‘Born in human likeness…’
Philippians 2:5-11 [Part 5]
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.’ These opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 point out a problem. How do you describe the indescribable? When something is genuinely true, or good, or beautiful, no matter what you say, there is always more to say about it. You are left with the search for a description or a likeness that always falls a bit short.
As a matter of fact, the Orthodox Church Fathers took this problem seriously when it came to theology. Think of the words of praise at the offering up (anaphora) of the gifts at the Divine Liturgy.
For You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible
In other words, indescribable. Yet we can describe God’s activities and attributes when we worship Him. We see this in the Christ hymn in Philippians that we are discussing. Christ emptied Himself of the fullness of divine glory, and became Immanuel, ‘God with us.’
being born in human likeness
And being found in human form
Our hymn here chooses to describe the Incarnation in the language of ‘likeness’ and ‘form’, that is, in the language of revelation, of appearance, of theophany. It does not mean that Christ only ‘seemed’ to be a man. Rather, it means that his reality as a man can not fully describe Him. He had another reality as well. He was truly man, but not merely man. The same mystery filled the minds of those who beheld Him during His earthly ministry.
And the men marveled, saying,
What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him? (Mattew 8:27)
Since we cannot easily describe Christ, perhaps it is best to see how Christ described Himself. Christ’s chosen self-description in the Gospels is ‘Son of Man.’ Who is this Son of Man? He appeared to the prophet Daniel in a night vision as one who came with the clouds of heaven and was given dominion over all peoples and nations by the ‘Ancient of Days.’ (Daniel 7:13-14).
There are 31 references to the Son of Man in the Gospel of Matthew alone. Over and over again Jesus describes this mysterious figure in terms that can mean only Himself. A man, but not merely a man in His role and His destiny.