by Father Mike Stubbs
Sometimes, when I look at the pile of unopened mail, papers to fill out, and work to do that has accumulated on my desk, I hardly know where to begin.
At my new parish, where I was recently installed as pastor, I have a much larger desk. But that doesn’t solve the problem. It only allows for an even bigger stack of papers to accumulate there.
I sometimes experience a similar reaction to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament. St. Paul’s barrage of words can pose a challenge to any reader. It can take a great deal of work to wade through them and arrive at any sense.
That looks especially to be the case in the beginning of Sunday’s second reading, Phil 2:1-11: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”
Clearly, St. Paul is exhorting us to unity. But, beyond that, what do those first few phrases at the beginning of our reading mean?
They provide the basis for his exhortation. “If there is any encouragement in Christ” means “if you find any encouragement in Christ.” “Any solace in love” means “if you find any comfort in love.” “Any participation in the Spirit” means “if you have any participation in the Spirit.”
To make sense out of these phrases, it is necessary to supply the missing subject and verb. And in this case, we are the missing ingredient.
Besides exhorting us toward unity, St. Paul is also urging his readers to be humble: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”
Once again, St. Paul provides a basis for his exhortation. But this time, it comes after the exhortation, rather than before. St. Paul turns to Jesus Christ as the example of perfect humility: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”
The words that follow explore the nature of Christ’s humility, from his incarnation to his death on the cross. They constitute the most familiar part of this letter and have earned the title “the Philippians hymn,” owing to their poetic quality.
Many scholars speculate that St. Paul is actually quoting a hymn — not of his own composition, but one that was sung in the liturgy of the early Christian communities.
Certainly, this Philippians hymn is very inspiring, even if we do not hear it sung. We will hear it once again on Palm Sunday, when we remember how Jesus Christ “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
That is the humility that St. Paul — and God — calls us to imitate.