Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus 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.
The noted English author and convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, G. K. Chesterton, referred to the cross as “that terrible tree which is the death of God and life of man.” Chesterton’s observation evokes the prayer: O Lord “you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross, so that, where death arose, life might spring forth, and the evil one who conquered on a tree, might likewise be conquered through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Of course the reference to the enemy and a tree takes us back to the 3rd chapter of Genesis where we read that our First Parents, Adam and Eve whom God had placed in the Garden “to till it and care for it” (Gen. 2:15), were not satisfied with their lot in life.
They wanted more; they wanted to be in charge; they wanted to determine what is right and what is wrong; they wanted to decide what is good and what is evil. They were ripe for the plucking, so pluck they did, taking and eating the forbidden fruit, believing the subtle lies of the evil one. They ate the fruit of the one tree, the only tree of which God had forbidden them to eat, thinking that it would give them what they wanted, it would make them become like God, \—or so they thought. (Gen. 3:5).
Instead they experienced shame and guilt and were banished from the Garden, a place that symbolizes God’s beauty and peace, a place of true decency and good order.
This story is a humbling account of the foundation of all our human limitations and disorders, our illnesses and death, our conflicts and dissatisfactions, our injustices and cruelties, our thoughtlessness and our disdain, our uncontrolled appetites and excesses, our resentments and all that miserly, miserable pettiness, all stemming from something the Church calls sin. We succumb to being out of control, or more often we long to be in control, not only of our own lives but the situations around us. We want what we want when we want it and we find instead our loss of innocence, guilt and banishment from the metaphorical garden, shut out from that place of beauty, harmony, peace and justice, somehow forgetting the desire that God has for each one of us, to be holy like Him, and we are not because we will not turn and accept his outstretched hand to take it and walk with him.
In this passage from Philippians today we are told by St. Paul that Jesus was like the first man, he was in the form of God, but unlike that first man, Adam, Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” Instead our Lord accepted the human condition with all of the limitations brought about by the fall except for sin. The passage says that “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
“Because of this”— St Paul writes “God has highly exalted him.” The desire to be like God leads us astray largely when we seek fulfillment in the wrong way through hoarding rather than giving, through power rather than service, through self-sufficient strength rather than through the humble weakness of total dependence on God and interdependence with others in the community.
Yet in the midst of all this muck and mire we behold the Gospel of Christ on the Cross, truly terrible Good News for all, to those who are willing to accept the inner poverty of the human condition without pretending it’s not there. To these God grants his secrets.
One of those secrets is this: God can fill with his love only those who are empty. St. Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself and he invites each of us to do the same. When we empty ourselves, when we humble ourselves and surrender fully, every day, then God can and will fill us with those things we all long for, yet never can really find on our own: his peace and love and grace and joy, redemption, salvation, and yes, holiness. These are the true fruits of the tree of life, the Cross of Christ.