The Christ Hymn of Humility

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, 
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
but made himself nothing, 
taking the very nature of a servant, 
being made in human likeness. 
And being found in appearance as a man, 
he humbled himself 
and became obedient to death— 
even death on a cross! 
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place 
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 

in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.

Found at nearly the center of the book of Philippians, the passage known as the “Christ Hymn” obviously operates as something profound for the intentions of the book. The hymn calls all who hear it to immediate attention, to hear the terse and lovely words. When Paul writes it, he has something important to say.
         Paul writes Philippians to a church troubled by conflict and strife. Because of that, the letter is all about unity and humility, encouraging the church to “look not only to their own desires, but to the desires of others.” With this intention, at the focal point of his letter, Paul inserts this Christ Hymn. He tells the church in Philippi that their attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. The ancient hymn, he recounts, tells of Christ’s divine preexistence, followed by his humble condescension—all the way to crucifixion, and then ending with his exaltation by God back to his rightful place in heaven. Paul uses this to inspire a spirit of humility in his readers.
         “Christ Jesus—who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth actually existed before the creation of the world. He was in God and through God, and he was God.
         “But, he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” The man that was God died. He humbled himself; he emptied himself. If ever lived a man that should not be humble, if ever lived a man that should not die, it was that man.
         “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
         There is an image that is drawn with these words. It is a sort of cosmic checkmark, often called “Kinosis Theory.” He, who had everything, by his very nature, humbled himself to someone with nothing. He died on a cross, the most shameful death available to him, and was thus exalted by the Father. A cosmic checkmark.
         This radical emptying of himself is a spectacle for the ages. The people of Christ’s church have always looked back with awe, and many have actually striven to live out his humility.

Before the century was over, many men, women, and children had already died for their faith, but few stories demonstrate humility like that of Peter. You see, near the end of his ministry, after any of the accounts we have of him in Acts, Peter lived in Rome where he worked with the budding church. But this ministry was cut short when the emperor Nero assumed the throne in Rome after the death of Claudius. Nero, as we all know, instigated an unparalleled oppression and persecution of Christians. Undoubtedly during this time, the church in Rome sought to conceal the valuable apostle of Christ, Peter, but their efforts could not last for long. Eventually Peter was captured and martyred by crucifixion.
         But here, tradition holds something special. There is no reason that Peter would have any authority in this situation, but nonetheless tradition holds that Peter made one request of his enemies: that he be crucified upside-down, for he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Savior. Crucifixion works by asphyxiation and the limiting of blood flow; to be crucified upside-down would be both dreadful to behold and horrendously painful. But in humility, Peter accepted the only fate he was worthy of. A few years after his death, the church father Origen tersely described the apostle’s humility: “Peter was crucified at Rome with his head downwards, as he himself had desired to suffer.”

1100 years later, Christians still sought to imitate the humility of Christ. During the early13th century, St. Francis of Assisi renounced the large inheritance that was due him in favor of living a simple life—the life he felt Christ called him to. He resigned himself to abject poverty. He begged for bread and struggled to survive daily. But in everything he did, he sought to imitate what he knew of Jesus Christ, loving everyone and giving generously of what he had. He spent time with the other outcasts of society and was known to kiss lepers upon greeting. St Francis’s imitation of Christ continually progressed until shortly before his death when his imitation grew to include Christ’s passion. Francis’s friends claimed that he received a vision that left him scarred in the same manner as Jesus, including a continually bleeding wound he suffered from until he died. While many criticize St Francis and doubt his vision-account, he—perhaps more than anyone before and anyone since—demonstrates a selfless attitude of deference and love for Christ.

Less than 400 years later, these attitudes of humility continued in the Anabaptist movement, the movement that sired our own tradition in the churches of Christ. The Anabaptists adamantly held to a view of humanity so radically humble, that they practices pacifism and non-resistance as sign of deference to their fellow man and to God. They were persecuted for these simple beliefs. In 1569, a young man who had been born into a Dutch Catholic family and had been baptized by the church as an infant was re-baptized by the Anabaptist movement. His name was Dirk Willems, and by doing this, he rejecting the baptism practiced by both Catholics and Protestants at that time. This treasonous action, his continued devotion to his new faith, and the baptism of several other people in his home, led to his condemnation by the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands and subsequent arrest. After his capture, he escaped from the prison by letting himself out of a window with a rope made of knotted rags, dropping onto the winter snow.
         Seeing him escape, a palace guard pursued him as he fled. Shortly into the chase, Willems came to a frozen lake. His starved body from meager prison rations allowed him to cross the thin ice safely, but his pursuer, seeing Willems across the lake, ran out on the ice only to have it crack beneath him. Falling into the deathly water, the guard screamed out for Willems to help him. Willems knew, though, that if he turned back to help, the other prison guards would not be far behind. Still, he went back out on the ice and pulled out the struggling soldier. Sure enough, the other guards from the prison arrived and promptly arrested the heretic.
         This time the authorities threw him into a more secure prison: a small, heavily barred room at the top of a very tall church tower, above the bell, where he was locked into the wooden leg stocks that remain there today. Not long after he was led out to be burned to death.
         Countless models of humility have continued to appear throughout church history and many remain before us today. For many of these men and women, imitating the humility of Jesus led to the same consequence of persecution and death. For many, this has not been the road. Some have simply lived out a life of constant love and meekness, and they have been marginalized for it. Still, some have lived out this humility and have been blessed all the more for it. But their reason to live humbly did not originate in these blessings and exaltation, but rather in the model of Christ.
         I understand that this is hard. Humility—humility to the point of death—is not easily claimed in our spiritual pursuits. In a way, the church’s history can marginalize those who follow. How can we today, a thousand years removed, master the discipline of humility in the same way?
         How can anyone hope to dress with humility? Every time we put on an article of clothing, it is in our nature to think about how our peers will view us. We stare into that mirror and plan it all out. We have to impress, we have to lift ourselves up. How can anyone hope to speak with humility? Every time we open our mouths, the temptation to gossip overwhelms us. It is based in this deeply engrained attitude of superiority, where the affairs of everyone else are subject to our scrutiny.  How can anyone hope to give with humility? Every time we open our fists, we do it grudgingly. We want what belongs to us, even though it never really belonged to us. Capitalism is righteous economics—and I deserve what I earned. How can anyone hope to listen with humility? Every time we open our ears, we take in words through our filter of cynicism. Though they are our elders and leaders, we dismiss what they have to say because they simply “don’t understand.” I’ve read or heard smarter people than them, I understand people better than them, I see God’s overall picture better than them. They’re smart but they just “don’t understand.” How can anyone hope to see with humility? Every time we open our eyes, we see a world about and for us.
         We can hope to do this only when our attitude is the same as that of Christ Jesus. When we continually strive to imitate Christ and cross, we know that his humility will be granted to us.

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