26th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Philippians 2:1-11
It happened while I was at St. Paul’s Seminary in Ottawa during the 1980’s. In the seminary building, there was a common room that was set aside as a place for us to gather informally, chat or read the paper over coffee or tea.
A few seminarians proposed that some of the student council’s money be used to do some mild upgrades to the room, to give it a cozier and more inviting feel, in the hope that this would enhance a sense of community among the seminarians. It would be our own little “casse-croûte” or “coffee shop”. A few other seminarians objected to this, saying that we should be promoting a simpler lifestyle and that such an expense was unnecessary. Soon the battle was joined.
What was interesting – and ultimately, most revealing – was that the battle lines were drawn along language lines. St. Paul’s was officially bilingual, with French-speaking and English-speaking seminarians, reflecting the reality of Catholic Canada. The French-speaking seminarians were the ones who proposed the renovations. The English-speaking ones were the opponents. Both sides dressed up their reasoning by appeal to some aspect of our Catholic tradition. Community is a value. Simplicity is a value. However, neither side did a good job in listening to the other.
Why would that be?
This “coffee shop” conflict was merely one flash point in a deeper and more fundamental tension between the French-speaking and the English-speaking seminarians. And this tension reflected the broader tensions in the Canadian Church. One would have expected that such a community would be the ideal place to discuss and work through these tensions, and then become a model for the Canadian Church as a whole. It didn’t work out that way. Rather, it became yet another contest in which each side sought to win, convinced that its reasons were nobler and that the other side’s reasons were suspect. When the case was decided, no one was really satisfied. It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. We had all failed to deal with the issue in a mature, truly Christian manner. It was more about who would win. In fact, we all lost.
St. Paul knew all about the reality of tensions between people of various backgrounds in Christian communities. There were serious tensions between Christians of Jewish background and those of Gentile background. There were growing tensions between wealthy and poor Christians. Some Gentile Christians believed that there was no issue with eating meat sacrificed to the Roman gods, because there were no such gods. However, that practice scandalized Jewish Christians. Wealthy Christians would eat their common meals apart from their poorer brethren and not offer to share. These are but two examples.
These conflicts, like the “coffee shop” conflict, were symptoms of deeper and broader tensions between these groups. Although the examples I cited happened mainly in Corinth, it is clear from the beginning of Paul’s letter to the community in Philippi that he saw signs of divisions happening there as well. For Paul, all such divisions, whatever their occasion, were expressions of self-promotion, vanity, or selfishness. They are all forms of what some people today call “promoting your own brand”. Even if both sides use Christian ideals to argue their case, the fight itself isn’t about Christian ideals at all. It’s about who gets to win. It is the self, unmoored from its connection to God, seeking to grasp for itself some kind of honor and refusing to trust that the only true honor and glory comes from the Lord. It was the sin of Satan, who sought to promote himself and reject God. It was, in another way, the sin of Adam and Eve, who refused to trust in God’s promise that they were already made in God’s image, and sought to make themselves into “gods” by their own actions. It is a sin that persists throughout the ages. It is this sin that is at the root of all our divisions and tensions.
How does Paul address this situation? In chapter 1, he reminded the Philippians of the precariousness of their lives – and of his own. Paul himself would soon be put on trial, and he knew that he could be sentenced to death. The Christians of Philippi, too, were beginning to experience persecutions and other threats due to their faith in Christ. The danger of death does wonders in helping the mind rediscover its true priorities. This danger is often enough to expose the silliness of self-preocuppation.
But Paul goes further in chapter 2. He begins by building on the good qualities he sees in the community. When he writes, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy”, the Greek implies that there already is. Paul is saying, “Since there is among you encouragement in Christ, solace in love, compassion and mercy…” and so forth, “be of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart… Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory… rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves”.
Now we get to the heart of the matter. We believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We claim Christ as our Lord and Savior, and claim to be his disciples. “And well you should”, Paul would say. “However, if you really mean it”, Paul adds: “have the same attitude, then, that is also in Christ Jesus”.
What kind of attitude? The conceited attitude that makes others say, “I guess you think you’re God Almighty?” Hardly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be more insulting to God.
