After the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Paradise, only God himself could make reparation for the offense that was committed by man’s sin. He, indeed, wished to make this reparation by sending to the world His Only Begotten Son, who was made Man in the womb of Mary. The Incarnation of the Son of God is one of the greatest mysteries of our faith, mystery of divine wisdom that is concealed under the veil of humanity.
The Creator wished to take flesh in order to manifest the glory of the Father to mankind and indicate the true path of sanctity toward Him. That is why he did not hesitate to humiliate himself, making himself obedient unto death, and death on the cross (cf. Phil 2:8).
Let us examine what the Church tells us about this text of the Epistle to the Philippines, in contrast with the original teaching of the preacher of Domus Sanctae Marthae.
Enter in the various parts of our study
II – In journeying with mankind, was Christ’s intention that of simply lowering Himself or of elevating man?
III – The correct interpretation of Philippians 2:8: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross”
I – Was Christ obedient only in suffering?
Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work’ (Jn 4:34)
I cannot do anything on my own; I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me. (Jn 5:30)
I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. (Jn 6:38)
The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?’ (Jn 10: 31-32)
Jesus accompanies his words with many ‘mighty works and wonders and signs’, which manifest that the kingdom is present in him and attest that he was the promised Messiah (Acts 2:22). The signs worked by Jesus attest that the Father has sent him. They invite belief in him (Jn 5:26; 10:25). To those who turn to him in faith, he grants what they ask (Mk 5:25-34; 10:52). So miracles strengthen faith in the One who does his Father’s works; they bear witness that he is the Son of God (Jn 10:31-38). But his miracles can also be occasions for ‘offence’ (Mt 11:6); they are not intended to satisfy people’s curiosity or desire for magic. Despite his evident miracles some people reject Jesus; he is even accused of acting by the power of demons. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 547-548)
Similarly, at the sixth ecumenical council, Constantinople III in 681, the Church confessed that Christ possesses two wills and two natural operations, divine and human. They are not opposed to each other, but co-operate in such a way that the Word made flesh willed humanly in obedience to his Father all that he had decided divinely with the Father and the Holy Spirit for our salvation (cf. Council of Constantinople III). Christ’s human will ‘does not resist or oppose but rather submits to his divine and almighty will’ (Council of Constantinople III). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 475)
In Christ, and through his human will, the will of the Father has been perfectly fulfilled once for all. Jesus said on entering into this world: ‘Lo, I have come to do your will, O God’ (Heb 10:7; Ps 40:7). Only Jesus can say: ‘I always do what is pleasing to him’ (Jn 8:29). In the prayer of his agony, he consents totally to this will: ‘not my will, but yours be done’ (Lk 22:42; cf. Jn 4:34; 5:30; 6:38). For this reason Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father’ (Gal 1:4). ‘And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb 10:10). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2824)
You were transfigured on the mountain, and your disciples, as much as they were capable of it, beheld your glory, O Christ our God, so that when they should see you crucified they would understand that your Passion was voluntary, and proclaim to the world that you truly are the splendour of the Father (Byzantine Liturgy, Feast of the Transfiguration, Kontakion). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 555)
II – In journeying with mankind, was Christ’s intention that of lowering Himself or of elevating man?
For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (Against heresies, 3, 19, 1: PG 7/1, 939) quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 460)
For He was made man that we might be made God. (Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. On the Incarnation of the World, 54, 3. PG 25, 192B)
O marvellous exchange! Man’s Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity. (Liturgy of the Hours, Solemnity of the Most Holy Virgin Mary Mother of God, January 1, Antiphon I of Evening Prayer)
Christ’s manner of life had to be in keeping with the end of His Incarnation, by reason of which He came into the world. Now He came into the world, first, that He might publish the truth. thus He says Himself (Jn 18:37): ‘For this was I born, and for this came I into the world, that I should give testimony to the truth.’ Hence it was fitting not that He should hide Himself by leading a solitary life, but that He should appear openly and preach in public. Wherefore (Lk 4:42, 43) He says to those who wished to stay Him: ‘To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God: for therefore am I sent.’ Secondly, He came in order to free men from sin; according to 1 Tim 1:15: ‘Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, III, q. 40, a. 1)
The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9). ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).(Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 458)
The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.’ ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me’ (Mt 11:29; Jn 14:6). On the mountain of the Transfiguration, the Father commands: ‘Listen to him’ (Mk 9:7; cf. Deut 6:4-5)! Jesus is the model for the Beatitudes and the norm of the new law: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12). This love implies an effective offering of oneself, after his example. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 459)
But we should reflect also about the motive of the Incarnation: why did the Son assume human nature, inserting Himself – He, who is the infinite transcendence – into our history and submitting Himself to all the limits of time and of space? The response is given by Jesus Himself during the exchange with Pilate: ‘For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ (Jn 18:37). In effect, truth is opposed to sin, which is in its most profound root a lie (cf. Jn 8:44); therefore the redemption of sin is obtained with the restoration of the truth in the relationship between man and God. Jesus came to the world to restore this essential truth. (John Paul II. Angelus, no. 2, December 22, 1991)
‘A new thing’: we Christians know that, when the Old Testament speaks of ‘new realities’, the ultimate reference is to the truly great ‘newness’ in history: Christ, who came into the world to free mankind from the slavery of sin, evil and death. (John Paul II. Pastoral visit to the Roman Parish of Our Lady of Suffrage and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, no. 1, April 1, 2001)
In the dignity conferred in a singular way to Mary, there is manifested the dignity that the mystery of the Word made flesh wished to confer to all of humanity. When the Son of God lowered himself to make himself man, similar to us in all things but sin, he elevated humanity to God’s level.
