The Christ Hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) was the first reading I proclaimed as a lector at Mass during my time in theology studies. Since that time I keep returning to the mystery of the words found in the hymn. The hymn, I believe, is both a good complement as well as corrective to scriptural interpretations and theologies found throughout history and present in our own day. “Does it pass the Christ Hymn test?” is what I often ask myself when listening to sermons and opinions in theology.
Singing the hymn on Good Friday leaves one with a question; “What saves? The blood of Christ or the obedience of Christ?” This is asked not to minimize the sufferings of Jesus nor the salvation which was won for us through his sacrifice but to allow the hymn to clarify in the hope of being brought to deeper understanding.
Could an over-emphasis on the imagery of the “blood of the Lamb” have the unintended consequence of leaving us with the image of God as a wrathful Father who demands a blood sacrifice? Sadly, this has been an interpretation given ample evidence of in sermons, hymns and theological writings that has floated down through the Christian centuries. But sheer multitude does not necessarily make something right. In fact, it might demonstrate that it is just … easy.
Scripture scholars say that Paul did not pen the Christ Hymn. Rather, he made use of a hymn that was already being widely sung by that first generation of Christian disciples. This first generation hymn does not mention nor emphasize “blood” rather it focuses on “obedience”.
“…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, death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him…” (Phil. 2:7-8)
Obedience is an act of the will and when that is kept primary then we are safeguarded from the pitfalls of a brand of Christian thought that ultimately reduces the Father to the image of a wrath-filled despot demanding a pound of flesh. Keeping the obedience of the Son central allows the focus to remain (in wonder and awe) upon the free act of will on the Son’s part – an act of will in which Jesus demonstrates his love for the Father and his deep desire for us to be restored in our relationship with the Father (free from the wound of sin) in the fullness of the Kingdom.
Singing the Christ Hymn on Good Friday reminds us that the sacrifice made on the cross was first, foremost and for all eternity an act of love.