A great 18th century preacher, Lacordaire, was famed far and wide for the power and eloquence of his sermons. One day he was invited to preach before an audience of some of the most famous and powerful celebrities in France. Proud and excited, he prepared his sermon with even greater care then before, and, full of his own importance, ascended the steps of the pulpit with great pomp and ceremony to deliver it. But the sermon was a bust. For some reason, his eloquence deserted him, and he was stammering and stuttering all over the place. When he came down the pulpit steps afterwards, he was humiliated, shamed and a broken man. A wise old priest watching him was heard to remark: ”If he had gone up the way he came down, he would have come down the way he went up.”
In our second reading today, St Paul first appeals to the Philippian community to show an attitude of humility and loving service to other members of the community. Then he gives them the example of Jesus Christ, using a hymn well known at the time among Christians. The hymn is in two parts – the first part shows Jesus descending from the heights of heaven to take on human nature and then submitting to the most humiliating death possible – death by crucifixion. The second part of the hymn shows Jesus ascending as God-Man to take up his place of glory again besides his heavenly Father. Jesus goes up as he came down – with great humility, in obedience to his Father’s will, and in a spirit of loving service to us human beings.
Jesus’ attitude is in total contrast to the spirit of pride and selfishness displayed by the Philippian church. But it is also in total contrast to the attitude shown by our first parents, Adam and Eve. What caused the original break between God and human beings? Adam and Eve’s pride and disobedience. They refused to obey God’s command not to eat from the tree of good and evil, because they believed the devil’s lie that, if they did eat the fruit of that tree, they would become “like gods themselves.” Obviously, if they were gods themselves, they would not need God at all, so their act of disobedience is also an act of rebellion against God’s right to determine how they should or should not lead their lives. It was, of course, the cause of Satan’s fall from heaven – his determination that he “would not serve” God, he would not obey him. As a result, he will spend eternity in the torment of hell, being forever deprived of the eternal peace and joy and love of Heaven, and knowing it. And we human beings stood in danger of following him into hell, because of the sin of our first parents, who when they disobeyed God, were only thinking of themselves, and not of the effect of their sin on their descendants. So you add selfishness to pride and disobedience. Every sin we commit is a result of those three attitudes, and so repeats the original sin of Satan and the original sin of Adam and Eve.
To counter this, and to save us from Hell, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity descends from his place of heavenly glory. There he has everything – equality with God, majesty, splendor, freedom from suffering and death, the glory of divine rule. In a self-emptying of incredible dimensions, He lays aside all of that to become one of us. This passage from our second reading describes this as the kenosis or “the self-emptying” of God. There is no reason or need for him to do that. He simply chooses to do it – not for His own sake, but for ours. He gets no benefit from it, we get all the benefit – forgiveness of sins, eternal life in heaven, salvation and heavenly glory. He humbles himself for our sake, and out of obedience to his Heavenly Father’s will, in an act of astonishing loving service, which then goes on to an even more staggering proportions – death on a cross, the most cruel and humiliating form of execution ever devised by human depravity. And why? For what? To what end is all this humility and obedience and service? “The Son of Man” said Jesus of himself, “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:45). Because the most selfish, prideful and rebellious act of human beings in all of human history, the original sin of Adam and Eve, is to be overcome by the most selfless, humble and obedient act of one “in human form” in all human history. And in so doing, Jesus is showing all of us another way of being – not the way of “ selfish ambition or conceit “ as displayed by the Philippian Christians , and displayed by all of us when we sin – but the way of redemption, of salvation, of holiness: God’s way.
“Make me know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths /Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation”. So runs our responsorial psalm today and it is an appropriate response to the example of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, hymned so majestically in our second reading. “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” Those who are humble enough to acknowledge that they are sinners, guilty of pride and selfishness and disobedience will find in Jesus’ example all the instruction they need to follow in God’s way, because he “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”. Those who do not want to admit the truth that we are all sinners, who “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and are redeemed, saved, not by any good works of our own, but by the wholly good work of Jesus on the cross, will not want to hear any of this, will shut their ears and eyes and continue to walk their own way, and follow their own path and will inevitably end up harming themselves and other human beings by their selfishness, pride and disobedience. They will end up falling from their high position all the way into Hell, they and all those who have been seduced by them into following their example. The humble and obedient will be raised up by the Father, they and all the other human beings who have been drawn to salvation by their example, and seated with Jesus at the right hand of God for all eternity (Ephesians 2: 6) . Which group do you want to be part of , brothers and sisters , which group do I ?