Reflecting on Philippians for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 2:6-11

The Son, who had already emptied himself of divinity, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. Since “obedient to death” could seem to describe death as Christ’s master, a clearer translation is that of the NRSV: “obedient to the point of death.” This obedience to the Father as a humble servant characterizes the whole earthly life of Jesus (see Mark 10:45).

Even death on a cross is not an addendum but the very climax of the statement. In Paul’s world, death on a cross was the ultimate extreme not only of pain but also, and especially, of humiliation. Paul is, after all, expanding on the self-abasement of Jesus. First came his self-emptying in the incarnation; then came his self-humbling in his human life, which culminated in the most humiliating death of all, the gruesome form of Roman execution reserved for criminals who were noncitizens of the empire, especially slaves. If the city of Philippi was filled with inscriptions posted by citizens boasting of their accomplishments in the Roman honors race, Paul counters this mind-set with his acclamation of Jesus Christ’s self-emptying humility—to which God the Father responded by bestowing the supreme honor that is about to be described.

At verse 9 there is suddenly a complete reversal. Because of this, God greatly exalted him. The Greek verb for “greatly exalt” (hyperypsoō) means in effect to “hyper-exalt.” Though the hymn surely alludes to Jesus’ resurrection, the emphasis here is on the lofty status to which he has been raised. Jesus’ exaltation is not a matter of being raised from the human to the divine, since he already possessed “the form of God” and “equality with God.”

Rather, it was the Father’s public vindication of the supremely honorable human life of the Son. Christ is now, in his human nature, exalted to divine glory and enthroned as Lord of the universe. This reversal from humiliation to exaltation evokes Isaiah’s fourth servant song, where God foretells that his suffering servant shall “be exalted and glorified exceedingly” (Isa 52:13 LXX). The humiliated one is glorified!

© 2013 Dennis Hamm, SJ, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.