The liturgy of the Palms and Passion is, possibly, one of the most dramatic services in our church year, highlighting the discrepancy between the heights of worship and love to which we are called, and the lows of betrayal and sin in which we are enmeshed. We enjoy processing with the palms, but we cringe at the dramatic reading of the gospel, which puts into our mouths the words, “crucify him!” Yet, Christian tradition deems this a suitable way to enter Holy Week, to prepare us to face the image of terrible suffering without averting our eyes, ponder our contributions to all that is wrong with this world, and then, to celebrate the promise and possibility of transformation on Easter morning.
This year, the reading that drew my attention was the “Christ Poem” of Phil 2:6-1. It refers to Jesus, of course; but in doing so, it reveals the very promise of transformation that God offers to each of us. Yes, first, the text does assert that before Jesus lived and died on earth, he pre-existed with God as a somewhat divine being (obviously, unlike us). But, the text goes on to say that this somewhat divine being became human – meaning enslaved to the evil cosmic powers, including Death. This is why we read it at the start of Holy Week - the time when evil had the strongest grip on him. Yet, as a reward for his humility, suffering and death, God made Jesus more highly exalted than he was (notwithstanding whether one could even be more or less of a god?) and would subject all other powers, including death, to him. And so, the nature of our Christian hope is found in that, if Jesus was resurrected from the dead and became even more like God than he was at first, freeing himself from the clutches of evil, then so can we.
Notice that as I recounted the passage, I avoided alluding to Jesus being God, or even equal to God, from eternity past. When this passage was composed, passed down by oral tradition, and ultimately quoted by Paul, such theology had not yet been formulated. Almost 300 years would pass before the Roman Empire became Christian, and Constantine put his foot down about developing the unified doctrine re. who Jesus was. As of then, the Christians would assert that Jesus was never made more exalted than he was before the incarnation, and that the body of Christ (the church!) is a cosmic entity of which he is the supreme head. This is what we call “high” Christology, and it took 3-4 centuries to form. Even though it began to appear in some NT writings (e.g. Colossians), it was not yet present in the 7 letters believed to be authentically Pauline. Philippians, however, is one such letter, and the bit we read today is presumed to be part of a hymn or poem already in circulation in Paul’s time, due to its apparent rhythm and structure. As such, it reveals what people believed even before Paul – within only 20 years of Jesus’s death – reflecting how rapidly some of our core beliefs developed.
Granted, these beliefs were not being formed in a vacuum. We may suppose certain things about what Paul personally thought before he believed in Jesus, as specifically the Pharisaic Jew (i.e. favoring symbolic scriptural interpretation, hence able to apply OT to refer to Christ), and apocalyptic eschatological Jew (i.e. already believing in the resurrection, and foreseeing an imminent end of the present world of evil). In addition, the building blocks for earliest Christological beliefs are found in the OT. Like Paul, the new generation of Jews – who didn’t know that they were Christians! – had heard of the Angel of the Lord who appeared to Hagar, Abraham, and Moses as a human; and of the king who would sit at the right hand of God “until I make your enemies (and all things in general) your footstool” (Ps 110 and 8); and of the figure who would come on clouds of heaven to receive everlasting dominion over all peoples (according to Dan 7 and Jesus himself); and of Holy Wisdom, who existed before anything else did, was present with God when he made the world and assisted him then, and acted like an extension of God forever (Prov 8). So, once the first believers became convinced that Jesus was that Son of Man, Wisdom (cf 1 Cor 1:24), or Angel (cf Gal 4:14), it was not a stretch to accept him as the agent by whom God has triumphed over evil, and to whom every knee would bow and every tongue confess, as to YHWH in Is 45:22–23.
Interestingly, the notion that Jesus was God, or became one was, likely, the least difficult to embrace for those first Christians. In pagan mythology and ancient Judaism, demi-gods were routinely conceived of gods by human mothers, or elevated to the status of gods later in life. And so, what Paul offers is a transition from the idea that Christ becomes divine at some point (e.g., resurrection, baptism, or conception; aka exaltation Christology) and that Christ is a god who becomes human (aka incarnation Christology). Thus, in Phil 2, Christ is an already divine being, who in death and resurrection becomes even more exalted – not a problem in Antiquity, when people believed that supernatural beings could possess divine powers to various degrees. Now, the mechanism of divinisation in Paul’s writings is ambiguous. In Phil 2, it is as a reward for self-giving, humility, and suffering; elsewhere, it differs. Whether suffering is necessary to become god-like, or is it simply the effect of evil is still open. But the point is that while God is unchangeable, both Jesus and us humans can and should change.
Which is what should sustain us over this Holy Week and beyond. Hope is the possibility of transformation. Hope is the potential that life may change, rather than the assurance that it becomes easy or safe. On a cosmic level, Jesus became bound by evil and thus suffered, and then was freed by self-sacrificial love. On a personal level, Paul was bound by his beliefs, and persecuted his earliest brothers and sisters in faith, making them suffer flogging and exclusion from synagogues. But, his belief in Jesus’ resurrection transformed him into a self-proclaimed slave (not just servant!) of Jesus, even as it made him, too, suffer ostracism, imprisonment and flogging. What impact could our personal transformations have on the world, and at what cost? Whom could we save? This might be worth pondering over this difficult week to come. Amen.