Reflection on Canticle in Philippians 2:6-11

Mystery of Christ’s Descent Among Us

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 19, 2003 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on the canticle in Philippians 2:6-11.

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1. In addition to the Psalms, the liturgy of vespers includes some biblical canticles. The one that was just proclaimed is certainly one of the most significant and of great theological wealth. It is a hymn inserted in the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Christians of Philippi, the Greek city that was the first stage of the apostle’s missionary proclamation in Europe. The canticle has retained expressions of the Christian liturgy of the early days and it is a joy for our generation to be able to be associated, after two millennia, to the prayer of the apostolic Church.

The canticle reveals a double vertical movement, first of descent and then of ascent. On one hand there is, in fact, the humbling descent of the Son of God when, in the Incarnation, he is made man out of love for men. He falls into «kenosis,» that is, into an «emptying» of his divine glory, which leads to death on the cross, the punishment of slaves that made him the last of men, making him a real brother of suffering humanity, sinful and rejected.

2. On the other hand, we behold the triumphal ascent that takes place at Easter when Christ is re-established by the Father in the splendor of the divinity and is celebrated as Lord of the whole cosmos and of all men now redeemed. We are before a grandiose re-reading of the mystery of Christ, especially the paschal mystery. St. Paul, in addition to proclaiming the resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5), also takes recourse to the definition of Christ’s Pasch as «exaltation,» «raising,» «glorification.»

Therefore, from the luminous horizon of the divine transcendence the Son of God has crossed the infinite distance that lies between the Creator and the creature. He did not cling to his «being equal to God,» which corresponds to him by nature and not by usurpation: He did not wish to jealously preserve this prerogative as a treasure or to use it for his own advantage. Instead, Christ «emptied,» «humbled» himself and appeared poor, weak, destined to the infamous death of crucifixion. Precisely from this extreme humiliation stems the great movement of ascent described in the second part of the Pauline hymn (see Philippians 2:9-11).

3. God now «exalts» his Son conferring on him a glorious «name» which, in biblical language, indicates the person himself and his dignity. This «name» is «Kyrios,» «Lord,» the sacred name of the God of the Bible, now applied to the risen Christ. This places the universe, described according to the three-part division of heaven, earth and hell, in the attitude of adoration.

So the glorious Christ appears, at the end of the hymn, as the «Pantokrator,» that is, the omnipotent Lord who thunders triumphantly in the apses of the paleo-Christian and Byzantine basilicas. He still bears the signs of the Passion, namely, of his true humanity, but he now reveals himself in the splendor of divinity. Close to us in suffering and in death, Christ now attracts us to himself in glory, blessing us and making us participants in his eternity.

4. We conclude our reflection on the Pauline hymn with the words of St. Ambrose, who often takes up the image of Christ who «stripped himself of his rank,» humbling himself, as though annihilating himself («exinanivit semetipsum») in the incarnation and in the sacrificing of himself on the cross.

In particular, in the Commentary on Psalm 118, the bishop of Milan says thus: «Christ, hanging from the tree of the cross … was pierced by the lance and there gushed forth blood and water sweeter than any unguent, a victim pleasing to God, spreading throughout the world the perfume of sanctification. … Now Jesus, pierced, spread the perfume of forgiveness of sins and of redemption. In fact, by becoming man, as Word he imposed limitations on himself; though he was rich, he became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we might become rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9); he was powerful, but he appeared as some one miserable, so much so that Herod scorned and derided him; he could shake the earth, yet he remained attached to that tree; he could cover the sky in darkness, crucify the world, yet he was crucified; he bowed his head, and yet the Word came forth; he was annihilated, yet he filled everything. God descended, and man was raised; the Word became flesh so that the flesh could claim for itself the throne of the Word at the right hand of God; he became one big wound, yet unguent flowed from him, he seemed ignoble, and yet he was God» (III, 8 «Saemo IX,» Milan-Rome, 1987, pp. 131.133).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The canticle from the Letter to the Philippians is chanted each Sunday in the Church’s Evening Prayer. This ancient liturgical hymn celebrates the mystery of Christ’s descent among us as man, his obedience to the will of the Father, his death on the Cross and his exaltation to the Father’s right hand as the Lord of all creation. Having humbled himself to share our human experience of suffering and death, the risen Christ now invites us, his brothers and sisters, to share in his divine glory.

I offer a cordial greeting to the members of the International Council of Jewish War Veterans. I also thank the various choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience, especially those from Japan and the United States, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

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