Published below is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis that Benedict XVI gave June 27 during his general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall. Pope Benedict continued his catecheses on prayer by reflecting on the Christological hymn contained in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Our prayer is made up, as we have seen over the past Wednesdays, of silences and words, of song and gesture involving the whole person: from the mouth to the mind, from the heart to the whole body. It is a characteristic we find in Jewish prayer, especially in the Psalms. Today I would like to speak about one of the Christian tradition’s most ancient songs and hymns, which St. Paul puts before us in what, in a certain sense, is his spiritual testament: The Letter to the Philippians. It is, in fact, a letter that the Apostle dictated while in prison, perhaps in Rome. He feels death approaching, for he states that his life will be offered as a libation (cf. Philippians 2:17).
Despite this situation of grave danger to his physical safety, throughout the entire text St. Paul expresses joy in being a disciple of Christ, in being able to go to meet Him, so much so that he sees death not as loss but as gain. In the Letter’s final chapter, there is a forceful invitation to joy, a fundamental characteristic of being Christian and of our prayer. St. Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). But how can one rejoice in the face of an already imminent death sentence? Whence, or better, from whom does St. Paul draw the serenity, the strength and the courage to meet martyrdom and the shedding of his blood?
We find the answer at the heart of the Letter to the Philippians, in what the Christian tradition calls carmen Christo, the hymn for Christ, or more commonly, the “Christological hymn”; a hymn in which all attention is centered upon the “sentiments” of Christ; that is, on his way of thinking and on his concrete and lived attitude. This prayer begins with an exhortation: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). These sentiments are presented in the verses that follow: love, generosity, humility, obedience to God, the gift of self. It is not only and not simply a matter of following Jesus’ example, as something moral, but of involving the whole of one’s existence in his way of thinking and acting. Prayer must lead to an ever more profound knowledge and loving union with the Lord, in order to think, to act and to love like Him, in Him and for Him. To practice this, to learn the mind of Christ, is the way of Christian life.
Now I would like to consider briefly some of the elements of this dense hymn, which summarizes the entire divine and human itinerary of the Son of God and encompasses the whole of human history: from being in the condition of God, to the Incarnation, to death on the cross and to exaltation in the glory of the Father, the conduct of Adam and of man from the beginning is also implied. This hymn to Christ commences with his being “en morphe tou Theou”, the Greek text says; that is, from being “in the form of God” or better still, in the condition of God. Jesus, true God and true man, does not live out his “being like God” in order to prevail and to impose his supremacy; he does not look upon it as a possession, a privilege, or a treasure to be jealously guarded. Indeed, “he strips himself”, he empties himself -- assuming, the Greek text reads, “morphe doulos”, the “form of a slave”, the human reality marked by suffering, poverty and death; he likened himself fully to men, except in sin, so as to act as a servant dedicated to the service of others. In his regard, the 4th century Eusebius of Cesarea states: “He took upon himself the hardships of the members who suffer. He made our humble maladies his own. He suffered and toiled for our sake: this, in conformity with his great love for humanity” (The Evangelical Demonstration, 10,1,22).
St. Paul continues on by outlining the “historical” framework wherein Jesus’ self-abasement was realized: “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8). The Son of God truly became man and walked a path of complete obedience and fidelity to the Father’s will, even to the supreme sacrifice of his life. Still more, as the Apostle specifies, “unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). On the cross, Jesus Christ reached the greatest level of humiliation, since crucifixion was the punishment reserved for slaves and not for those who were free: “mors turpissima crucis” -- [most shameful death of the cross], writes Cicero (cf. In Verrem, V, 64, 165).
In the Cross of Christ, man is redeemed and Adam’s experience is reversed: Adam, created in the image and likeness of God, sought to be like God by his own strength, to put himself in God’s place, and thus did he lose the original dignity given him. Jesus, instead, was “in the condition of God”, but he humbled himself, he immersed himself in the human condition in total fidelity to the Father, in order to redeem the Adam within us and to restore to man the dignity he had lost. The Fathers emphasize that He became obedient, thus restoring to human nature, through his humanity and obedience, what had been lost through Adam’s disobedience.
In prayer, in our relationship with God, we open our minds, hearts and wills to the action of the Holy Spirit in order to enter into this same dynamic of life. As St. Cyril of Alexandria affirms, whose feast we celebrate today: “The work of the Spirit seeks to transform us by means of grace into the perfect copy of his humiliation” (Festal Letter 10, 4). Human logic, instead, often looks for self-realization through power, domination, and powerful means. Man continues to want to construct the tower of Babel by his own power, in order to reach the heights of God unaided, to be like God. The Incarnation and the Cross remind us that full realization resides in conforming one’s human will to the Father’s, in being emptied of egoism in order to be filled with love, with the charity of God, and thus to become truly capable of loving others. Man does not find himself by remaining closed in within himself, by affirming himself. Man finds himself only by going out of himself; we only find ourselves if we go out of ourselves. And if Adam wanted to imitate God, this in itself was not bad, but he erred in his idea about God. God is not one who wills only greatness. God is love, who gives himself first in the Trinity, and then in creation. And to imitate God means going out of oneself; it means giving oneself in love.
In the second part of this “Christological hymn” contained in the Letter to the Philippians, the subject changes; no longer is it Christ, but rather God the Father. St. Paul emphasizes that it is precisely on account of his obedience to the will of the Father that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). He who humbled himself profoundly by taking on the condition of a slave is highly exalted; he is raised above all things by the Father, who bestows on him the name “Kyrios”, “Lord”, i.e. supreme dignity and lordship. Before this new name, in fact, which is the very name of God in the Old Testament, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, to the glory of God the Father” (Verses 10-11).
The Jesus who is exalted is he who was present at the Last Supper, who lays aside his garments, girds himself with a towel, bends down to wash the feet of the Apostles and asks them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:12-14). This is always important to remember in our prayer and in our lives: “The ascent to God occurs precisely in the descent of humble service, in the descent of love, for love is God’s essence, and is thus the power that truly purifies man and enables him to perceive God and to see him” (Jesus of Nazareth, New York 2007, p.95).
The hymn from the Letter to the Philippians here offers us two important lessons for our prayer. The first is in the invocation “Lord” addressed to Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father: He is the only Lord of our lives, amid the many “rulers” who want to direct and guide them. For this reason, it is necessary to have a scale of values in which primacy is given to God, so that with St. Paul we affirm: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Encountering the Risen One made him understand that He is the only treasure for which it is worth spending one’s entire life.
The second lesson is the prostration, the “bending of every knee” in heaven and on earth that recalls an expression of the Prophet Isaiah, where he points to the adoration that every creature owes to God (cf. 45:23). Genuflection before the Most Blessed Sacrament or falling to ones knees in prayer expresses precisely this attitude of adoration before God, also with the body. Hence the importance of making this gesture not through force of habit or hastily, but with deep awareness. When we kneel before the Lord we confess our faith in Him, we acknowledge that He is the only Lord of our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters, in our prayer let us fix our gaze on the Crucified; let us remain in adoration more often before the Eucharist so as to allow our lives to enter into the love of God, who humbly condescended in order to raise us to himself. At the beginning of this catechesis, we asked ourselves how St. Paul could rejoice in the face of his imminent martyrdom and the shedding of his blood. This was possible only because the Apostle never removed his gaze from Christ, to the point of being conformed to him even in death, “in the hope of attaining the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:11). Like St. Francis before the Crucifix, let us also say: “Oh most High and glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me a right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, judgment and knowledge that I may carry out your true and holy will. Amen. (cf. Prayer before the Crucifix: FF ).
Credit: CNS photo