Reflections on a Canticle
Jesus Christ Is Our Lord and Brother
by Pope John Paul II
at weekly audience: August 4, 2004
Though he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate,
and it was thus that he humbled himself,
obediently accepting even death,
death on a cross!
Because of this,
God highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
above every other name,
So that at Jesus' name
every knee must bend
in the heavens, on the earth,
and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim
to the glory of God the Father:
JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!
In our journey through the psalms and canticles that comprise the Liturgy of the Hours, we come to the canticle from Phillipians 2:6-11, which is included in Evening Prayer of all four Sundays in which the liturgy is divided.
This is the second time that we meditate on this canticle, and we will continue to penetrate deeper into its theological richness.
In these short verses, the early Christian faith shines forth, which is centered on the figure of Jesus, who is recognized and proclaimed as a brother in our humanity, but also as Lord of the universe.
It is, therefore a true and fitting confession of faith in Christ that faithfully reflects Saint Paul's thoughts as well as the thinking of the Judeo-Christian community that even preceded the apostle.
The canticle begins with Jesus Christ's divinity.
Indeed, the "form" and condition of God — the morphè, as the Greek says, which is that intimate and transcendent reality of God (see verse 6) — belong to him.
Nonetheless, he did not consider this supreme and glorious identity as some proud privilege — a sign of power and sheer superiority — about which to boast.
The hymn's movement clearly begins with that which is here below, that is to say, with humanity.
By "stripping himself" of glory in order to take on the morphè, that is the reality and the condition of a slave, it is in this way that the Word entered onto the horizon of human history (see verse 7), and took on even death, a sign of limitation and finiteness.
Moreover, his death is a death of extreme humiliation because the death that he accepted is death on a cross, which was considered the most ignoble form of death in society at that time (see verse 8).
Christ chose to humble himself, going from glory to death on a cross.
This, then, is the first movement of the canticle, to which we will have the opportunity to return in order to show some of its other nuances.
The second movement proceeds in the opposite direction.
From that which is here below, it ascends to that which is above; from humiliation it rises up to exaltation.
Now it is the Father who glorifies the Son, snatching him from death and enthroning him as Lord of the universe (see verse 9).
Even Saint Peter, in his speech at Pentecost, declared that "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" [Acts 2:36].
Thus, Easter is the solemn epiphany of Christ's divinity, which, beforehand, was cloaked by his condition as a slave and as a mortal man.
Before the grandiose figure of Christ who has been glorified and enthroned above, all prostrate themselves in adoration.
A powerful profession of faith, "Jesus Christ is Lord" (see verse 11), arises not only from those in heaven and under the earth, "But we do see Jesus, 'crowned with glory and honor' because he suffered death, he who 'for a little while' was made 'lower than the angels,' that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" [Hebrews 2:9].
Let us conclude our brief analysis of the canticle from Phillipians, to which we will have to return, by listening to the words of Saint Augustine, who in his Treatise on the Gospel of Saint John, referred to Saint Paul's hymn in order to celebrate Christ's life-giving power, which brought about our own resurrection and snatched us from our mortal limitations.
Here are the words of that great Father of the Church:
Christ, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped."
What would have happened to us, we who are of such low estate, feeble and crawling on earth, and thus unable to reach unto God?
Could we have been abandoned to ourselves?
He "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave," without, however, losing the form of God.
He became man, he who was God, by taking upon himself what he was not, not by losing what he was.
So God became man.
On one hand, you find here a remedy for your weakness.
On the other hand, you find here all that you need in order to attain perfection.
Let Christ raise you up by virtue of his humanity, guide you by virtue of his humanity and divinity, and lead you to his divinity.
Brothers and sisters, all Christian preaching and the economy of salvation that is centered in Christ is summed up in this and in nothing else: that our souls may be raised again and that our bodies also may be raised again.
Both were dead: the body because of weakness and the soul because of iniquity.
Both were dead and it was necessary that both — soul and body — rise again.
By what, then, can the soul rise again but by Christ God?
By what can the body rise again, but by the man Christ?
...Let you soul rise again from iniquity by that which is God, and your body from corruption by that which is man.
Commento al vangelo di san Giovanni, 23, 6, Rome, 1968, pg.541
Translation by National Catholic Register
See also Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles