12.2.13

Ash Wednesday emptying




This Ash Wednesday may we so grasp our mortality that we work for the inbreaking of God's Kingdom now. 

This Ash Wednesday, as we contemplate that it is to dust that we return, may we also hunger for the end of Lent resurrection and the promise of the future life that is ours because of Christ's humiliation.

To us all and those Philippians

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that 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.


Paul wrote his letter to the Roman colony in Philippi some time between AD 60 - 65. The verses in chapter two, beginning at line five and finishing at line eleven are thought by many scholars to have derived from an ode or hymn of the early church. Fee is less convinced that this is the case and believes that the writing, particularly of the second stanza is Pauline in origin. However, perhaps it was an ode which Paul appropriated for his own purposes, if as an ode it reveals the very high Christology of the early church, it would have been chanted within the early decades of the death and resurrection event. It seems to be free from embellishments and elaborations, we have here very simply the expression of early worshippers professing indeed that Christ is Lord.

The ode contains two stanzas, the first is about Christ's humiliation and the second is about his exaltation. Each stanza contains one, very long, tightly packed sentence of condensed content. The content focuses on the person of Christ and what he did. It does not dwell on the resurrection or expound on the soteriological ramifications of his actions.

The first stanza begins with an ethical exhortation. The Philippians are being urged to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. The Philippians are then instructed regarding what that mind looks like. Jesus Christ was in the form of God. This is a statement of huge christological significance. Paul has used the very phrase 'was in the form of' . Is he commenting on the homoosoius nature of Jesus and God? Jesus Christ was 'morphe theou', of the same nature as God. This very idea would be debated by the early church fathers in their ecumenical councils for a number of centuries after this letter was written and be finalised by the Nicene Creed which makes it very clear that indeed Jesus is of the same nature as God.

The letter then goes on to explain how Jesus Christ did not consider this status something to be exploited and it is argued by many critics that here Paul is juxtaposing Jesus Christ with the Roman emperor, drawing upon the political context of his time. The church in Philippi was occupied by Roman centurions and the loyalty of its citizens was required, even by force. The Roman empire was a Kingdom built on an emperor who declared himself Lord and Saviour and Son of God and so the stanzas here are polemical and subversive for they present us with a King, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who did not grasp at the power and status available to him but humbled himself, even to the point of death, even death on a cross. A Christian Kingdom is built on self-sacrifice in a way that a Roman one is not and in Philippians 3, Paul will urge this group of people to stand firm in their citizenship of God's Kingdom and not Caesar's.

As well as commenting on the empire of Rome, here, Paul might also be articulating an 'Adam Christology', for Adam snatched or attempted to win the power of God through his disobedience, securing a death in which he was condemned and disgraced and would return to the dust from which he came. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, the first born of a new creation, who apposite to the sinful Adam, uses his status to empower a kind of self-abnegation and then dies to live forever.

Whether it be Adam or Caesar whom Paul has in mind here or as Hurtado describes, simply an image of man and his tendency to grasp at power, we are presented with a Jesus Christ who is both eternal and humble and so reveals God's nature.

The Kenosis as it is known, ekenosen in Greek, meaning to empty or nullify is what Paul describes next. Two verbs are attached to the pronoun 'himself'. Jesus Christ 'emptied himself' and then 'humbled himself'. That Christ is of the same nature as God is compounded here by his emptying himself for if he had only been a man there would have been no resources to empty. Patristic as this will sound, as God, the Logos is boundless, impassable and immutable and so the emptying can go on eternally. The emptying is in the becoming human and continues to the point of death, death even on a cross, which was, of course, the lowliest death, experienced by transgressors on the very outside of society.

Jesus Christ is born in human likeness and this phrase is useful for the way in which it articulates that likeness. It is not a docetic likeness, it is simply a way of saying he was born human but there is still the preservation of the divine. He was human in form but he has a pre-existent and eschatological divine form which is not diminished by his having become human.

We are presented with a Christology in the first verse in which Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human. The emptying or kenosis has its origins in the suffering servant imagery of Isaiah 53 and particularly 53:12, which describes the sacrifice to death.

At the 'therefore' our ode moves in a very different direction. Overall, the hymn is chiastic because the descending movement of the first stanza cuts across the ascending movement of the second stanza, moving to its pinnacle at the 'glory of God the Father'. At the 'Therefore' the two movements cut across each other to form the Greek letter X (Chi). The second stanza exalts Jesus Christ who as the subject of the first stanza is the object of the second stanza. The exaltation is superlative in quality: he was 'highly exalted' and the sentences build to their finale in Jesus Christ being given the name above every name. He is rewarded for the kenosis just as Adam was condemned. Jesus Christ is given the name above every name where the definite article 'the' does much to underline 'the name'. This name is the Jewish tetragrammaton, 'I am who I am': YHWH and in Isaiah 45, this is a name that belongs to God alone and yet here it is being applied as Kyrios (Lord) to Jesus Christ. Isaiah 45:23 describes how it is at the name of Yahweh that every knee shall bow and here it is the homage befitting Jesus Christ. The high Christology of the early church is much in evidence. Their homage to Jesus Christ would have been subversive in a colony where homage was expected to Caesar. It would have been shocking to the Jews with their belief in a monotheistic God and to the pagans.

Ralph Martin in 'A hymn of Christ' is detailed in his account of Jesus Christ's sovereignty as signified by the high Christology of this ode. Everything will come under the cosmic reign of this Lord who is THE LORD. The heavens, the Earth and the underworld will come under his authority where 'under the earth' could mean the dead or even the gods and goddesses of the Greeks. Caesar too will eventually submit to this Jesus Christ who is Lord.

The high Christology of the early church, as revealed in this hymn is emphatic and confident, it is subversive against its political back drop, it is subversive about the Lord who does not diminish the glory of the Father, in fact, the more we develop the self-sacrificial mind of Christ and pay him homage, the more God is glorified. This Jesus then is a pre-existent and self-humbling and therefore highly exalted Lord, fulfilling the eschatological promises of the Old Testament, which as a consequence, confers on this early church its status as the new Israel. This in turn confers on us a similar status. We are God's own people. It is this Christ we are to worship and imitate and pray to whose likeness we become conformed.

2 comments:

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It looks like Gnostic adoptionism at a straight reading. It draws on the notion that he is a God, appears as human, but in his action as a God (emptying) is raised up to be of the highest. So it is one of those early, well pre-trinitarian ideas where God the Father is rewarding one of the divinities. All of which is a form of thinking that makes no sense today.

Rach Marszalek said...

The idea of whether this makes sense today is neither here nor there really... Your idea would appeal to JW thinking but is heretical.

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