“Christ, ... being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped.”+
Today's Epistle is something very close to a Creed. Some modern translations of the Scripture indent this passage to signify its highly structured, poetic form, and the fact that it is probably a hymn. But it is not merely the structure to which I refer. The passage unites in a concise but powerful way the essence of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement, and concludes with a sentence which doubles as an eschatological reference and an invitation to saving faith. (That this is a reference both to voluntary confession of Christ's Lordship by the Faithful, and any made to confess at the Judgement through force of Truth previously rejected, is implied both by the universality of the promise and the context of the quotation from Isaiah 45: “every knee shall bow”. There we have God both saying “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth, for I am God unrivalled” and “”To him shall come, ashamed, all who raged against him.”) Perhaps the only thing lacking in this Hymn to make it a Creed is an explicit Trinitarian formula.
When I said that this passage unites Incarnation and Atonement, I meant exactly that. It is not just a case of bringing them into close proximity in its description of God's actions. It is more even than saying that the Incarnation – God the Son taking on human nature – was necessary as a means for the Atonement – the God-Man offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins and so uniting God and Man in Himself. The unity between Incarnation and Atonement here is more profound and complete.
For when St Paul writes of Jesus “emptying himself” (kenosis in the Greek) to become human, he then shows that the Cross is an ultimate extension of this self-humbling: “he humbled himself [yet further] and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. Incarnation and Atonement are thus part of the same movement, the same impulsion of God's love for us.
That God, the transcendent source of all Being and Life, should so humiliate himself, so to speak, should be so willing to enter into the grit and grime of our existence, an existence not only earthly and weak, but, far worse, mortally affected by evil, is both amazing and beautiful. We do not ponder this enough. Now, theologians have made the point that this Divine “kenosis” or self-emptying” does not unGod God! No, throughout this Jesus remains fully Divine, with all the immutable Divine attributes. But, inasmuch as he became “God in skin”, what He emptied himself of, relative to us, is the all-consuming, visible glory and the invulnerability to suffering.
And because of this voluntary kenosis, Jesus as Man, and not just as God, is “highly exalted”, and his human name, Jesus, becomes the name above every name, the Word above every word. The great paradox of the kenosis is that it not only leads to a complete restoration of the manifestation of the power and the glory for God the Son, it incorporates into that restoration both his human nature and ours. Manhood is now exalted to that place of incomparable honour, in Christ. And our humanity is connected to His through His Body, as we belong to the Church; through his Body, as we spiritually feast upon it in the Eucharist, and “become what we eat”. And intimately associated with this, the Divine Life is poured into us by the Holy Spirit.
But we cannot forget that the immediate purpose of this hymn for St Paul was to remind Christians to imitate Christ's humility, his kenosis. He is saying, “If God the Son was willing to humble himself so completely, how much more should we do so, who next to him are as nothing, at best shattered and spoiled images of God, if without His grace.”
So, while we confess and praise our Lord Jesus Christ and his unreserved self-giving to and for us, and while we meditate with thanksgiving and wonder at the joy and glory of our resultant “deification” by grace, we must beware of deceiving ourselves by losing sight of the necessary road between the two. That road is our voluntary kenosis, our taking up the Cross, our penitence, self-denial and self-effacing love for brethren and neighbour. However, thanks be to God that we do this only by grace, by God working within us, as St Paul says later in the same chapter (Ph. 2.13).
To further illustrate this point, I will read now from St Augustine's Confessions.
For the second week in a row then, I ask that we think upon and trust in the Cross imprinted on the Heart of God, and in that faith, overcome the world to the glory of God. +