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Victor Cancino, S.J.September 28, 2023
Photo via iStock

This Sunday’s second reading includes an early Christian poem, called the Philippians Hymn, that reveals human vulnerability as God’s strength. Its themes are similar to something a parishioner here at St. Francis Xavier in Missoula, Montana, often speaks about. She frequently uses the phrase “exposing one’s underbelly,” to refer to a deep sort of vulnerability, one that must be covered up again quickly to avoid harm. She is talking about more than the fear of harm or pain, but the complex truth that genuine love requires no defense. This might sound irresponsible because many people prey on the vulnerabilities of the weak. At the same time, this Sunday’s readings insist that a similar vulnerability is necessary for unity with God. Human weakness can be a source of divine strength.

Paul’s letter to Philippi is a plea never to use the strength one receives from God for selfish gain. Just as it is wrong to take advantage of another’s weakness, it is wrong to take advantage of the gifts one receives from God. Paul, writing with joy even though he is in prison, emphasizes unity and humility. “Do nothing out of selfishness,” writes Paul, “rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

“He shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps 25:8-9)

Liturgical day
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading: Ez 18:25-28, Ps 25, Phil 2:1-11, Mt 21:28-32

How does Jesus’ example of vulnerability challenge you?

How can the exercise of power interfere with the Christian quest for unity?

Can you recall a moment when choosing to be vulnerable turned out to be a strength?

With challenging language, Paul follows this request with words that actually reveal the mind of Christ and the mind of God. Jesus Christ is one, “Who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6). The phrase “as something to be grasped” comes from a word (harpagmos) that defies easy translation. It may describe something violent like a seizure or a robbery or something good like a title claimed with honor. In this Sunday’s second reading, it means that Christ did not regard God’s power as something to manipulate for selfish purposes. “Rather,” writes Paul, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7).

By allowing himself to be “emptied,” Christ’s life reflects the description in this Sunday’s responsorial psalm. The psalmist writes, “He shows sinners the way. He guides the humble to justice. He teaches the humble his way” (Ps 25:8-9). The three verbs—to show, to guide and to teach—imply that there is a pathway for disciples to follow. Christ’s example is that path. In the service of our redemption, he provides the definitive example of someone who does not choose to manipulate others but chooses to empty himself.

The second part of the Philippians hymn reveals God’s mind, and outlines the divine response to Christ’s “emptying.” “At the name of Jesus,” reads the passage, “every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11). This description of Jesus’ crowning moment is not merely some statement of theology, but a description of the path every Christian disciple is invited to follow. 

Christ experienced what it was like to be a human with an “exposed underbelly,” but during this experience, he felt the security of God’s love at every moment. He knew this path would lead to a painful death, but that meant little in comparison to the complete unity with God he experienced. In our own journey to God, we do not have to choose between the seductive strength of violence or humble vulnerability. There is only one path. It requires, as my friend says, “exposing one’s underbelly,” which, as it turns out, allows God to reveal divine strength.

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