Sorry about the lack of blogging last week. We were having Stewardship Sunday last weekend, which meant that our holy pastor preached all the Masses at the parish. I had a couple ideas of good topics to write on, so maybe I’ll get to that sometime this week. Anyway, enjoy!
I have to admit to you that I’m not the kind of guy that reads for fun very much. I think I reached a point in my educational process when I got tired of reading, and tried to keep it to a minimum except for those things I had to read for school. I enjoy a good Tom Clancy book or some good historical non-fiction, but as my parents can probably tell you, one book that I’m not a huge fan of is the DaVinci Code. Now, I could preach an entire homily and more on that alone, but I think of all the silly things Dan Brown dreamed up for his book, the craziest – and the most misleading – is that up until the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the 300’s, people just saw Jesus as a regular guy, an enlightened prophet, a profound teacher, but certainly not God. That divinity stuff was just brought in when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now, I’m not going to preach about Dan Brown today, and of course these are simply works of fiction, as he sometimes hates to admit, but just so we can settle this…HE’S WRONG.
Today we have this wonderful passage from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians – not the Philippines. And the passage that we read today is one of the most important for our faith – in fact, it essentially represents the central core of our faith. This letter finds its origin around 50 or 60 AD, only 30 years after Jesus’s death at the latest! And in fact, many scholars tell us that the second half of the passage we read today is actually from an ancient Christian hymn, one that St. Paul was aware of, and decided to quote for us and the Philippians, which means that may possibly date back to 40 AD. That’s really early!
The hymn begins “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at.” So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Dan Brown! Right away, even in the first line, we’re recalling the fact that Jesus is God! He’s a teacher, yes. He’s a holy man, yes. He’s a prophet, yes. But he’s more than that – Jesus Christ was in the form of God! But he shows us this in a way we might not expect: to be God is to be one who lets go of godliness. Jesus shows us he’s God not by huge signs and wonders. Rather, as St. Paul relates, “He emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave.” The Greek word here is kenosis. Kenosis is a form of love, but it’s a self-emptying, self-giving love. Again, God could have chosen to come and save the world any way he wished. He could have come with lightning bolts and powerful storms like Zeus. He could have come with tsunamis and the power of the oceans, like Poseidon. He could have come with all the legions and power of the underworld, like Hades. But instead, he saved us by emptying himself of everything which would seem to make him God. All out of love.
So how did he empty himself? By “humbling himself and becoming obedient to death.” Death. That’s pretty bad. But even more than that, “death on a cross.” Today, many of us look at the crosses, like the one here in church, and we see something beautiful, a piece of artwork. But what do you think the Christians of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s (AD, not the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s…) saw? They saw a sign of public execution and humiliation – the worst death possible, humiliation to the extreme. Yes, the Son of God came to die, and that’s bad enough, but even more than that, he did so in the most extreme and visible way possible – bruised, beaten, and nailed to a tree on the top of a hill. Think about that. So all the pains that we experience in our lives, like sickness, pain, like the pain of a bad back or the pain of losing a loved one, fear of death – with all these things, Jesus went there…and then he went a step further. For us! That’s how low the Son of God went for you and me.
Because of all of this, the divinity of Jesus is affirmed: Every knee should bend, and every tongue should proclaim to the glory of God the Father that JESUS CHRIST IS LORD! It’s not some king who is Lord. It’s not Caesar who is Lord. It’s not some earthly prince or leader who is Lord. Jesus Christ is Lord. That same Jesus who did all these things for us. Imagine St. Paul trying to proclaim this message throughout the entire known world, a world under the thumb of the rule and army of the Roman Emperors. St. Paul was preaching to the people of the world that the Lord is not one who dominates us like any Roman leader, but the one who loves us more than anything, so much so that he would empty himself.
And then, the next step: then each of us who are his disciples are called to do the same. This beautiful hymn that we have just read is more than just an affirmation of the divinity and power of Christ, it is a message that shows us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It means emptying ourselves of our self-interest. Emptying ourselves of putting ourselves, our well-being, our comfort above others, whether it be having the greatest car in the garage, having your picture on every billboard, going to a place where everybody knows your name (like in Cheers)… No, the Christian life is about putting aside that self-interest, and sharing the burdens of life with others, just as Jesus did for us. Pope Benedict put it this way:
“To penetrate into Jesus’ sentiments means not to consider power, wealth and prestige as the highest values in life, as in the end, they do not respond to the deepest thirst of our spirit, but to open our heart to the Other, to bear with the Other the burden of life and to open ourselves to the Heavenly Father with a sense of obedience and trust, knowing, precisely, that if we are obedient to the Father, we will be free. To penetrate into Jesus’ sentiments — this should be the daily exercise of our life as Christians.”
This is the sum of our Catholic belief. if you get this beautiful passage from Philippians that we read today, you get Christianity. Jesus is more than just a holy man, a preacher, and a good example. He is God, but a God that chooses not to lord his power over us, but to empty himself out of love. And he calls each of us, to do the same.
*In justice, I have to note that frankly, I was drawing a blank on what to say up until Saturday. Thankfully, one of my up-and-coming favorite people, Fr. Robert Barron, had a great reflection on the second reading, and I borrowed primarily from that. Thanks, Fr. Barron!