10 December 2021

The Carmen Christi: When Jesus made himself nothing.

Philippians 2.5-11.

Many scholars and historians think this part of Philippians is actually a hymn sung by ancient Christians. Possibly composed by someone other than Paul, and Paul was only quoting it when he and Timothy wrote Philippians. But if this isn’t the case, it nonetheless became an ancient Christian hymn, known in Latin as the Carmen Christi/“Christ hymn.”

In it Paul and Timothy told (or reminded) the Philippians that God became human, died for us, and will be exalted at his coming. “Christ Jesus is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father.

I really like the way the International Standard Version translated it, ’cause they made it rhyme. (It used to have a proper rhythm too. It doesn’t now, ’cause when they updated it, they swapped out “Christ” for “Messiah”—which means the very same thing, but whatever. I prefer the old meter, so I swapped it back in verse 11.)

Philippians 2.5-11 ISV
5 Have the same attitude among yourselves that was also in the Messiah Jesus:
6 In God’s own form existed he,
and shared with God equality,
deemed nothing needed grasping.
7 Instead, poured out in emptiness,
a servant’s form did he possess,
a mortal man becoming.
In human form he chose to be,
8 and lived in all humility,
death on a cross obeying.
9 Now lifted up by God to heaven,
a name above all others given,
this matchless name possessing.
10 And so, when Jesus’ name is called,
the knees of everyone should fall,
wherever they’re residing.
11 Then every tongue in one accord,
will say that Jesus Christ is Lord,
while God the Father praising.

This passage comes right after Paul instructed the Christians of Filippi, Greece, to work together. Not in competition—not even “healthy competition”—but submissively, taking others into consideration instead of looking out for number one. And as an example of submission, of working with people instead of against ’em, here’s Christ Jesus—who does it par excellence.

Christ Jesus’s attitude is that love takes priority over power, so he divested himself of that power and became human, out of his love for us. Therefore we likewise should prioritize others.

How Jesus emptied himself.

There are very, very few circumstances where we’d have to go as far as Jesus did, and give up absolutely everything, and make ourselves nothing. Usually all we have to give up, or do without, or set aside, is some small convenience. Usually all it takes is money.

And too many Christians struggle to do even that. Which is often why Jesus’s self-sacrifice looks so mighty in comparison.

Likewise he had a lot to give up! Jesus is God. Paul described him as ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων/en morfí Theú ypárhon, “existing with God’s form,” or “existing in God-form.” This has caused no end of speculation from Arians who think Jesus isn’t quite God: He’s got a God-form, so he’s like God, but is he really the God? But Pharisees like Paul were very hesitant to use God-language to describe anyone who’s not God, ’cause they considered it blasphemy. Paul isn’t talking about another god, a lesser god, a subordinate god, a demiurge. Same God as the Holy Spirit. Same God as the Father. The One God, who is these persons.

And one of these persons willingly stepped away from the might and prerogatives of divinity. Which boggles the minds of people who worship power. What sort of glorious, transcendent, royal God would humiliate himself in such a way? Probably someone who’s not really God, who doesn’t respect such power. Or, in a rather widely held belief among many Christians, this was only a temporary situation: Jesus would become human for a time, but once his mission on earth was done, he’d return to heaven and shuffle off his mortal body and get his infinity back.

While we might consider these things “a thing to be grasped” Pp 2.6 ESV and clung to for dear life, Jesus has no such motive. He doesn’t seek power. He seeks the lost. He seeks us.

To defeat sin and death, Jesus chose ἐν ὁμοιώματι ⸀ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος/omiómati anthrópon yenómenos, “becoming made [in the] likeness of humans.” Again, people have other ideas about what this means, with gnostics claiming God the Son wasn’t really human. They’d rather he wasn’t; that he was only pretending to be human, or only assumed the form of a human. ’Cause God with skin and hair? God with saliva and bile? God with a penis? Totally beneath him, they figure. But he doesn’t think so. He created humanity and called it good, Ge 1.31 and didn’t think he was too good to experience it himself.

Look what he gave up to become human. He gave up power—something few of us can fathom. He gave up infinity. He gave up the ability to be everywhere (and every-when), know everything, do whatever he wants, and live beyond physical pain and deprivation. God now had to eat and sleep and breathe—or he’d die.

God could die. Which the hymn eventually gets to, but the idea the Living One could die is an entirely new idea for Jews. Pagan gods died in their mythologies—and of course they did, for they were born, and sometimes fought and conquered and slew one another. They were finite. The LORD is not. Nobody made him; he precedes time. But becoming human means the infinite God had to become finite like us—the ultimate humiliation. But Jesus accepts it. It serves his purposes.

Sacrificing everything. Or, really, anything.

Part of the reason heretics embrace ideas that Jesus either isn’t divine or isn’t human, is so they can reject the apostles’ initial statement: “Have the same attitude among yourselves that was also in the Messiah Jesus.” Pp 2.5 ISV We don’t wanna adopt his attitude. We don’t wanna humiliate ourselves. We have our rights, including rights to our stuff. We don’t wanna put any limits on our “freedoms.” How dare anyone suggest we do so—especially government officials. It’s our right as Americans to be dicks.

If Jesus gave up everything, we should at least give up something. But if Jesus actually gave up nothing—he actually never did surrender divine power, or actually never was divine in the first place—it gets us off the hook. Jesus didn’t have to sacrifice anything; why should I?

And now we can continue to cling to our possessions and prerogatives, and sacrifice little to nothing. Usually nothing.

As we can see throughout the Christmas season, as American Christians insist on having our way, having our celebrations and observances and decorations exactly the way we want ’em, and to hell with anyone who says different. Clerks won’t wish us a “Merry Christmas”? Cuss ’em out. Refuse to shop there ever again. How dare they not respect our power as consumers, and honor our religion… regardless of what religion they are. (And considering all the misbehaving Christians out there, they’re certainly not gonna want to become Christian.)

Contrast that with Jesus’s attitude. He left everything to save us, and bring us near. So… how well are we doing as he does, and following him?