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Hymn Proclaims Jesus' Exaltation

What hymn comes to mind when you think of Palm Sunday? "All Glory Laud and Honor"? "The King of Glory"? "O Sacred Head"?

We may sing them all as we begin our observance of Holy Week. But the oldest hymn for this day is usually recited, not sung, in our parish churches. The second reading for next Sunday (Philippians 2:6-11) is probably a song from the first generation of Christians. Paul heard it, liked it, and wrote it into the middle of his epistle to the church at Philippi. We donít know what the music sounded like. Paul lacked recording technology and even a system for writing music down. He could only copy the words. The beautiful text he so favored still echoes in our churches on this day.

We are not the first Christians to assign this text to this feast. Prior to Vatican II this same passage preceded the passion, as it had since 1570. Scholars tell us, though, that this reading appears in lectionaries as far back as the mid-seventh century. That means it was probably proclaimed on Palm Sunday even earlier than that, since the first lectionaries likely collected what had become custom. Even though our readings vary over a three year cycle, this passage always appears on this Sunday.

The first line comes from Paul. It links his foregoing argument with the text of the hymn. Having encouraged the Philippians in the virtue of humility, Paul now admonishes them to imitate Christ.

The hymn follows. Its two parts jump to the eye. The first half presents the debasement of Jesus, the second half his exaltation.

Key to the contrast is that Jesus shared divinity with God; he was "in the form of God." Remember how Johnís gospel opens? "In the beginning was the Word"? Jesus, the Word, was God from the beginning; he did not become God at his birth in time. Our creed says very precisely, he was "begotten, not made, one in being with the Father." That is, Jesus was not summoned into being at Bethlehem, but has always existed as a further expression of the Creator.

However, Jesus did not exploit his situation. He did not have to assume human form, but he did. God is not limited, yet Jesus assumed the limitations of humanity. God cannot die, yet Jesus accepted this ultimate consequence of becoming human. He "emptied himself," accepting the lowly status of a slave. Jesus did not become just any human; he became a servant of all. He followed his destiny all the way to death, (and here Paul probably added these few words to the hymn he found) death on a cross.

Thus, in the first half of the hymn, we see Jesus equal with God accepting human form, accepting the mission of a slave, accepting death, even the worst kind of death. The downward spiral ends at the cross.

Then, the hymn makes its upward ascent. Just as Jesus willingly offered himself, so did God raise him on high. Jesus received the name above every other name; he bears a title that none can deny. He is exalted above all creation, whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. Every knee bends to him in adoration, because he has been exalted by God. Furthermore, every tongue confesses him by that highest of names which he holds.

What is that name? The final line of the hymn calls it out, "Jesus Christ is Lord!" In short, he has the name of God. Although God revealed his name to Moses as "Yahweh", or "I am who I am," generations of Mosesí followers deemed themselves so unworthy of God that they did not even pronounce the divine name out loud. They substituted another title, "Lord". And whenever they used it, they knew it meant "Yahweh". When this hymn from Philippians confesses Jesus as the Lord, it stakes the greatest claim on his divinity.

Other passages from the new testament make the same statement. "Jesus is Lord" appears so frequently (cf. also 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9) that scholars believe early Christians used that phrase as a simple confession of faith, as we proclaim our faith more elaborately in the creed.

As we enter the drama of this holy season, we take heart in the text of this hymn. It acknowledges the debasement of Jesus, but it also proclaims his exaltation. It inspires us to confess our sins and to act with humility because we have confidence in glory.

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