what that thinking pattern was.  This is a call not just to model oneself on the moral behaviour of the historical Jesus but on the entire Christ event as it is depicted in the following hymn.  The same relationships should exist among the Philippians as they have with Jesus Christ, that is, they are to love and serve each other as they love and serve Christ.  There can be no separation of these two realities.

This comes in the form of a hymn.  It is not certain whether this was an already existing hymn which Paul borrowed or whether he composed it partially or in full himself.  Clearly, it expresses exactly what Paul wants to say.

The hymn is in a number of parts, each one highlighting a stage in the ‘mystery’ that is Christ for us:

a. divine pre-existence

b. the kenosis or self-emptying of the incarnation

c. further kenosis in death

d. glorification in resurrection and ascension

e. adoration by the whole universe or cosmos

f. the new title of ‘Lord’.

“This hymn is concerned solely with the historical Christ in whose personality godhead and manhood are not divided; Paul nowhere divorces the humanity and divinity of Jesus, though he does distinguish his various stages of existence.” (Jerusalem Bible)

a. ‘His state was divine.’  Here Paul affirms that Christ had all the attributes of God himself and is fully God, who always was and always will be.

b. Yet he did not cling, hold on tenaciously  to that ‘equality with God’ with all its status and privileges.  This does not mean that he renounced in any way his divine nature; that would be impossible.  But, in contrast to Adam who was seduced into wanting to be ‘like God’, he let go of all the honours and reverence that were his inherent right.

He ‘emptied’ himself totally and, while still being God and Lord, took on the form of a slave (all servants were slaves in those times) and the human condition which we all share.  He became a slave (doulos, doulos) although he was Lord (kyrios, kurios).  There is probably a reference here to the Suffering Servant we read of in Isaiah (52:13-53:12), parts of which we read during the Good Friday liturgy.

Above all, he lived in total submission to his Father, “not my will but yours be done”.  In the words of John’s gospel, the Son “hid himself” by assuming human nature and becoming, in the words of Hebrews, “like us in all things but sin”.  Or, as the hymn today puts it: “He became as human beings are.”  This ‘emptying’ in Greek is kenosis (kenwsis), the word often used in commentaries for what Jesus did for us.

The glory which was his by nature and by right could now not be seen (except in the momentary breakthrough of the Transfiguration).  He was seen as just a man, a human being. He shared all our limitations, like us in all things except sin.

(However, we have to be careful to keep a balance: Jesus was truly God but he was also truly and in the fullest sense, a human being (anthropos, ‘anqrwpos, homo) and a male human being (aner, ‘anhr, vir) at that.  Even today, one hears Christians understating Jesus’ humanity, as if it was only an external veneer.  It was a real man who suffered and died on the cross; anything less diminishes the full meaning of the Incarnation and the witness of God’s love which the Passion is.)

c. But Jesus did not stop there.  Even in human terms, he further ‘emptied’ himself and accepted death, death on a cross.  Here is the ultimate submission and obedience to the Father’s will: the surrender of his life.  And it is the ultimate in self-emptying.  There was hardly anything more degrading and humiliating than crucifixion.  The crucified person was a convicted criminal and put to death by a method of appalling cruelty in full view of the public and, left hanging naked, stripped of every vestige of human dignity.  This was the degree to which Jesus accepted to go in order to show the depth of God’s love for us sinners. (But, for us, there is no shame in Jesus’ nakedness. It is a sign of his total innocence. It is a reversal of the situation of our First Parents, when, after their sin, their nakedness became a badge of shame and guilt.)

d. If that had been the end, our faith, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, would be in vain.  “But God raised him high”, literally in the Greek, “super-raised” him through his resurrection and ascension.  And “gave him the name above all other names”.  The Risen Jesus is now addressed as “Lord”, the name that belongs to him as the Son of God, sharing the very nature of his Father.  A name which puts him above all other created beings, including angels and archangels.

e. And the whole universe, divided traditionally into the ‘heavens’, ‘earth’ and ‘underworld’ bends its knee at the name of Jesus.  Bending the knee expresses even greater submission than standing in the presence of a greater person.

f. Now every tongue, that is, people in every corner of the earth, will acclaim Jesus as Lord.  This is the very essence of our Christian belief: Jesus is Lord, sharing in the very nature of God.  By calling Jesus Lord we give glory to God the Father.

This hymn is one of the crucial passages in Paul’s letters and indeed in the whole New Testament.  It goes right to the heart of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  As Paul says at the beginning, it expresses the very mind of Christ and, until we have fully assimilated that “mind” into our own way of seeing our lives, we are not yet fully his disciples.

We, too, have to learn how to empty ourselves and surrender totally into the hands of Jesus and the Father.

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