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Canticle in St Paul's Letter to the Philippians

Catechesis by Blessed John Paul II
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
1st Vespers (Evening Prayer) of all 4 Sundays

Christ, servant of God

1. On our journey through the Psalms and Canticles that make up the Liturgy of the Hours we have come to the Canticle in Philippians (2: 6-11) that is a feature of First Vespers on all of the four Sundays that the Liturgy covers.

We are meditating upon it for the second time, exploring more deeply the wealth of its theology. These verses shine with the Christian faith of the origins, centred on the figure of Jesus, recognized and proclaimed our brother in humanity but also Lord of the universe. Thus, it is a real confession of Christological faith that mirrors clearly the thought of St Paul but may also echo the voice of the Judeo-Christian community before the Apostle's time.

2. The Canticle starts from the divinity of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the divine "nature" and condition are his - in Greek, morphé - that is, the essential transcendent reality of God (cf. v. 6). Yet he does not consider his supreme and glorious identity as a proud privilege of which to boast nor as a sign of power and mere superiority.

Our hymn clearly moves downwards, that is, towards humanity. It is on this path of "emptying" himself, or as it were, stripping himself of that glory to take on the morphé, in other words, the reality and condition of a servant, that the Word takes on in order to enter the horizon of human history. Indeed, he assumes the "likeness" of human beings (cf. v. 7) and even goes so far as to accept the sign of limitation and finality which death is. It is an extreme humiliation, for he even accepted death on the cross, which the society in his time held to be the vilest form (v. 8).

3. Christ chose to lower himself from glory to death on a cross; this is the first movement of the Canticle to which, in order to reveal its other nuances, we will have occasion to return.

The second movement is in the opposite direction: from below it ascends to the heights, from humiliation it rises towards exaltation. It is now the Father who glorifies the Son, snatching him from the clutches of death and enthroning him as Lord of the universe (cf. v. 9). St Peter too, in his discourse at Pentecost, declares that "God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2: 36). Easter, therefore, is the solemn Epiphany of the divinity of Christ, which is at first concealed by his condition as a servant and a mortal.

4. Before the grandiose figure of Christ glorified and enthroned, let everyone fall to their knees in adoration. A powerful profession of faith is raised not only from within the whole horizon of human history, but also from heaven and from hell (cf. Phil 2: 10): "Jesus Christ is Lord" (v. 11) "We see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb 2: 9).

Let us end our brief analysis of the Canticle in Philippians, to which we will need to return, by listening to the words of St Augustine who, in his Commentary on the Gospel according to St John (Commento al Vangelo di San Giovanni), refers to the Pauline hymn to celebrate the life-giving power of Christ who brings about our resurrection, snatching us from our mortal end.

5. These are the words of the great Father of the Church: "Christ, "though his nature was divine, did not jealously keep his equality with God to himself'. What would have become of us, here below in the abyss, weak and attached to the earth, hence, incapable of reaching God? Could we have been left to ourselves? Absolutely not. He "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant', but without abandoning his divine form. Consequently, he who was God, made himself man, taking on what he was not without losing what he was; thus, God became man. Here, on the one hand, you find help in your weakness, and on the other, you find what you need to attain perfection. Christ raises you up by virtue of his humanity, he guides you by virtue of his human divinity and leads you to his divinity. All Christian preaching, O brothers, and the economy of salvation centred on Christ is summed up in this and in nothing else: in the resurrection of souls and the resurrection of bodies. Both died: the body because of its weakness, the soul because of its wickedness; both were dead and both, the soul and the body, had to be raised. By virtue of whom is the soul raised if not by Christ as God? By virtue of whom is the body raised, if not by Christ as Man?... Your soul rises from wickedness by virtue of his divinity and your body rises from corruption by virtue of his humanity" (Commento al Vangelo di San Giovanni, 23, 6, Rome, 1968, p. 541).

JPII - General Audience, Wednesday, 4 August 2004

2 Catecheses by Benedict XVI
1 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
1st Vespers (Evening Prayer), Sunday Week 3

Christ, the servant of God - Philippians 2: 6-11

1. In every Sunday celebration of Vespers the liturgy proposes anew the Christological hymn of the Letter to the Philippians which is short but laden with meaning. We are examining the first part of this hymn that has just resounded (v6-8), in which the paradoxical "self-emptying" of the Divine Word is described as he divests himself of his glory and takes on the human condition.

