In the infant Christ, God is so powerless that Jesus cannot even name himself. The name that is above every name must be breathed into being by someone else. Christ became helpless for us, and meets us in our places of greatest weakness.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Feast of the Name of Jesus
Texts: Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
The Apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote his letter to the church in Philippi. He had crossed the wrong people as he shared the gospel, and now he was in chains, waiting to learn his fate. He didn’t know if he would live or die – and the traditions of the church say that the epistle to the Philippians was the last letter that Paul wrote before his execution in Rome. The words in this letter may come from the apostle’s last days on earth. He is completely at the mercy of others. But in spite of his captivity and his helplessness, Paul writes about gratitude and joy. Philippians is his happiest letter. He is thankful for all that he has experienced in witnessing to Christ, and he has made his peace with whatever happens to him next. Either he will die for his faith and join Christ in heaven, or he will walk free and continue his work. Whatever is coming, whatever relief or whatever suffering, it will be for the glory of God, and so he can write about joy from a jail cell.
It’s an amazing attitude for him to have, but Paul doesn’t have to find this peace for himself. He says that he has learned it by following the example of Jesus. And he finds strength in that example by recalling the words of a familiar song. That’s what we read from Philippians today. It’s called the Christ hymn, and it may well be one of the very first statements of the Christian faith. Paul is quoting it, and Paul’s letters are the oldest writings in the New Testament, so these words have to be one of the very earliest Christian documents that we have. It’s not long, but it says what it needs to say. It tells of Christ’s preexistence with God, his birth as a human being, his death on a cross, his exaltation from the grave, and his glorious reign over all creation. It’s a familiar story. But the first stanza uses some compelling language that didn’t make it into any of our creeds. It says that although Christ Jesus “was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Before entering this earth, Christ had all the power in the universe. All things were his to command. All mysteries were his to know. He could have held fast to this power, could have used it for his own advantage, could have forced all of creation to bow before him. But the hymn tells us that’s not how God views power. The misuse of power belongs to humans, not to God.
We all know how naturally we human beings exploit power. In the public realm and in our private lives, we have all seen people pursue power just for the sake of being powerful. And the state of our world testifies to how rarely that power is used wisely. All of us could easily name people who we’ve seen misusing their status to benefit themselves and hurt those below them – but we can’t just point fingers at others. It’s safe to say that all of us have, at some moment, abused power ourselves, even if it was a just childish impulse like laughing at a less popular kid on the playground or bossing around a younger sibling. Our world is full of hierarchies, and we are so anxious to protect our place within them. Falling down a pecking order is embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst, and so we cling to what we have.
Even the gospel can be a means by which we try to set ourselves above one another. As Paul writes to the Philippians, “Some proclaim Christ from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition, not sincerely or out of love.” In our grasping hands, even the good news can be a tool for declaring who’s in and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s sinful, who wins and who loses. We can use Christ to try to get ahead, to prove that we are better than others, to show that we and those who think like us are the real Christians. That’s obviously missing the point, but the church has long demonstrated how easily we turn the gospel into a cudgel for beating others into line. If we can gain advantage from something, our instinct is to take advantage of that thing, and the gospel is no exception.
It’s all because we’re afraid. Life is so tenuous. Everything we know can be upended in a single moment. Power is how we try to run from our frailty. We flee helplessness with everything we have. We run from the thought that our fate could be outside our control. But we all know that’s how it really works. All of us are under the control of countless forces that give us little say in how we live our lives. We’re subject to the demands of our fragile bodies. We’re enmeshed in economic systems that dictate our fortunes. We live under the authority of the planet, and geopolitical powers, and social trends, and the whims of the people around us. So little about our lives is truly under our control. And we hate that. We want to be autonomous, invulnerable, free. So we strive and strive to hold on to something that will make us the masters of our own destiny. For some of us, that thing is the pursuit of physical fitness. For others, it’s money. It might be influence, or knowledge, or professional success, or the perfect family – whatever it is that makes us feel like we’re in control of our lives. But nothing can free us from our vulnerability. Nothing can free us from our mortality. So we keep on trying, and are never satisfied.
But Paul shows us that we can be free of all this anxiety. We all know that Paul wasn’t a perfect man, but when push came to shove, when his life was on the line, he found peace. Remembering that Christ made himself helpless, even to death on a cross, he discovered the grace of helplessness for himself. Because helplessness is where we find Christ. Paired with this letter written by a man in prison, we read a story about Christ being named and circumcised as a tiny infant. We think of the newborn Jesus as sweet and beautiful, and of course those things were true of him as they are true of all babies, but here we are called to witness his absolute vulnerability, his absolute dependence on others. The second person of the Trinity, the living Word who existed before time itself and through whom all things came into being – that God made flesh has given up the ability to even name himself. It’s absurd. The Word cannot say his own name. The name that is above every name must be breathed into being by someone else. This is how God chose to come to us. This is how we meet Christ, and how Christ meets us: weak, fragile, human.
Christ was equal with God, but he poured himself out and became equal with us. He embraced our weakness for himself. He experienced our birth and our life and our death for himself. And then, when God raised him up from death, Jesus lifted up the rest of us with him. It is in Christ that our human weakness is known and loved, and it is in Christ alone that our human weakness is overcome. The way out of our fear is not in grasping for power that can hold our weakness at bay, but in following the path of Christ and choosing to embrace our vulnerability. We want flee from our frailty, our vulnerability, our mortality – but we don’t need to run away, because our helplessness is where God knows us best. We have to open ourselves to weakness, even to death, to feel Christ at our side. But when we learn to humble ourselves is when we can sing for joy in spite of our frailty, in spite of our fear, in spite of our chains. That’s when we know Christ is right there with us, holding us in love, and promising us that weakness is the way to God’s true power, and that the way of the cross is the way to eternal life.