A Reflection on Philippians 2:1-11 by Fr. Denis Meade
Do you remember where the catch phrase “Make my day” came from? This phrase, dripping with menace, surfaced in the 1983 movie Sudden Impact, starring Clint Eastwood, part of the “Dirty Harry” series. It got further mileage in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan used it in a veto threat against a possible tax raise by Congress. Doesn’t it sound a little bit like a phrase of Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love . . . complete my joy. . . .” (Phil 2:1-2).
The phrases may look the same but they are pretty far apart. The culprit may be that little word “if”. In English it often triggers thoughts of something contrary to the fact; for example, “if you had any decency about you, you might be happy.” Commentators on this famous section of Philippians 2:1-11 point out that Greek, the language of Saint Paul, can use “if” not only in a negative sense but in a positive one, like “since”. Then the phrase would come out as, “Since there is encouragement in Christ . . . complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love. . . .” Saint Paul is telling his readers, “you are already in Christ and with love and affection for each other, go still further so that you can make my joy complete. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit . . . but have this mind among you, which was in Christ Jesus.”
And what was Christ Jesus like? This time Paul does not rely upon himself to speak of Jesus. Embedded within his letter is a hymn that had been handed down to him from the earliest disciples of Jesus after his Resurrection. A curtain is pulled aside, a window is opened, and we look into the faith and joy of the early Church of the late 30s or the 40s, before there were any Gentile followers to speak of. The hymn begins “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” It goes further, saying that he humbled himself even to death on a cross.
So this is the way they–and we–should act: by rejecting arrogance and egoism we model ourselves on Jesus, who emptied himself of what was rightly his as son of the Father in order to give himself for his brothers and sisters. The hymn goes on to say that because of his total giving of himself God has exalted him and has “given him the name that is above every name” so that every knee should bow and every tongue confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord.” In telling us how to act this ancient hymn also tells us who Jesus is. There are three movements in this song about Jesus: his pre-existence with the Father, his earthly existence with us, and his glorious “post-existence.”
Now we, his disciples, proclaim the simplest Creed: Jesus Christ shares the same title that God himself received among the Hebrews—Lord. But Saint Paul’s first motive was to tell his readers how to live. After quoting the hymn he returns to the theme of life lived in Jesus: “Therefore, my beloved. . . .work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you.” Consequently they are to “do all things without grumbling or questioning so that they will shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the words of life.”
The Church honors Jesus by placing this ancient song of praise on our lips in her worship. Fittingly it is read at the Mass of Palm Sunday and of the feasts of the Holy Cross. It occurs in the Liturgy of the Hours of the first Vespers for each Sunday and at the first Vespers of the feast of Christmas. Logically she honors the humility of the Word made flesh by praying this canticle on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus to his mother.
The Church continues to call us to live humbly without selfishness or deceit in so many different ways. This attitude does not appear in Saint Paul’s counsel but it fits with it: avoid revenge. We may seek justice when we are wronged, but the rancor of revenge can spoil our hearts. Revenge is insatiable, it wants more than justice. It rarely stops with the one who wrongs us but it often takes innocent hostages, literally and figuratively.
Even societies and nations can become soaked in revenge. A massive act of revenge of which most of us are unaware was the expulsion of German ethnic minorities from countries that Germany had invaded during World War II. Most of these people had lived in their homes for centuries. During 1945 – 46 over 14 million people were expelled with only the clothes on their backs and with their property confiscated. The conditions in which they were expelled were wretched and inhumane. The majority of them were women and children; over 500,000 persons are estimated to have died in transit. This biggest “ethnic cleansing” in human history was carried on with the endorsement of the Allied powers, The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. This tragic tale of revenge run amok is chronicled by R.M. Douglas in Orderly and Humane; the Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012.
A better way is modeled by countless people. Once I recounted to the late Sister Mary Faith Schuster, O.S.B., of Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery, Atchison, my admiration for the calm demeanor of another sister who was under considerable stress. Sister Faith responded, “Oh yes, I know Sister well. Her heart has been broken but not her spirit!” With the help of the Holy Spirit sent to us by Jesus Christ we can strive to avoid revenge and walk in Jesus’ noble way.
How could you make someone’s day? Accept Saint Paul’s challenge and be humble.