Christ, incarnate and humiliated by the most shameful death of crucifixion, is held up as a vital model for Christians. Indeed, as is clear from the context, their "attitude must be that of Christ" (v5), and their sentiments, humility and self-giving, detachment and generosity.

2. He certainly possesses the divine nature with all its prerogatives. But this transcendent reality is not interpreted or lived out under the banner of power, greatness and dominion. Christ does not use his equality with God, his glorious dignity or his power as an instrument of triumph, a sign of remoteness or an expression of incontestable supremacy. On the contrary, he strips or "empties himself", immersing himself without reserve in our weak and wretched human condition. In Christ the divine "form" (morphe) is concealed beneath the human "form" (morphe), that is, beneath our reality marked by suffering, poverty, limitation and death.

Consequently, it was not a mere disguise or a change in appearance such as people believed the deities of the Greco-Roman culture could assume. The form Christ took was divine reality in an authentically human experience. God does not appear only as a man, but he makes himself man and truly becomes one of us, he truly becomes the "God-with-us" who is not satisfied with looking down kindly upon us from the throne of his glory, but plunges in person into human history, becoming "flesh" or, in other words, a fragile reality, conditioned by time and space.

3. This radical and true sharing in the human condition, with the exception of sin, leads Jesus to the boundary that is a sign of our finite condition and transience: death. However, it is not the product of an obscure mechanism or a blind fatalism. It stems from his free choice of obedience to the Father's plan of salvation.

The Apostle adds that the death Jesus encounters is death on a cross, actually the most disgraceful death; he thereby desires to be truly a brother to every man and every woman, also of those who are forced to suffer an atrocious or ignominious end.

But it was precisely in his passion and death that Christ witnessed to his free and conscious obedience to the Father's will, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews: "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb 5: 8).

Let us conclude here our reflection on the first part of the Christological hymn that is centred on the Incarnation and the redeeming passion. We will have an opportunity later to examine the subsequent paschal development that leads from the Cross to glory.

The basic element of this first part of the Canticle seems to me to be the invitation to enter into Jesus' sentiments. Entering into the sentiments of Jesus means not considering power, riches and prestige as the supreme values in our lives, for basically they do not respond to our most profound spiritual thirst, but rather, by opening our hearts to the Other, carrying with the Other our life's burden and opening ourselves to Our Heavenly Father with a sense of obedience and trust, knowing that by such obedience to the Father, we will be free. Entering into the sentiments of Jesus: this should be our daily practice of living as Christians.

4. Let us conclude our reflection with a great witness of the Eastern tradition, Theodoret, who was Bishop of Cyr, Syria, in the 5th century. "The Incarnation of Our Lord is the most exalted expression of divine concern for human beings. Indeed, neither heaven nor earth nor the sea nor the air nor the sun nor the moon nor the stars nor the whole visible and invisible universe, created by his one word, or rather, brought to light by his word in conformity with his will, show his immeasurable goodness as does the fact that the Only-begotten Son of God, the One who subsisted in the nature of God, a reflection of his glory, bearing the stamp of his substance, who was in the beginning, was with God and was God, through whom all things were made, after having taken on the nature of a slave, appeared in the form of a man; because of his human figure he was considered a man, he was seen on earth, he had relationships with people, he burdened himself with our infirmities and took upon his own shoulders our sicknesses."

Theodoret of Cyr continues his reflection by shedding light on the close connection, highlighted in the hymn of the Letter to the Philippians, between the Incarnation of Jesus and the redemption of humanity. "The Creator worked with wisdom and justice for our salvation. Since he did not wish to use his power alone to lavish upon us the gift of freedom, nor solely to arm mercy against the one who subjugated the human race, to ensure that they would not accuse mercy of injustice; rather, he conceived of a way full of love for human beings and at the same time adorned with justice. Indeed, having united in himself human nature, henceforth overcome, he leads it into battle and disposes that it shelter from defeat, to rout the one who had once wickedly been victorious, to free it from the tyranny of the one who had cruelly enslaved it and to recover its original freedom."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday 1 June 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

"Jesus Christ is Lord!" - Philippians 2: 6-11

(Evening Prayer, Sunday, Week 4) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 26 October 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. Once again, following the itinerary proposed by the Liturgy of Vespers with various Psalms and Canticles, we have heard resound the wonderful and fundamental hymn St Paul inserted into the Letter to the Philippians (2: 6-11).