In the reconciliation that was carried out between God and humanity, He did not wish to simply restore the integrity and the purity of human life, wounded by sin. He wished to communicate to man the divine life and to open to him full access toward familiarity with God.
In this way Mary makes us understand the grandeur of the divine love, not only for her, but also with ourselves. She introduces us into the grand work, with which God did not limit Himself to merely curing humanity of the wounds of sin, but He has assigned it a superior destiny of intimate union with Him. (John Paul II. General Audience, no. 3, January 4, 1984)
There is nothing we can recommend more, for living of reparatory and glorifying love is to live of the life of He who came into the world to glorify the Father and give himself as a victim for the salvation of the human race; it is to live the quintessence of the Christian spirit; it is to live the highest perfection. (Pius XII. Address to a group of pilgrims from Bilbao, May 15, 1956)
III – The correct interpretation of Philippians 2:8: ‘He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’
Then when he says, who, though he was in the form of God, etc., he proposes the example of Christ. First, he mentions Christ’s majesty; secondly, His humility (Phil 2:7); thirdly, His exaltation (Phil 2:9) […] he commends Christ’s humility as indicated in His passion: first, he shows Christ’s humility; secondly, its manner (Phil 2: 8). Therefore He was man, but very great, because the same one is God and man; yet He humbled himself. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Commentary of the Letter to the Philippians, lec. 2, Phil 2, 5-8)
Already in the past we have underlined that this text contains a two-way movement: descent and ascent. In the first, Christ Jesus, from the splendour of divinity which by nature belongs to him, chooses to descend to the humiliation of ‘death on a cross’. In this way he shows himself to be truly man and our Redeemer, with an authentic and full participation in our human reality of suffering and death. The second movement, upwards, reveals the paschal glory of Christ, who manifests himself once more after death in the splendour of his divine majesty. (Benedict XVI. General Audience, no. 1-2, October 26, 2005)
[The Creator], acted toward our salvation with wisdom and justice. He did not wish to merely use his omnipotent power to grant us the gift of liberty, nor to employ only mercy against the adversary of the human race; so that he would not accuse mercy of injustice, but rather [He willed] to create a beautiful path, ornate with the plenitude of love and also with justice. In effect, having united to Himself the vanquished nature [of man], he lead it to combat; and He prepared it to make reparation for the defeat and to entirely overcome the one who before had iniquitously conquered, and to be unloose the tyranny of the one who had subjected us to bitter slavery and to recover the original liberty. (Theodoret of Cyrus. De Providentia, Oratio 10 – PG 83: 747)
And if because of His taking flesh ‘humbled’ is written, it is clear that ‘highly exalted’ is also said because of it. For of this was man’s nature in want, because of the humble estate of the flesh and of death. Since then the Word, being the Image of the Father and immortal, took the form of the servant, and as man underwent for us death in His flesh, that thereby He might offer Himself for us through death to the Father; therefore also, as man, He is said because of us and for us to be highly exalted, that as by His death we all died in Christ, so again in the Christ Himself we might be highly exalted, being raised from the dead, and ascending into heaven, ‘whither the forerunner Jesus is for us entered’. (Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. Discourse against the Arians I, ch. 11, no. 41)
This radical and true sharing in the human condition, with the exception of sin (cf. Heb 4:15), leads Jesus to the boundary that is a sign of our finite condition and transience: death. However, it is not the product of an obscure mechanism or a blind fatalism. It stems from his free choice of obedience to the Father’s plan of salvation (cf. Phil 2: 8). (Benedict XVI. General Audience, no. 3, June 1, 2005)
In this way this Letter shows how humanity, subjected to sin, in the descendants of the first Adam, in Jesus Christ became perfectly subjected to God and united to him, and at the same time full of compassion towards men. Thus there is a new humanity, which in Jesus Christ through the suffering of the Cross has returned to the love which was betrayed by Adam through sin. (John Paul II. Encyclical Dominum et vivificatem, no. 40, May 18, 1986)
‘And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:5-8). The mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption is thus described as a total self-emptying which leads Christ to experience fully the human condition and to accept totally the Father’s plan. This is an emptying of self which is permeated by love and expresses love. (John Paul II. Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, no. 88, December 7, 1990)