Friends, our second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians includes a famous hymn about Christ’s “self-emptying” and redemption. Here it is again:
“Though he was in the form of God,
[Christ] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.”
This is a mystery of our faith – the mystery of the Incarnation – as Jesus lets go of His divine prerogative and enters completely into our human experience.
This is the mystery of the humility of God; since Jesus, who was equal to God (as Paul says, “in the form of God”), lets go of that, and “empties himself” of all that divine resemblance. People saw Jesus, and they saw just a man – an ordinary man, who looks, spoke, ate, and smelled like everyone else. And in that likeness to our humanity, Jesus taught us what it means to be truly human – not through power or influence, but through humility and obedience – even to the point of losing His very self in death.
What this experience does, however – rather than leading to shame and defeat – is it leads to glory – for Jesus and for us. The hymn continues:
“Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
Scripture scholars believe that this particular hymn, the verses of which Paul quotes here, may have been a commonly sung or proclaimed part of the Philippian community’s liturgy, even before Paul wrote this letter, and that he used it simply to illustrate his message. In other words, “This is the way.” And, as Jesus has shown us the way, so we are to follow that way.
But what is Paul illustrating? Well, that comes just before that hymn. The Apostle begins by pleading with the community to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” That unity of heart and mind, Paul says, comes from selfless charity and humility in community. He is pointing to one of the “marks” of the Church – the Church is “one.”
How are we doing, almost two thousand years later? Let’s set aside the denominational divisions that are no small scandal to the Body of Christ; let’s look simply at our Catholic Church (maybe even just our parish?). Are we “one”? Are we unified in charity and humility, as Paul says, “humbly regarding others as more important than ourselves, each looking out not for our own interests, but also for those of others”? The Church is divided, friends; and it saddens me very much to say so.
We have priests who speak on one or another side of a political (a secular political) spectrum, and bishops defend or chastise them. Our two major political parties parade Catholic personalities at their conventions to pander to a Church that even they know is divided. We shame fellow Catholics for not falling strongly enough in line with my particular issue, or we hide behind arguments of “the law of the land.”
This is painful to the Body of Christ. Our Blessed Mother weeps to see her children so fragmented and tribalized. We are falling short of the mark that Jesus set for the Church He established – a mark of unity. This unity (and the glory that comes from it) can never be achieved through anger, vitriol, and uncharitable screeds. It is only, as St. Paul reaffirms today, the result of humility, and looking in charity to the good of others. Darkness will never drive out darkness. We are called to be the light of the world. Sometimes, we are lightbulbs that generate more heat than light. Only the light of Christ – a light born of unity and love – can drive out the darkness that we see in our world.
This season, we will hear a lot of angry talk leading into the elections. We will be tempted to be caught up in those passions. However, in keeping with St. Paul’s call today for us to have in us the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus. That humble regard for others – believing that they have charity behind their passions and that they share the same humanity that we do, and that Jesus took on in the Incarnation – that regard will help us to be agents of a more charitable and civil society. But we must first learn that lesson from Jesus. His obedience to the Father was the only way to salvation for the world. Jesus is the Son who not only says “yes” to the Father, but He also does the Father’s will. Imitation of Jesus is our only way to salvation as well.
This is the way.