No, Paul says. “Though he was in the form of God (yes, he really was God Almighty), he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. (The Greek has various shades of meaning. Maybe the best sense is: ‘He did not deem equality with God a status or brand to be exploited for personal gain.’) Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”. The Son becomes fully human, emptying himself of all privilege, even to the point of dying on a cross. No one in Paul’s day could imagine a more extreme act of humility – from God to crucified reject.
Paul isn’t finished. “Because of this (this stunning act of self-humbling), God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name”. That would be the name of God himself. Not that Jesus wasn’t already God, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. No, this meant that what Jesus did, his attitude of self-emptying and total gift, is who God is. The Father is revealing the true nature of God by exalting Jesus. What is this nature? Not the arrogance we equate with “thinking you’re God Almighty”. Just the opposite. No narcissism, no clinging to status, no developing one’s ‘brand’. Jesus empties himself of everything. Why? Because he had utter faith in his Father. Because he loved us to the end. God is love, and love is self-gift for the good of the other. Self-promotion has no place.
What if our Catholic Christian communities really got this? How might it look in practice? What if we really were to “humbly regard others as more important than ourselves”?
Let’s take up the example that Paul uses elsewhere of food sacrificed to the Roman gods. Paul would say, “Sure, we all know that these gods do not really exist. However, if you simply want to ‘show off’ your ‘superior knowledge’ by eating such food in front of other Christians who are scandalized by it, you are not showing the attitude of Christ. You are merely asserting yourself. Rather, you should choose not to eat such food, so as to not give unnecessary scandal to anyone.”
Let’s ponder this principle for a moment.
How might it have changed the “coffee shop” conflict? Imagine both sides acting as though the other side was more important than they were. Those who claimed to advocate a simpler lifestyle could have made personal donations to the project as a way to value community and live out their simplicity! Those who valued community could have chosen a style for that room that was simple and yet beautiful and inviting, thus honoring the value of both as well. This would have opened doors of understanding between the two groups and would have helped them discuss the deeper causes of tension between them.
How might it affect tensions we see in the Church or in society as a whole today? Let me use only one example, though many come to mind. Think of the tension that some irreverently call the “liturgy wars”. Simply put, on one side are traditionalists who, seeking to promote reverence in the liturgy, would have the Church move in the direction of the Tridentine Mass – if not adopt the Tridentine Mass entirely. On the other side are progressives who, seeking to promote a sense of community and welcome, would have the Church move in a more horizontal direction in its liturgies – more of the vernacular, more local customs, more contemporary music, and the like.
Suppose that each side, rather than thinking the other to be beyond hope, actually regarded the other as more important than themselves? We might see progressives going to a Latin Mass now and then, receiving on the tongue, learning Gregorian chant, and praying the Rosary before Mass, for fear of scandalizing their traditionalist brothers and sisters if they didn’t. We might see traditionalists going to a vernacular Mass, receiving Communion in the hand, exchanging the sign of peace with enthusiasm, and singing David Haas and St. Louis Jesuits songs (even singing “Sons of God”!) for fear of scandalizing their progressive sisters and brothers if they didn’t. It would totally transform the debate. It would remind both sides that the liturgy doesn’t belong to them. It is the Lord’s. It would show each side that the other just might have a valuable point. The other side is not just a straw man to be set up and knocked down. They, too, are brothers and sisters in Christ. One might see an explosion of true reverence and a true community spirit, as each side learns from the other and learns to love the other.
Fantasy? No, it’s what Paul would call one of the consequences of “having the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus”. It is the emptying of any status that we might seek for ourselves, as individuals or as members of our little groups, as we truly “put on Christ”. The Lord has already given us a status that we could not have hoped to obtain on our own: we are made in God’s image, redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and made Jesus’ own sisters and brothers through baptism. The Spirit is in our hearts, and we can even call God “Father”. Let that sink in for a moment. It will blow any self-centered games away, and show them to be the empty show that they are. The world plays Monopoly and thinks that it’s real money. We have Christ himself, who is of infinite value.
May the Spirit of Christ dwell in our hearts. May we live, every day, the attitude that is in Christ Jesus. May we learn to instinctively see others as superior to our own ego games. May we so trust in the promises of God that we can empty ourselves of all pretense, and thus be seen as truly belonging to Christ. Then will our joy be complete – no matter what may befall us.