Passion (Palm) Sunday – B

The early Christians would not hide their belief that Jesus was the Son of God nor the fact that Jesus suffered a brutal death. Each of the four Gospels offers us a detailed account of this horrific ordeal.

This year, we have Mark’s “Passion of Our Lord Jesus,” which takes two chapters, 14:1-15:47, a sizable amount of his sixteen-chapter Gospel. Rather than denying Jesus’ suffering, the disciples considered it a most important part of His story.

These accounts of Jesus’ “Passion” openly recall how Jesus was taunted for His very weakness as He struggled on the Cross: “He saved others, He cannot save Himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the Cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:31-32). On the Cross, He appeared helpless, appealing to the Father with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?” (Mk 15:34).

Nevertheless, even in His degradation, Jesus’ divine status appears. As Jesus was interrogated by the high priest, regarding whether He is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One,” Jesus affirms, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:61-62). After Jesus dies, the Roman centurion declares: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).

For the early Christians, Jesus was God’s Son, who endured a brutal death for love of His Father and for us. This is the most powerful expression of God’s love for us.

Even before the Gospels were written, Paul summarized these beliefs in a passage, which is the second reading in the Liturgy today, the Letter to the Philippians 2:6-11. A number of scholars, such as Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. (According to Paul: Studies in the Theology of the Apostle, 104-105), maintain, based on a study of the linguistic style and vocabulary (unlike Paul’s other writings) of these verses, that the passage is older than the rest of the letter (which was written between 56-57) and may have been a hymn used by the early Christians in Palestine. If these scholars are correct then we are in touch with the beliefs of the first generation of Christians.

Paul begins with Christ’s eternal presence with the Father, Christ “was in the form of God.” St. Thomas Aquinas observes: “He mentions Christ’s majesty first, in order that His humility might be more easily recommended. In regard to His majesty he proposes two things, namely, the truth of His divine nature, and His equality” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 53).

What does it mean to be in the form of God? Thomas explains that “the form is called the nature of a thing. Consequently, to be in the form of God is to be in the nature of God”(Commentary on Philippians, 54).

Thomas points us that the New Testament found various ways to speak of Christ’s relationship to His Father, such as the “Son,” the “Word” and the “Image.” Each of these titles demonstrates Christ’s likeness to the Father: The New Testament speaks of Christ as the Son: “the perfect Son of God… having the form of the Father perfectly.”

Christ is also called the Word. According to Thomas, a word is as perfect as it leads to complete knowledge of that which it represents: “the Word of God is said to be in the form of God, because He has the entire nature of the Father” (Commentary on Philippians, 54).

Similarly, an image is as perfect as it resembles the original. The Letter to the Hebrews states: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).

Paul declares that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” St Thomas asserts that this wasbecause “He is in the form of God and knows His own nature well.” John’s Gospel tells us that people accused Jesus: “He called God His Father, making Himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18). As the Gospel accounts show, Jesus did not call attention to His divine status, except, as His accusers realized, in speaking of God as “My Father.”

Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Does Paul mean that Jesus emptied Himself of His divinity, at least for a period of time? Actually, it would be impossible for anyone to step out of his or her identity.

Thomas evokes the formula used by St. Leo the Great (d. 461) and other Church Fathers: “He remained what He was; and what He was not, He assumed.” Thomas explains: “He began to exist in a new way on earth, so He also emptied Himself, not by putting off His divine nature, but by assuming a human nature” (Commentary on Philippians, 57).

According to Thomas, Jesus’ divine nature is “full” and has “every perfection of goodness” but human nature and the human soul are empty, like a slate that can be written upon. Thomas finds it “beautiful to say,  ”Jesus emptied Himself, “He emptied himself, because He assumed a human nature” (Commentary on Philippians, 57).

Paul attests that Jesus took the “form of a servant.” Thomas makes clear that this does not mean that Jesus assumed an already existing human person: “The Son of God did not assume a man, because that would mean that He was other than the Son of God; nevertheless, the Son of God became man. Therefore, He took the nature to His own person, so that the Son of God and the Son of man would be the same in person” (Commentary on Philippians, 58).

Thomas notices that Paul “touches on the conformity of His nature to ours when he describes Jesus as, ‘being born in the likeness of men.’” Thomas recalls the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore He had to be made like His brethren in every respect” (Heb. 2:17) (Commentary on Philippians, 59).

Paul declares that Jesus was “found in human form.” Thomas reflects: “He assumed all the defects and properties associated with the human species, except sin; therefore, he says, and being found in human form, namely, in His external life, because He became hungry as a man and tired and so on: ‘One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (Heb. 4:15)” (Commentary on Philippians, 60).

Christ assumes a human nature but His divinity is not modified. Assuming human nature is not like putting a ring on a finger or putting on clothes: “[human nature] comes to the divine person without changing it, but the [human] nature itself was changed for the better, because it was filled with grace and truth: ‘We have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father’” (Jn. 1:14) (Commentary on Philippians, 61).

Thomas maintains that in taking a human nature, Jesus does not diminish His divinity: “the person existing in the divine nature became a person existing in the human nature… the Son… emptied Himself. Therefore, the union is in the person” (Commentary on Philippians, 62).

Paul declares: “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”Thomas comments “He was man, but very great, because the same one is God and man” (Commentary on Philippians, 64).

Thomas observes, “the sign of His humility is obedience.” People assert their greatness by not being ruled by others. Jesus was obedient in His human will, as the Gospels declare, “Not as I will but as You will” (Mt. 26:39) (Commentary on Philippians, 64).

Paul contrasts the disobedience that brought sin and the obedience that brought salvation: ““For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).

According to Thomas, the reward of Jesus’ obedience is His exaltation. The Father exalted Him in His Resurrection, so that “He should rise from the dead and pass from mortality to immortality.” The Letter to the Romans proclaims: “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). Jesus’ Resurrection reflects the words of the Old Testament: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly! I shall not die, but I shall live” (Ps. 118:17).

Christ is exalted by being at that Father’s right, “He raised Him from the dead and made Him sit at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:20).

God exalted Jesus: “God bestowed on Him ‘the name which is above every name.’Now a name is imposed to signify something, and the loftier the thing signified by a name, the loftier is the name.”

Thomas explains that this may refer to Jesus’ pre-existent relationship with the Father: “The Father gave Him this name inasmuch as He is the Son of God; and this from all eternity by an eternal engendering, so that this giving is no more than His eternal generation: ‘For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself’” (Jn. 5:26).

In another way, this may refer to Jesus’ humanity: “The Father gave that man the name of being God not by nature, because God’s nature is distinct from the nature of man, but to be God by the grace, not of adoption, but of union, by which He is at once God and man: ‘Designated Son of God in power’” (Rom 1:4).

Paul says “God bestowed upon Him a name above all names.” Thomas explains, “’God bestowed,’i.e., made manifest to the world, that He has this name. This was manifested in the resurrection, because prior to it the divinity of Christ was not that well known… it implies that He did not give Him a name He did not already have, but that all should venerate it.”

Thomas describes the veneration: “He has given Him a name which is above all names, even as man; hence he adds, that ‘at the name of Jesus, which is the name of the man, every knee should bow’” These are the same words that Isaiah applies to God: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’ (Is. 45:23).

Paul announces that at Jesus’ name, “every tongue proclaim to the glory of the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord.” Thomas comments that this is not a similar glory to that of the Father but the same glory: “That all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father?” (Jn. 5:23).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

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