There is a splendid passage about Jesus in St Paul's letter to the Philippians. This letter was written in the year 56 or 57 A.D., to the Christians at Philippi, one of the principal cities of Macedonia. Someone called this extract from it the most moving passage that Paul ever wrote about Jesus. It may of course have been a current hymn that Paul was quoting. If that is so, then it is possibly even earlier than the year 56 or 57. This brings us even closer to the beginning.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:1-11)

"He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave." This must have had the impact of a bombshell in the first century. We are in a different place today. We have been accustomed all our lives to hearing protestations of humility, some of them real, some hypocritical. We have also become accustomed to the teachings of Christianity, whether or not we stay close to them. Strange as it may sound, we have become used to God. In the 2nd century St Irenaeus could write, "The Word of God lived among us and became Son of man in order to accustom us to living in God and to accustom God to living in us."  We have become perhaps too shock-proof, and we need to look again and again at the central mystery of our Faith. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And he was humbler yet, "even to accepting death, death on a cross.”

Death on a cross too is something that has lost much of its impact. Jesus is the only one we know who was put to death by crucifixion. But it was a common form of execution for a thousand years, until the Emperor Constantine abolished it in the Roman Empire in the year 337, out of respect for Jesus, the most famous victim of crucifixion. There were various methods. Usually, the condemned man, after being scourged, was made to drag the crossbeam of his cross to the place of execution, where the upright shaft was already fixed in the ground. Stripped of his clothing either then or earlier at his scourging, he was bound fast with outstretched arms to the crossbeam or nailed to it through the wrists. The crossbeam was then raised high against the upright shaft and fastened to it about three metres from the ground. Then the feet were tightly bound or nailed to the upright shaft. Over the criminal's head was placed a notice stating his name and his crime. Death, apparently caused by exhaustion or by heart failure, could be hastened by shattering the legs with an iron bar, so that shock and asphyxiation soon ended his life.

That God's Son submitted to this was entirely shocking at a time when crucifixion was still in use. Hindsight appears to clarify things, but often it just blurs and falsifies. In the Roman Empire crucifixion was imposed only on slaves and foreigners. That is why the 1st-century hymn says that Christ "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."

It is remarkable that we still think of God as somehow 'up there', when God went to vast pains to come among us, and even to go beneath us. This upside-down world of faith is poorly realised in our world, except by the voluntary poor: people who really embrace the way of poverty and powerlessness. It has been poorly realised in the Church. There is still a way to go before Christians everywhere will instinctively look down to find God - to seek God among the weakest, the most sidelined, the simplest, the poorest....
Donagh O'Shea

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