The second reading for our Mass on this Palm Sunday existed as a hymn in the early Church before St Paul adopted it for his letter to the Philippians.
It opens with the declaration that although Jesus was ‘in the form of God’, i.e. divine, he did not remain in this condition, as was his right. Instead, he ‘emptied’ himself of his divine power and took on the ‘form of a slave’ – in becoming human, he became powerless as a slave was powerless in first century Palestine. Jesus shared to the full the complete weakness of being human.
Then Jesus became ‘obedient unto death’ – he was so human but his trust in God was so absolute that he willingly submitted to experiencing death, as all non-divine people must. But his death, Paul says, was ‘death on a cross’ – not only did Jesus die: his abasement was so low that he suffered the fate of a common criminal.
Then God ‘raised him on high’ by resurrection and ascension, granting him the title of ‘Lord’ and making him deserving of universal adoration. And this exaltation is signified in a special way in this Holy Name church – the words that everyone ‘should bend the knee at the name of Jesus …’ are inscribed on the wooden cross that hangs over our Tabernacle.
Paul used this hymn to ask his readers to have the ‘mind’ of Jesus. He prefaces the hymn with the plea (omitted from today’s reading): ‘In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus.’ The life of Jesus is not just to be contemplated and admired by Christians but to be imitated. We are to model our whole lives on Christ’s self ‘emptying’. We do this – as Jesus did – by ‘emptying’ ourselves in the humble service of others.
This call to empty ourselves in service of others was practically demonstrated by Jesus when at the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples. This was an action only carried out by slaves or lowly household servants. When a guest arrived at a house, a slave would be given the task of cleaning the guest’s feet. To the shock of the apostles, Jesus washed their feet instead of allowing a slave to do it. They were stunned by his action and could not see the reason for it.
Jesus explained that he was setting an example that he wanted them to follow. They were not to consider any act of care or service to be too lowly or beneath their dignity. Greatness in the eyes of God, he said, consists of being a servant rather than a master.
On Maundy Thursday evening, countless priests, bishops and the Pope himself will re-enact this lowly action of Jesus. It will be carried out to remind everyone taking part in the Mass that this action symbolises what Jesus requires of all of us.
In most cases this will not require us to take on something new. Already, most of us – in one way or another – participate in this lowly service to which Jesus calls us. For example: when out of love you wipe a baby’s bottom or change its smelly nappy … when in old age you wipe the nose or clean the body of a spouse or partner … when you stand or sit at an ironing board for hours … when you support a frail neighbour … when you work in a care home … or have a career of service to others in medicine, law, the police, education, fire or emergency services … wherever we put ourselves at the service of others for their sake, we are joining Christ in washing the feet of others.
This Holy Week may Christ grant us the resolve to serve in love all those who need our care.
Holy Name, Jesmond
14 April 2019