Commentary on Philippians 2:6-11

«The Paradoxical ‘Emptying’ of the Divine Word»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 1, 2005 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on the canticle from Philippians 2:5-11.

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1. Every Sunday, in the celebration of vespers, the liturgy proposes to us the brief but profound Christological hymn from the Letter to the Philippians (see 2:6-11). It is the hymn, just heard, which we consider in its first part (see verses 6-8), which delineates the paradoxical «emptying» of the divine Word, who lays aside his glory and assumes the human condition.

Christ, incarnated and humiliated in the most infamous death, that of crucifixion, is proposed as a vital model for the Christian. The latter — as affirmed in the context — should have «the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus» (verse 5), sentiments of humility and selflessness, of detachment and generosity.

2. Undoubtedly, he possesses divine nature with all its prerogatives. But he does not interpret and live this transcendent reality as a sign of power, of greatness, and of dominion. Christ does not use his being equal to God, his glorious dignity and his power as an instrument of triumph, sign of distance, expression of crushing supremacy (see verse 6). On the contrary, he «emptied» himself, immersing himself without reserve in the miserable and weak human condition. The divine «form» («morphe») is hidden in Christ under the human «form» («morphe»), that is, under our reality marked by suffering, poverty, limitation and death (see verse 7).

It is not a question therefore of a simple clothing, of a changeable appearance, as it was believed happened to the gods of the Greco-Roman culture: It is Christ’s divine reality in an authentically human experience. God does not appear only as man, but becomes man and is really one of us, he is truly «God-with-us,» not content with gazing on us with a benign look from his throne of glory, but enters personally in human history, becoming «flesh,» namely, fragile reality, conditioned by time and space (see John 1:14).

3. This radical sharing of the human condition, with the exception of sin (see Hebrews 4:15), leads Jesus to that frontier which is the sign of our finiteness and frailty, death. However, the latter is not the fruit of a dark mechanism or blind fatality: It is born from the choice of obedience to the Father’s plan of salvation (see Philippians 2:8).

The Apostle adds that the death Jesus faces is that of the cross, namely, the most degrading, thus wishing to be truly a brother of every man and woman, including those constrained to an atrocious and ignominious end.

But precisely in his passion and death Christ attests to his free and conscious adherence to the will of the Father, as one reads in the Letter to the Hebrews: «Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered» (Hebrews 5:8).

Let us pause here in our reflection on the first part of the Christological hymn, focused on the Incarnation and redemptive Passion. We will have the occasion later on to reflect more deeply on the subsequent itinerary, the paschal, which leads from the cross to glory. The fundamental element of this first part of the hymn, it seems to me, is the invitation to penetrate into Jesus’ sentiments.

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.

4. Let us conclude our reflection with a great witness of the Eastern tradition, Theodoret who was bishop of Cyrus, in Syria, in the fifth century: «The Incarnation of our Savior represents the highest fulfillment of the divine solicitude for men. In fact, neither heaven, nor earth, nor the sea, nor the air, nor the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor the whole visible and invisible universe, created only by his Word or rather brought to the light by his Word, according to his will, indicate his incommensurable goodness as does the fact that the only-begotten Son of God, He who subsisted in the nature of God (see Philippians 2:6), reflection of his glory, mark of his substance (see Hebrews 1:3), who in the beginning was with God and was God, through whom all things were made (see John 1:1-3), after having assumed the nature of a servant, appeared in the form of man, by his human figure was considered as a man, was seen on earth, had relationships with men, bore our infirmities and took our illnesses upon himself» («Discorsi sulla Provvidenza Divina» [Discourses on Divine Providence], 10: «Collana di Testi Patristici» [Collection of Patristic Texts], LXXV, Rome, 1988, pp. 250-251).

Theodoret of Cyrus continues his reflection, shedding light on the very close relationship underlined by the hymn of the Letter to the Philippians between the incarnation of Jesus and the redemption of men. «The Creator worked for our salvation with wisdom and justice. Because he did not wish to make use only of his power to give us generously the gift of freedom, nor to use only mercy against the one who has subjected the human race, so that he would not accuse mercy of injustice, he devised a way full of love for men and at the same time adorned with justice. In fact, after having united to himself man’s vanquished nature, he leads it to the struggle and disposes it to repair the defeat, to rout him who previously had iniquitously won the victory, to free man from the tyranny of which he had been cruelly made a slave and to recover his original freedom» (ibid., pp. 251-252).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s canticle from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians presents Christ, the divine Word, renouncing his glory and taking the human form of a servant. His equality with God, far from being an exploitative power of supremacy, is expressed as a paradoxical emptying of himself. Indeed, Jesus immerses himself in human history, experiencing suffering, poverty and, in obedience to the will of the Father, even death on a cross.

Christ’s humility forms part of every Christian’s journey. Through selflessness, detachment and generosity we imitate the Lord’s way and in bearing his cross we become true brothers and sisters of those who suffer and are most in need.

[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including groups from England, Ireland, Sweden, Japan and the United States of America. Thank you for the affection with which you have greeted me. Upon all of you, I invoke the peace and joy of Jesus Christ our Lord!

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