One of the things I love about St. Paul—the writer—is that he’s not afraid to ‘borrow’ great material from other sources.
The famous passage in Philippians is a good example:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus:
Who, 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 death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him
the name that is above every other 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.
Scripture scholars believe that much of this passage was taken from an early Christian hymn—something the people of God sang or recited when they got together to worship.
We heard another such passage at Mass today, taken from Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion,
Who was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
Both of the hymns that Paul borrows are wonderful examples of Christology – proclamations that this man Jesus was something more than a great prophet; that he was, in fact, one with God…that he was / is divine.
What’s fascinating to me, though, beyond what the words say…is when they were said. Paul wrote Philippians in the mid-to-late 50s; 1 Timothy, perhaps in the late 60s. Which is to say, they pre-date the four Gospels.
It’s amazing to consider just how early these hymns are…and how profoundly they express the mysticism of the first Christians.
They knew Jesus as the Word Incarnate – as both God and man – long before any professional theologians arrived on the scene. Their faith in Jesus as the Christ is there, right from the start – a truth beyond all telling, coming from the lips of tax collectors… common fishermen…and anonymous composers.
It was (and is) to just such as these that God chooses to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom.