‘Therefore God highly exalted Him…’
Philippians 2:5-11 [Part 9]
What makes a good drama? None less than Aristotle himself considered this question. It takes compelling characters, a good plot, and vital concerns. Oftentimes, it is marked by a critical turning point. Think of a parabola, which arcs in a certain direction until a climax, at which point it arcs back again.
Using our spiritual imaginations, we can consider the Christ hymn in Philippians as a liturgical drama. And at this point we have reached its critical turning point. Leaving the very heights of heaven, Christ has descended into the human realm and reached the nadir of his earthly mission — death on a cross.
Now a new actor appears on stage, the very God with whom Christ had enjoyed equality. Act Two begins with these words of our hymn:
Therefore God also highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name
Poetry is the art of concentrating powerful images and ideas into pithy and memorable lines. Let’s look at the first line above carefully. First, take the word therefore. It tells us that what Christ gave up, God gave back. As Orthodox Christians, we often talk about ‘giving up’ this or that, without taking into consideration that ascetic effort is not about giving up the things of the flesh, but of getting back gifts of the Spirit.
By singing of God as the subject, the hymn sums up an important point of the apostolic teaching. Christ died with the word of a psalm on his lips: ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit’ (Psalm 31:5). We too should ‘commit ourselves and one another and our whole lives unto God.’ Peter in his sermon on Pentecost revealed the results of Christ’s trust.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:36)
Finally, with the word exalted, the hymn sums up all the events by which God vindicated Christ for His obedience. It means, in the words of the Divine Liturgy: ‘the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious coming.’
How could Christ be exalted to a height higher than the one He had already enjoyed as equal to God? It was by the act of enthronement, the ceremony by which a king is anointed and acknowledged as ruler. It comes with new titles and new authority, which we will consider in our next reflection. For now, suffice it to say that Christ fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently;
He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. (Isaiah 52:3)
Therefore, let us also cry out in praise, as we do at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let Your glory be over all the earth.(Psalm 57:5)