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Philippians 2

Canticle - Christ, the servant of God
v 6-11

Though he was in the form of God,
  Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.

He emptied himself,
  taking the form of a servant,
  being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
  even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him
  and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
  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.

Catechesis by Pope Saint John Paul II
General Audience, Wednesday 19 November 2003 - also in French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

I Vespers, Sunday, Week 1 - Christ, servant of God

"1. In addition to the Psalms, the Liturgy of Vespers includes certain Biblical Canticles. The Canticle just proclaimed is undoubtedly one of the most significant and theologically rich. It is a hymn placed in the second chapter of the Letter of St Paul to the Christians of Philippi, the Greek city that was the Apostle's first stop of missionary proclamation in Europe. The Canticle is thought to be an expression of the original Christian Liturgy and it is a joy for our generation, after two millennia, to join in the prayer of the Apostolic Church.

The Canticle unfolds in a double vertical trajectory: a first movement is one of descent followed by ascension. Indeed, on one hand, there is the humiliating descent of the Son of God when, in the Incarnation, he becomes man out of love for humankind. He plummets into the kenosis, the "emptying" of his divine glory, pushed to the point of death on the Cross, the punishment of slaves who were least among men, thus making him a true brother of suffering humanity, sinful and rejected.

2. On the other hand, there is the triumphant ascension which takes place on Easter Day, when the Father reinstates Christ in the divine splendour and he is celebrated as Lord by the entire cosmos and by all men and women now redeemed. We are placed before a magnificent re-reading of Christ's mystery, primarily the Paschal one. St Paul, along with proclaiming the Resurrection (cf 1 Cor 15, 3-5), defines Christ's Paschal mystery as the "exaltation", "raising up", "glorification".

Therefore, from the bright horizon of divine transcendence, the Son of God crossed the infinite distance between Creator and creature. He did not grasp on, as if to a prey, to his "equality with God", which was due to him by nature and not from usurpation. He did not want to claim jealously this prerogative as a treasure, nor use it for his own interests. Rather, Christ "emptied", "humbled" himself and appeared poor, weak, destined for the shameful death of crucifixion; it is precisely from this extreme humiliation that the great movement of ascension takes off, described in the second part of the Pauline hymn (cf Phil 2, 9-11).

3. God now "exalts" his Son, conferring upon him a glorious "name" which, in Biblical language, indicates the person himself and his dignity. Now this "name" Kyrios or "Lord", the sacred name of the Biblical God, is given to the Risen Christ. This places heaven, earth and hell, according to the division of the universe into three parts, in a state of adoration.

In this way, at the close of the hymn, Christ appears in glory as the Pantocrator, that is, the omnipotent Lord triumphantly enthroned in the apses of the Palaeochristian and Byzantine basilicas. He still bears the signs of the passion, of his true humanity, but now reveals the splendour of divinity. Near to us in suffering and death, Christ now draws us to himself in glory, blessing us and letting us share in his eternity.

4. Let us conclude our reflection on the Pauline hymn with the words of St Ambrose, who often uses the image of Christ who "emptied himself", humiliating himself and, as it were, annihilating himself (exinanivit semetipsum) in the Incarnation and his oblation on the Cross.

Particularly in his Explanatio super Psalmos CXVIII [Comment on Psalm 118], the Bishop of Milan says: "Christ, hung on the tree of the Cross... was pierced by the lance, whereby blood and water flowed out, sweeter than any ointment, from the victim acceptable to God, spreading throughout the world the perfume of sanctification.... Thus, Jesus, pierced, spread the perfume of the forgiveness of sins and of redemption. Indeed, in becoming man from the Word which he was, he was very limited and became poor, though he was rich, so as to make us rich through his poverty (cf 2 Cor 8, 9). He was powerful, yet he showed himself as deprived, so much so that Herod scorned and derided him; he could have shaken the earth, yet he remained attached to that tree; he closed the heavens in a grip of darkness, setting the world on the cross, but he had been put on the Cross; he bowed his head, yet the Word sprung forth; he was annihilated, nevertheless he filled everything. God descended, man ascended; the Word became flesh so that flesh could revindicate for itself the throne of the Word at God's right hand; he was completely wounded, and yet from him the ointment flowed. He seemed unknown, yet God recognized him" (III, 8, Saemo IX, Milan-Rome 1987, p 131, 133)."

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II
General Audience, Wednesday 4 August 2004 - also in French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

I Vespers, Sunday, Week 2 - 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 prior to the Apostle.

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.

The movement of the hymn clearly proceeds towards the base, that is, towards humanity. "Stripping himself" and almost "emptying himself" of that glory, so as to take on the morphé, that is, the reality and condition of a servant, the Word enters through this road into the horizon of human history. Indeed, he becomes similar to human beings (cf v7) and even goes so far as to assume the sign of limitation and finality which death is. This is an extreme humiliation, because the death accepted is that of the cross, considered the most infamous in the society of that time (v8).

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

The second movement proceeds 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 v9). 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). Thus Easter is the solemn Epiphany of the divinity of Christ, which is at first concealed by his condition of servant and of mortal man.

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) "That Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, we see him now crowned with glory and honour because of the death which he suffered, so that by the grace of God he would experience death for the benefit of everyone" (Heb 2, 9).

Let us conclude 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 of St John, refers to the Pauline hymn to celebrate the life-giving power of Christ who brings about our resurrection, snatching us from our mortal limit.

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).

Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI on Canticle Philippians 2
General Audience, Wednesday 1 June 2005 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

I Vespers, Sunday, Week 3 - Christ, the servant of God

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.

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."

Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 26 October 2005 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

I Vespers, Sunday, Week 4 - Christ, servant of God

"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 it and to live its fruits.

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."