Malankara World

Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Festival of the Cross

Scripture Readings and Commentary

Scripture: Philippians 2:6-11

Hymn in Praise of Christ's Self-Emptying

([5] Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,) [6] who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, [10] that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


5. The Apostle's recommendation, "'Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, requires all Christians, so far as human power allows, to reproduce in themselves the sentiments that Christ had when He was offering Himself in sacrifice--sentiments of humility, of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the divine majesty. It requires them also to become victims, as it were; cultivating a spirit of self-denial according to the precepts of the Gospel, willingly doing works of penance, detesting and expiating their sins. It requires us all, in a word, to die mystically with Christ on the Cross, so that we may say with the same Apostle: 'I have been crucified with Christ' (Galatians 2:19)" ([Pope] Pius XII, "Mediator Dei", 22).

6-11. In what he says about Jesus Christ, the Apostle is not simply proposing Him as a model for us to follow. Possibly transcribing an early liturgical hymn (and) adding some touches of his own, he is--under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit--giving a very profound exposition of the nature of Christ and using the most sublime truths of faith to show the way Christian virtues should be practiced.

This is one of the earliest New Testament texts to reveal the divinity of Christ. The epistle was written around the year 62 (or perhaps before that, around 55) and if we remember that the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 may well have been in use prior to that date, the passage clearly bears witness to the fact that Christians were proclaiming, even in those very early years, that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, crucified, died and buried, and risen from the dead, was truly both God and man.

The hymn can be divided into three parts. The first (verses 6 and the beginning of 7) refers to Christ's humbling Himself by becoming man. The second (the end of verse 7 and verse 8) is the center of the whole passage and proclaims the extreme to which His humility brought Him: as man He obediently accepted death on the cross. The third part (verses 9-11) describes His exaltation in glory. Throughout St. Paul is conscious of Jesus' divinity: He exists from all eternity. But he centers his attention on His death on the cross as the supreme example of humility. Christ's humiliation lay not in His becoming a man like us and cloaking the glory of His divinity in His sacred humanity: it also brought Him to lead a life of sacrifice and suffering which reached its climax on the cross, where He was stripped of everything He had, like a slave. However, now that He has fulfilled His mission, He is made manifest again, clothed in all the glory that befits His divine nature and which His human nature has merited.

The man-God, Jesus Christ, makes the cross the climax of His earthly life; through it He enters into His glory as Lord and Messiah. The Crucifixion puts the whole universe on the way to salvation.

Jesus Christ gives us a wonderful example of humility and obedience. "We should learn from Jesus' attitude in these trials," Monsignor Escriva reminds us. "During His life on earth He did not even want the glory that belonged to Him. Though He had the right to be treated as God, He took the form of a servant, a slave (cf. Philippians 2:6-7). And so the Christian knows that all glory is due God and that he must not use the sublimity and greatness of the Gospel to further his own interests or human ambitions.

"We should learn from Jesus. His attitude in rejecting all human glory is in perfect balance with the greatness of His unique mission as the beloved Son of God who becomes incarnate to save men" ("Christ Is Passing By", 62).

6-7. "Though He was in the form of God" or "subsisting in the form of God": "form" is the external aspect of something and manifests what it is. When referring to God, who is invisible, His "form" cannot refer to things visible to the senses; the "form of God" is a way of referring to Godhead. The first thing that St. Paul makes clear is that Jesus Christ is God, and was God before the Incarnation. As the "Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed" professes it, "the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before time began, light from light, true God from true God."

"He did not count equality with God as something to be grasped": the Greek word translated as "equality" does not directly refer to equality of nature but rather the equality of rights and status. Christ was God and He could not stop being God; therefore, He had a right to be treated as God and to appear in all His glory. However, He did not insist on this dignity of His as if it were a treasure which He possessed and which was legally His: it was not something He clung to and boasted about. And so He took "the form of a servant". He could have become man without setting His glory aside--He could have appeared as He did, momentarily, as the Transfiguration (cf. Matthew 17:1ff); instead He chose to be like men, in all things but sin (cf. verse 7). By becoming man in the way He did, He was able, as Isaiah prophesied in the Song of the Servant of Yahweh, to bear our sorrows and to be stricken (cf. Isaiah 53:4).

"He emptied Himself", He despoiled Himself: this is literally what the Greek verb means. But Christ did not shed His divine nature; He simply shed its glory, its aura; if He had not done so it would have shone out through His human nature. From all eternity He exists as God and from the moment of the Incarnation He began to be man. His self-emptying lay not only in the fact that the Godhead united to Himself (that is, to the person of the Son) something which was corporeal and finite (a human nature), but also in the fact that this nature did not itself manifest the divine glory, as it "ought" to have done. Christ could not cease to be God, but He could temporarily renounce the exercise of rights that belonged to Him as God--which was what He did.

Verses 6-8 bring the Christian's mind the contrast between Jesus and Adam. The devil tempted Adam, a mere man, to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5). By trying to indulge this evil desire (pride is a disordered desire for self-advancement) and by committing the sin of disobeying God (cf. Genesis 3:6), Adam drew down the gravest misfortunes upon himself and on his whole line (present potentially in him): this is symbolized in the Genesis passage by his expulsion from Paradise and by the physical world's rebellion against his lordship (cf. Genesis 3:16-24). Jesus Christ, on the contrary, who enjoyed divine glory from all eternity, "emptied Himself": He chooses the way of humility, the opposite way to Adam's (opposite, too, to the way previously taken by the devil). Christ's obedience thereby makes up for the disobedience of the first man; it puts mankind in a position to more than recover the natural and supernatural gifts with which God endowed human nature at the Creation. And so, after focusing on the amazing mystery of Christ's humiliation or self-emptying ("kenosis" in Greek), this hymn goes on joyously to celebrate Christ's exaltation after death.

