In a world in which so many “masters” want to direct and guide us, we need a scale of values that gives primacy to God, and to realise that Jesus Christ is the only Lord of our lives. This was the message at the heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audience. The Holy Father’s appointment with pilgrims from across the world was moved indoors to the Paul VI audience hall, as summer temperatures continue to climb in the Eternal City.
In his catechesis Pope Benedict continued his series on Christian prayer in the letters of Saint Paul, focusing on the Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians. He spoke of how prayer is silence and speech, but also of how prayer involves the heart and body in gestures of adoration of the Lord; “as Jesus’ exaltation took place through his abasement, so in our lives and in our prayer we discover that, by lowering ourselves in humility and love, we are lifted up to God.”
He continued: “Human logic, however, often seeks self-realization in power, dominion, in powerful means. Man still wants to build the tower of Babel on his own to reach the heights of God, to be like God. The Incarnation and the Cross remind us that full realisation is found in conforming our human will to the Father, in the emptying of one's selfishness, to be filled with love, God’s charity and thus truly be able to love others”.
Following his catechesis in Italian he greeted English speaking pilgrims present at the audience : “I offer a warm welcome to the ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders from Korea. I greet the pilgrimage groups from Nigeria, South Africa and Swaziland. My greeting also goes to the many student groups present. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, including those from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Norway, Australia, the Bahamas and the United States of America, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!
Below is a translation of the general audience catechesis:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Our prayer is made, as we have seen in past Wednesdays, of silence and speech, of singing and gestures that involve the whole person: from the mouth to the mind, from the heart to the whole body. It is a characteristic that we find in Jewish prayer, especially in the Psalms. Today I would like to talk about one of the oldest songs or hymns of the Christian tradition, which St. Paul presents to us in what is, in a sense, his spiritual testament: The Letter to the Philippians. It is, in fact, a letter that the Apostle dictated while in prison, perhaps in Rome. He feels close to death, because he says that his life will be poured out as a libation (cf. Philippians 2.17).
Despite this situation of grave danger to his physical safety, St. Paul, throughout the text, expresses the joy of being a disciple of Christ, of being able to reach out to Him, to the point of no longer seeing his death as a loss but as gain . In the last chapter of the Letter there is a strong invitation to joy, a fundamental characteristic of our being Christians and of our prayer. St. Paul writes: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!" (Phil. 4.4). But how can one rejoice in the face of an imminent death sentence? From where, or rather, from whom does St. Paul draw the serenity, strength, courage to go to meet his martyrdom, and the shedding of his blood?
We find the answer at the centre of the Letter to the Philippians, in what the Christian tradition calls carmen Christo, the hymn for Christ, more commonly known as the "Christological hymn ', a hymn in which all attention is centred on the Christ’s “sentiments”, that is, on his thinking and his lived and concrete experience. This prayer begins with an exhortation: " Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2.5). These feelings are presented in the following verses: love, generosity, humility, obedience to God, the gift of oneself. It is not simply a case of following the example of Jesus, as a moral thing, but to involve all of our existence in our way of thinking and acting. Prayer should lead to an ever deeper knowledge and union of love with the Lord, to be able to think, act and love like Him, in Him and for Him. Exercising this learning the sentiments of Jesus is the path of Christian life.
Now I will briefly touch on some elements of this dense hymn that sums up the whole human and the divine journey of the Son of God, which encompasses all of human history: from being in the form of God, to incarnation, death on a cross and exaltation in the glory of the Father and also partly the behaviour of Adam, of man from the beginning. This hymn to Christ comes from his being "en morphe tou Theou," says the Greek text, that is, from being "in the form of God," or better in the condition of God. Jesus, true God and true man, does not live his "being like God" to triumph or to impose his supremacy, he does not consider it a possession, a privilege, a precious treasure. Indeed, he "divested," emptied himself, taking on, as the Greek text says, the "morphe doulos ', the' form of a slave," human reality marked by suffering, poverty, death; he fully assimilated to mankind, except in sin, so as to behave as a servant dedicated to the service of others. In this regard, Eusebius of Caesarea (IV century) said: "He took upon himself the labours of the members who are suffering. He made his our humble diseases. He suffered and toiled for our sakes: all this in accordance with his great love for humanity "(Proof of the Gospel, 10, 1, 22). St. Paul continues by outlining the "historical" framework in which this abasement of Jesus took place. He writes: "he humbled himself and became obedient unto death" (Phil. 2.8). The Son of God truly became man and took on a journey in complete obedience and loyalty to the will of the Father, even to the supreme sacrifice of his life. Moreover, the Apostle specifies "unto death, even death on a cross." On the cross Jesus Christ reached the highest degree of humiliation, because crucifixion was the punishment reserved for slaves, " mors turpissima crucis," writes Cicero (cf. In Verrem, V, 64, 165).