Already in the past we have underlined that this text contains a two-way movement: descent and ascent. In the first, Christ Jesus, from the splendour of divinity which by nature belongs to him, chooses to descend to the humiliation of "death on a cross". In this way he shows himself to be truly man and our Redeemer, with an authentic and full participation in our human reality of suffering and death.

2. The second movement, upwards, reveals the paschal glory of Christ, who manifests himself once more after death in the splendour of his divine majesty.

The Father, who welcomed his Son's act of obedience in the Incarnation and passion, now "exalts" him in a supreme way, as the Greek text tells us. This exaltation is expressed not only through the enthronement at God's right hand, but also with the conferral upon Christ of a "name which is above every name" (v9).

Now, in biblical language, "name" indicates a person's true essence and specific function, manifesting his or her intimate and profound reality. To the Son, who, for love, was humiliated in death, the Father confers an incomparable dignity, the "Name" above all others, that of "Lord", of God himself.

3. Indeed, the proclamation of faith, chorally intoned from Heaven, earth and the netherworld lying prostrate in adoration, is clear and explicit: "Jesus Christ is Lord" (v11). In Greek, it is affirmed that Jesus is Kyrios, undoubtedly a royal title, which in the Greek translation of the Bible renders the name of God revealed to Moses sacred and unutterable. With the name Kyrios, Jesus Christ is recognized as true God.

On the one hand, then, there is the recognition of the universal sovereignty of Jesus Christ, who receives honour from all of creation, seen as a subject lying prostrate at his feet. On the other, however, the acclamation of faith declares Christ existing in the divine form or condition, thereby presenting him as worthy of adoration.

4. In this hymn the reference made to the scandal of the cross, and even earlier to the true humanity of the Word made flesh, is interwoven with and culminates in the event of the Resurrection. The sacrificial obedience of the Son is followed by the glorifying response of the Father, to which adoration is united on the part of humanity and creation. Christ's singularity emerges from his function as Lord of the redeemed world, which has been conferred upon him because of his perfect obedience "unto death". In the Son, the project of salvation reaches fulfilment and the faithful are invited, especially in the liturgy, to announce and to live the fruits [of salvation].

This is the destination where the Christological hymn leads us, upon which for centuries the Church meditates, sings and considers as a guide of life: "Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2: 5).

5. Let us now turn to the meditation on our hymn that has been interwoven with great wisdom by St Gregory of Nazianzus. In a poem in honour of Christ, the great 4th century Doctor of the Church declares that Jesus Christ "does not empty himself of any part that makes up his divine nature, and not-withstanding this he saves me like a healer who bends over festering wounds... He was of the line of David, but was the Creator of Adam; he was made of flesh, but was also a stranger to it; he was generated by a mother, but by a virgin mother; he was limited, but also immense; he was born in a stable, but a star led the Magi to him, who brought him gifts and bowed down and knelt before him. As a mortal man he battled with the devil, but, invincible as he was, he overcame the tempter with a three-fold strategy... He was victim, but also High Priest; he was sacrificed, but was God; he offered his blood to God and in this way he purified the entire world. A cross raised him up from the earth, but sin remained nailed to it... He descended to the dead, but came back from the netherworld redeeming many who were dead. The first event is typical of human misery, but the second is part of the richness of the incorporeal being.., that earthly form the immortal Son takes upon himself because he loves us."

At the end of this meditation I want to underline two phrases for our lives. In the first place, this admonition of St Paul: "Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus". To learn to feel as Jesus felt; to conform our way of thinking, deciding and acting to the sentiments of Jesus. We will take up this path if we look to conform our sentiments to those of Jesus. Let us take up the right path.

The other phrase is that of St Gregory of Nazianzus. "He, Jesus, loves us". These tender words are a great consolation and comfort for us; but also a great responsibility, day after day.