Christ's attitude in becoming man is, then, a wonderful example of humility. "What is more humble", St. Gregory of Nyssa asks, "than the King of all creation entering into communion with our poor nature? The King of kings and Lord of lords clothes Himself with the form of our enslavement; the Judge of the universe comes to pay tribute to the princes of this world; the Lord of creation is born in a cave; He who encompasses the world cannot find room in the inn...; the pure and incorrupt one puts on the filthiness of our nature and experiences all our needs, experiences even death itself" ("Oratio I In Beatitudinibus").

This self-emptying is an example of God's infinite goodness in taking the initiative to meet man: "Fill yourselves with wonder and gratitude at such a mystery and learn from it. All the power, all the majesty, all the beauty, all the infinite harmony of God, all His great and immeasurable riches. God whole and entire was hidden for our benefit in the humanity of Christ. The Almighty appears determined to eclipse His glory for a time, so as to make it easy for His creatures to approach their Redeemer." ([St] J. Escriva, "Friends of God", 111).

8. Jesus Christ became man "for us men and for our salvation", we profess in the Creed. Everything He did in the course of His life had a salvific value; His death on the cross represents the climax of His redemptive work for, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, "He did not experience death due to the fact of being born; rather, He took birth upon Himself in order to die" ("Oratio Catechetica Magna", 32).

Our Lord's obedience to the Father's saving plan, involving as it did death on the cross, gives us the best of all lessons in humility. For, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "obedience is the sign of true humility" ("Commentary on Phil., ad loc."). In St. Paul's time death by crucifixion was the most demeaning form of death, for it was inflicted only on criminals. By becoming obedient "unto death, even death on a cross", Jesus was being humble in the extreme. He was perfectly within His rights to manifest Himself in all His divine glory, but He chose instead the route leading to the most ignominious of deaths.

His obedience, moreover, was not simply a matter of submitting to the Father's will, for, as St. Paul points out, He made Himself obedient: His obedience was active; He made the Father's salvific plans His own. He chose voluntarily to give Himself up to crucifixion in order to redeem mankind. "Debasing oneself when one is forced to do so is not humility", St. John Chrysostom explains; "humility is present when one debases oneself without being obliged to do so" ("Hom. on Phil., ad loc.").

Christ's self-abasement and his obedience unto death reveals His love for us, for "greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). His loving initiative merits a loving response on our part: we should show that we desire to be one with Him, for love "seeks union, identification with the beloved. United to Christ, we will be drawn to imitate His life of dedication, His unlimited love and His sacrifice unto death. Christ brings us face to face with the ultimate choice: either we spend our life in selfish isolation, or we devote ourselves and all our energies to the service of others" ([St] J. Escriva, "Friends of God", 236).

9-11. "God highly exalted Him": the Greek compounds the notion of exaltation, to indicate the immensity of His glorification. Our Lord Himself foretold this when He said, "He who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14:11).

Christ's sacred humanity was glorified as a reward for His humiliation. The Church's Magisterium teaches that Christ's glorification affects his human nature only, for "in the form of God the Son was equal to the Father, and between the Begetter and the Only-begotten there was no difference in essence, no difference in majesty; nor did the Word, through the mystery of incarnation, lose anything which the Father might later return to Him as a gift" ([Pope] St. Leo the Great, "Promisisse Me Memini", Chapter 8). Exaltation is public manifestation of the glory which belongs to Christ's humanity by virtue of its being joined to the divine person of the Word. This union to the "form of a servant" (cf. verse 7) meant an immense act of humility on the part of the Son, but it led to the exaltation of the human nature He took on.

For the Jews the "name that is above every name" is the name of God (Yahweh), which the Mosaic Law required to be held in particular awe. Also, they regarded a name given to someone, especially if given by

God, as not just a way of referring to a person but as expressing something that belonged to the very core of his personality. Therefore, the statement that God "bestowed on Him the name which is above every name" means that God the Father gave Christ's human nature the capacity to manifest the glory of divinity which was His by virtue of the hypostatic union: therefore, it is to be worshipped by the entire universe.

St. Paul describes the glorification of Jesus Christ in terms similar to those used by the prophet Daniel of the Son of Man: "To Him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve His Kingdom, one that shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:14). Christ's lordship extends to all created things. Sacred Scripture usually speaks of "heaven and earth" when referring to the entire created universe; by mentioning here the underworld it is emphasizing that nothing escapes His dominion. Jesus Christ can here be seen as the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy about the universal sovereignty of Yahweh: "To Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear" (Isaiah 45:23). All created things come under His sway, and men are duty-bound to accept the basic truth of Christian teaching: "Jesus Christ is Lord." The Greek word "Kyrios" used here by St. Paul is the word used by the Septuagint, the early Greek version of the Old Testament, to translate the name of God ("Yahweh"). Therefore, this sentence means "Jesus Christ is God."

The Christ proclaimed here as having been raised on high is the man-God who was born and died for our sake, attaining the glory of His exaltation after undergoing the humiliation of the cross. In this also Christ sets us an example: we cannot attain the glory of Heaven unless we understand the supernatural value of difficulties, ill-health and suffering: these are manifestations of Christ's cross present in our ordinary life. "We have to die to ourselves and be born again to a new life. Jesus Christ obeyed in this way, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:18); that is why God exalted Him. If we obey God's will, the cross will mean our own resurrection and exaltation. Christ's life will be fulfilled step by step in our own lives. It will be said of us that we have tried to be good children of God, who went about doing good in spite of our weakness and personal shortcomings, no matter how many" ([St] J. Escriva, "Christ Is Passing By", 21).

Source: "The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries". Biblical text taken from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate.

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