The meaning of real divinity

Frances writes on next weekend’s readings :-  Some twenty years before St Luke wrote his Gospel, St Paul wrote down this great praise hymn known to some of the earliest Christians in Greece and Turkey, and sent it to those of the fellowship in Philippi. (Phil 2:6-11) Now Philippi was one of the great imperial cities of the east, centre of Roman government and power and thoroughly Romanised for over a hundred years. It had witnessed great battles as Roman dynasts slugged it out in their bids for power as the republic faded into empire. It would have had all the accoutrements of a Roman imperial capital; forum, amphitheatre, theatres, stadium, baths and all adorned with statues and other emblems of Roman power. The whole area would have had an immense garrison and catered for the needs of its soldiers in war and in recreation.

Paul would have known precisely the nature of the challenge his praise song about Jesus would occasion, proclaiming as it did, not that Jesus became divine at death, as was the claim of Roman emperors, but, as the Greek makes explicit, “He existed in the form of God” that is, his being quite simply always was divine. Our hymn then proceeds to explore the meaning of real divinity, and this in a city where emperors would cling on to their power and status, awarding themselves titles such as Lord and Saviour, as we know from their coin and inscriptions. In vivid contrast, our hymn speaks of Jesus as one who very precisely did not “cling” onto his power as did emperors. Here we find a very rare Greek word harpagmon, normally used for robbers or rather muggers, those who snatch at what they prize and will kill to keep it. Jesus, or rather God in Jesus, in direct rejection of such human norms becomes as a slave, the lowliest form of humanity, without status, simply numbered among the property of his master and as easily disposed of, and as the Greek, not the Jerusalem Bible translation, shows was not simply “humbler yet”, but rather “he humbled himself”, and accepted the most despised of all deaths. What a comment on the lordlings of Philippi and the rulers of the Roman Empire! Here we have a lesson on the nature of true divinity and on the lengths God will go to to save his creation. Anyone singing this hymn in Philippi must have been aware of its radical and deeply subversive meaning. Our hymn claims that it is precisely by such self sacrifice and such an appalling death that this defiled wretch would be exulted by God and receive universal honour and worship. Any Roman emperor would in reality be all too aware that his ‘star’ quality was very much limited to Roman territory, and was something which could vanish all too quickly by an assassin’s knife as others were honoured in their place. Statues even came provided with detachable heads for recycling!

Hebrew writers such as Isaiah (Isa 50:4-7) had explored such understandings of saviour figures like Jesus, who personified the relationship between God and Israel for hundreds of years, as we see in this part of one of the great Servant Songs of Isaiah of the Babylonian Exile. Highly significantly, these songs of divine redemption are always fixed in the humility and even degradation of the Servant/nation, whose success and enduring magnetism lay precisely in the weakness and not the power of the servant who is always shown as one who submits to the divine command and is thereby rewarded. I suspect that the great Philippians hymn came from a Jewish-Christian source, familiar with this relationship between God and his creation, and had found it profoundly instructive.

Finally let us look at the Gospel for the Palm Procession (Luke 19:28-40) No doubt Jesus also found all those images fundamental and dominant as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for his Passion. In consequence, he chose to come into the city not on a war horse – as many were hoping – but on a young, fresh colt. He was acclaimed with the words of the great Hallel psalms which were used throughout Passover week, significantly being called ‘king’, but as we see, it is not an earthly king who is acclaimed here, as so many were expecting, but God’s king; and one significantly who brought peace, not on earth, but in heaven. It appears that what we are witnessing here is not any threat to the Roman Empire, or any other worldly rule, but rather the reign of God on earth, the Eschaton, when God’s power will come to fruition and rule the cosmos. Small wonder then, that Jesus reproves the Pharisees in the way he does.

Luke, writing largely for a Christian community of converts from paganism has, it appears, a far greater agenda than the redemption of Palestine and its lasting power, and has taken on board the meaning of Jesus and the salvation of the entire creation which he promises. Matthew and Mark’s account of this entry into Jerusalem are far more specific in relating expectation to a new Davidic renaissance. Luke, by contrast has seen out beyond this, indeed far beyond the hopes of any earthly nation. Here, as at the birth of the Messiah, we see the glory of heaven about to be revealed.

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