Monday, October 10, 2005

second paper

Here's my second paper of the semester, this one for Intro to Catholic Theology, mentioned here.

Around 20 or 30 years after the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Blessed Lord, St. Paul the Apostle wrote a letter to the Roman Church at Philippi, his first and faithful flock.[1] In it he thanks them for sending Epaphroditus to aid him while he was imprisoned and also exhorts them to persevere in the faith.[2] One particular passage of this letter, Phil 2: 5-11, is short but dense with insight. In this essay the revelation of this passage will be combined with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church[3], particularly numbers 456-570. The resulting combination should provide a very important lesson for contemporary American Catholics on the reality of Jesus Christ, his sacrifice on the Cross, and what that means for our pilgrim fellowship of faith.[4]

In understanding Philippians 2:5-11, it is helpful to break down the passage into parts and look at the meaning of each part. This passage begins with the phrase, “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus (v. 5).” We will see from the following verses that St. Paul is calling the Philippians and us to think, act, and identify with Christ’s humble and obedient death on the cross. St. Paul is not saying we should literally mimic his torture, but rather the virtues displayed in it, with our entire being. We should humble ourselves and die to our pride for the benefit and well-being of others. It is through this Way of the Cross that we too can hope for future glory with the Father.

Continuing further, verses six through eight say, “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. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Here St. Paul gives us a statement of Christ’s divinity when he says Christ was in the “form of God,” for a form is the “external aspect of something and manifests what it is.”[5] This statement seems clear enough, but then what does the Apostle mean when he says Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”? The Greek used here, behind the words “equality” and “grasped,” gives us a clue. By equality (isos) he means “equality of rights and status” and by grasped (harpagmos) he means “to be seized upon or to be held fast.”[6] So our Lord, in his divinity, could have demanded to be treated with the dignity and respect that his divinity deserves. But he did not wish to “hold fast” to these rights of his. Instead he “emptied himself”, setting aside his rights and status so he could be in the “form of a servant,” the form of a man, like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 4:15). He did this so he could suffer with men, as men, for men and thus redeem man’s “likeness” that was distorted after the fall. Finally, in stating that he “humbled himself,” St. Paul teaches that Christ acted of his own free will to obey the Father and submit to his passion. “Debasing oneself when one is forced to do so is not humility; humility is present when one debases oneself without being obliged to do so.”[7]

Finally, verses nine through eleven reveal the goal, purpose, and hope of Christ’s passion: “Therefore God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Now the degree in which Christ humbled himself is the degree in which he is exalted: “highly” and with the glory he deserves. This is the same magnificent glory that blinded the eyes of the Apostles Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration (cf. Mt 17:1-6; Jn 1:14). Where he was once the “criminal” (cf. Lk 23:2, 5, 32) on the cross, now he has been given the “name which is above every name”[8] and dominion over the entire universe (cf. Dan 7:14). This exaltation demands our praise and our worship (cf. Is 45:23-25). Here also, Christ gives us the perfect example of meaning and purpose in suffering. “If we obey God’s will, the cross will mean our own resurrection and exaltation. Christ’s life will be fulfilled step by step in our own lives.”[9]

Therefore the primary truth of Christ that is revealed in this passage is this: That out of love for mankind the Word took on our human nature to live among us; drew us to himself; taught us the way to salvation; and manifested his love by dying on the cross and restoring us to the Father. But, there is more to be said of this truth that is beneficial for our own Way of the Cross; the Vatican II document, Socrosanctum Concilium[10], contains further insight. SC serves to both briefly expound on the meaning behind the Mass and to decree certain norms and reforms of the Sacred Liturgy and the other elements in the life of the Church. This is not irrelevant in a discussion of the reality of Christ, “For the liturgy,” SC states early on, ‘through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,’ most of all in the divine sacrifice of the eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church (SC 2).”[11]

SC provides further relevance to the Philippians passage by relating the meaning of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension not only to the Sacred Liturgy as a whole but to the Mystery of the Eucharist itself in particular. With these SC shows us that the whole liturgical life of the Church and all the elements of her worship (like sacramentals, the Divine Office, the Liturgical Year, and even Sacred Music) are bound up in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and directed toward our salvation. In the Liturgy, the prayers and responses lift up and point our hearts to the Hill of Calvary, where our Lord says, “Come up hither (Rev 4:1).” In the Memorial Acclamation the faithful say, “Dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life (SC 5).”[12] SC, concerning one of the prayers of the priest, also points out that:

We must always bear about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame (cf. 2 Cor. 4:10-11). This is why we ask the Lord in the sacrifice of the Mass that, “receiving the offering of the spiritual victim,” he may fashion us for himself “as an eternal gift” (Secret for Monday of Pentecost Week). (SC 12)

Furthermore, in the Eucharist, the Church constantly celebrates the paschal mystery:

At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity[13], a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.[14] (SC 47)

But there is another important part of the Mass that should be mentioned: the Creed, and in particular that part of the Creed which proclaims, “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Mary.” The Catechism’s treatment of this part in numbers 456-570 completes our task of a fuller understanding of Phil 2:5-11.