In the Cross of Christ man is redeemed and the experience of Adam is overturned: Adam, created in the image and likeness of God, claimed to be like God on his own strengths, to replace God, and so lost the original dignity that had been bestowed on him. Jesus, however, was in that condition but he lowered himself, he immersed himself in the human condition, with unswerving fidelity to the Father, to redeem Adam who is in us and restore the dignity he had lost. The Fathers emphasize that He became obedient, restoring to human nature, through his humanity and obedience, what had been lost through the disobedience of Adam.
In prayer, in relationship with God, we open our mind and heart, to the will of the Holy Spirit to enter this same dynamic of life, as St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose feast we celebrate today, affirms: "The work of the Spirit seeks to transform us through grace into a perfect copy of his humiliation "( Festal Letter 10, 4). Human logic, however, often seeks self-realization in power, dominion, in powerful means. Man still wants to build the tower of Babel on his own to reach the heights of God himself to be like God. The Incarnation and the Cross remind us that full realisation is found in conforming our human will to the Father, in the emptying of one's selfishness, to be filled with love, God’s charity and thus truly become able to love others. Man will not find himself by remaining closed in on himself, by affirming himself, man will only find himself by coming out of himself, only if we come out of ourselves will we find each other and if Adam wanted to imitate God, in itself it was not a bad thing, however he had the wrong idea of God. God does not want only greatness, God is love that gives, already in the Trinity and then in Creation. Imitating God means coming out of ourselves and gifting ourselves in love.
In the second part of this "Christological hymn" of the Letter to the Philippians, the subject changes: it is no longer Christ, but God the Father. St. Paul emphasizes that it is by obedience to the will of the Father, that "God exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name" (Phil. 2.9). He who lowered himself completely, by taking on the condition of a slave, is lifted up, exalted above all things by the Father, who gives him the name of "Kyrios," "Lord," the supreme dignity and sovereignty. Faced with this new name, in fact, that is the name of God in the Old Testament, "every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father "(vv. 10-11). The Jesus who is exalted is that of the Last Supper, who lays aside his garments, girds himself with a towel, and bows down to wash the feet of the Apostles and asks them: " Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do "(Jn 13.12-14). This is important to always remember in our prayers and in our lives: "the ascent to God takes place through the descent of humble service in the descent of love for love is essence and is thus the power that truly purifies man and enables him to perceive God and to see God "(Jesus of Nazareth, Milano 2007, p. 120).
The hymn of the Letter to the Philippians gives us two important clues here for our prayer. The first is the invocation, "Lord" directed to Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father: He is the only Lord of our lives, in the midst of so many "masters" who want to direct and guide. For this reason it is important to have a scale of values in which primacy belongs to God, to affirm together with St. Paul: " I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3.8) . The encounter with the Risen Lord made him understand that He is the only treasure worth spending one's own existence for.
The second indication is prostration, the "bending of every knee," as St. Paul says together with the prophet Isaiah, on earth and in heaven, recalling an expression of the Prophet Isaiah, which indicates that all creatures should worship God (cf. 45:23). Genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament or kneeling in prayer expresses an attitude of adoration before God, even with the body. Hence the importance of making this gesture not out of habit and not in a hurry, but with deep awareness. When we kneel before the Lord, we confess our faith in Him, we recognize that He is the only Lord of our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters in our prayers, let us fix our gaze on the Cross, let us pause more often in adoration before the Eucharist, to allow God into our lives, God who humbled himself to raise us up to Him At the beginning of catechesis we wondered how St. Paul could rejoice in the face of the imminent risk of his martyrdom and bloodshed. This is only possible because the Apostle never removed his gaze from Christ to the point of conforming to Him in death, " if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:11). Like St. Francis before the Crucifix, may we also say: Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command.. Amen (cf. Prayer before the Crucifix: FF ).