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Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, SJ

Reading the Letter to the Philppians

Part II

From this emphasis on the humility of Christ Paul draws the implication that Christians are to imitate him by their own practice of humility. Because he took on the form of a servant, Paul and Timothy call themselves his servants (1:1). Fully aware that his imprisonment may lead to hisdeath, Paul can assert: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). His prayer for the Philippians is that they may practice a similar humility: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel, and not be frightened in anything by your opponents” (1:27-28).

It would be understandable for a certain pride to creep in among those who successfully undertake difficult tasks, such as giving faithful witness to Christ in the face of persecution. Perhaps it is this that explains the way in which the Christological hymn that is at the center of Paul’s message in this Letter is introduced by a similar call for humility: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this in mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God...” (2: 3-5). It is Christ’s own humility that should set the pattern for the conduct of his followers.

For Saint Paul, the sort of humility that is required is never mere sentimentality, and it is certainly not the cowardly lack of spirit that later anti-Christians like Nietzsche liked to ridicule Christian meekness. Among the considerable range of practical applications that Paul envisions for Christian humility, Paul includes not only the need to avoid grumbling but also the need to prepare oneself for martyrdom: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among you you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in ain or labor in vain” (2: 14-16). A final aspect of Paul’s insistence on the need to imitate the humility of Christ is his recognition that this imitation is a life-long process and not the work of a single day or a single deed. After admitting how much his conversion to Christ cost him (3:2-6), he resiliently insists that nothing that he once possessed and then lost can compare with what he has gained by knowing Christ (3:8).

Of special importance for us as we read this Letter and aim to make his practice our own is his sense that maturation in Christ needs to be our whole life’s work: “Not that I have alreadyobtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.... Forgetting what lies behind and straining to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.... Brethren, join in imitating me and mark those who so walk as you have an example in us” (4:12-17)