Here the Catechism is helpful in explaining further what the Philippians passage means by saying that Jesus was in the “form of God” and in “human form.” The Church has done well, in response to numerous heresies in her history, to refine her understanding of Christ’s dual nature. This can be confusing but the Catechism clearly states: Christ is not part God and part man but wholly each, “inseparably true God and true man (cf. CCC 464, 469).” He is “consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity.” He has two natures “without confusion, change, division, or separation and the distinction between these natures was never abolished by their union (cf. 467).”[15] Christ also assumed not only a human nature but a human soul with human knowledge that was finite. This is how he was able to “increase in wisdom and in stature” (Lk 2:52) and learn the skills of a carpenter from his foster-father, St. Joseph. The things of a lower order, skills, techniques, and what we only learn through experience, our Blessed Lord had to learn as well. But things of a higher order, his Father’s will, the state of our souls and hearts, and the thoughts on our minds, our Blessed Lord knew by being in union with the eternal Word (cf. 473-474).[16]

Of the other many truths revealed in this section of the Catechism, one in particular gives special insight into the reality of Christ, namely, that the mystery of redemption was at work in Christ’s entire life, culminating with what is revealed in Philippians and enlivening the teachings in SC. Through his Incarnation he enriches us with his poverty. Through his submission to the direction of his parents in his hidden life, silent in the gospel, he atones for our disobedience. In his public ministry, “his word purifies its hearers” and his healings and exorcisms “took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Finally in his Resurrection he justifies us (cf. CCC 517).[17] Throughout, he humbled himself to be our example, his prayer draws us to pray, and his poverty calls us to accept freely our persecutions (cf. CCC 520).[18]

In our contemporary society, we must have an explanation for everything; we’ve taken the mystery out of life and reduced its events to reasonable, scientific occurrences with definite causes and effects. This has permeated American Catholicism as well and has hindered our ability to properly understand suffering, penance, and healing. We want to know why we are suffering, where it comes from, how long it lasts, and what we must do to “fix it.” Most of all we want to know God’s reasons for our suffering and why a Good and Loving God would “do this to us.” We put God on trial and we do not even look to His Son for the real answers, or rather, the real meaning. This is where St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-11) and the wisdom of the Church in Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Catechism (456-570) teach us a valuable lesson. Christ did not ask his Father to defend his Will to Him. Instead he willingly obeyed him, trusting in the Father’s love for Him (cf. Jn 6:38; Mt 26:39). SC reminds us that the graces of our Lord’s entire life and sacrifice flow through the Sacred Liturgy for our perpetual assistance and sanctification. And the Catechism helps us relate to Christ who was one like us and who, empowered by grace and love, was able to persevere to the end.

[1] The Navarre Bible: St. Paul’s Captivity Epistles in the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition with commentary by members of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre (hereafter referred to as “the Navarre commentary”). Page 103 explains that the period of 20 or 30 years depends on if you date St. Paul’s letter to his first imprisonment in Rome or his imprisonment in Ephesus during his third journey, respectively. Also, the mention of Philippi as his “first” flock is from page 101.
[2] I was directed to this idea from the Navarre commentary, on page 102 under the subtitle, “The Reason for the Letter.”
[3] Hereafter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church will be referred to as “Catechism” or “CCC.”
[4] “pilgrim fellowship of faith” is also the title of a book by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in which he answers the question: “How does the Church go about remembering and atoning for sins?” This is an important question as we journey as a Church together to our true home in heaven. I thought the play on words was appropriate here.
[5] This definition is from the Navarre commentary on page 126.
[6] The meaning of the Greek words for “equality” and “grasped” was found using the website:
[7] This quote is from the Navarre commentary on page 128, which is in turn quoting St. John Chrysostom in “Hom. On Phil, ad loc.
[8] The Navarre commentary states on page 128: “For the Jews the ‘name that is above every name’ is the name of God (Yahweh), which the Mosaic Law required to be held in particular awe.”
[9] Here, the Navarre commentary, on page 129, quotes St. Josemaria Escriva in Christ is passing by, number 21.
[10] Hereafter, the document Sacrosanctum Concilium will be referred to as “SC.”
[11] In this quote from SC2, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished” is a quote from “Secret of the ninth Sunday after Pentecost.”
[12] SC 5 quotes the “Easter Preface of the Roman Missal.”
[13] Up to this point, cf. St. Augustine, Tractatus in Ioannem, VI, n. 13
[14] From “a paschal banquet” to “given to us” cf. Roman Breviary, feast of Corpus Christi, Second Vespers, antiphon to the Magnificat.
[15] CCC 467 quotes Council of Chalcedon (451): DS 301,302
[16] CCC 473-474 cf. St. Maximus the Confessor, Qu. Et dub. 66: PG 90, 840A; Mt 11:27; Mk 2:8; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; 14:18-20, 26-30, 36; and Jn 1:18; 2:25; 6:61; 8:55
[17] CCC 517 cf. 2 Cor 8:9; Lk 2:51; Jn 15:3; Mt 8:17; Is 53:4; and Rom 4:25
[18] CCC 520 cf. Jn 13:15; Lk 11:1; and Mt 5:11-12

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