Hymns in the New Testament – Colossians 1:15-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

This hymn to Christ paints a vivid portrait of the divine nature of Jesus. The first half of the hymn (vs. 15-17) recounts Christ’s role in creation. Jesus is with God the Father before creation began. Although he is the firstborn of all creation, Jesus is more than a mere creature. Jesus’ activity in the creation of the world is in equal part with the Father’s activity. All other creatures come into existence through Jesus. Jesus is the divine substance holding all creation in union, keeping the cosmos from tipping out of balance toward destruction.

The second half of the hymn (vs. 18-20) describes Christ’s role in redemption. Jesus is the head of the church. He is not only the firstborn of all creation, but in the resurrection Jesus becomes the firstborn of the dead. The fullness of who God is dwells in Jesus. The last phrase echoes the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….”

The origins of this hymn are unclear. One commentator suggests that the hymn original was broken up into different strophes, perhaps something like this:

Strophe I
who is the image of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation,
for in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers]—addition (i)

Transitional Strophe II
all things were created through him and for him
and he himself is before all things
and all things hold together in him
and he himself is the head of the body [the church]—addition (ii)

Strophe III
who is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead
[so that he himself might have preeminence in all things]—addition (iii)
for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace through him
[through the blood of his cross]—addition (iv) after “making peace”
whether things on earth or things in heaven[1]

This possible configuration of the hymn makes the case that there were additions made to the original material. These additions elaborated ideas that the author of the letter wanted to emphasize and gave it the Christological identity that it has.

Several possible sources for the hymn have been suggested. One suggestion is that it is a composition produced from the Gnostic community, in light of the fact that if the additional statements are removed there is no reference to any Christian content. Another suggestion is that it is a reference to Jewish interpretation of Genesis 1:1. A third suggestion is that is comes from the Wisdom tradition in Hellenistic Judaism, using the personification of Wisdom found in Proverbs 8 as the model for Jesus’ role in creation.[2]

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

[2] Lincoln, Andrew T. “Colossians.” In Leander E. Keck (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

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Hymns in the New Testament – Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This passage, known as the “Christ Hymn,” is one of the most well-known parts of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It casts a vision of the fullness of Jesus’ identity. We hear the juxtaposition of Jesus’ humanity and deity. This hymn calls us to imagine the heights of his glory and the depths that he stooped down to in the incarnation.

An introduction to the book and structure of the letter to the Philippians:

It is significant that these are not just words, but lyrics. Paul was quoting an artistic representation of the person and work of the crucified and risen Christ. The use of hymns was not uncommon in early Christian worship, or in the surround culture.

“That the early Christians sang hymns is no surprise, for in addition to sharing a common meal and offering sacrifices, libations, and prayers to a deity, singing a hymn to honor and worship that particular god was common practice for ancient Mediterranean religious groups. To sing a hymn to a god or to a supremely powerful king or ruler was considered an act of worship, a way of bestowing respect and benefactions upon one whose powerful acts were worthy of divine honors.”[1]

It is possible the text of the Christ Hymn was used in another way in worship, perhaps as a creedal statement or responsorial reading. The origin of the lyrics is also unknown. Paul could have written it. It could have been previously composed by another author and already widely disseminated amongst the early Christian communities.[2] Or perhaps it was not well known and Paul was attempting to promote the hymn and advocate for its adoption in the church’s assemblies.

The text for the hymn makes several major theological points. First, it testifies to the preexistence of Christ (vs. 6 “he was in the form of God”). This idea is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…of one Being with the Father.” Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, “was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). This theological concept has Jewish roots in the preexistent figure of divine Wisdom found in Proverbs 1:20-33, 8-9, Wisdom 7:22-10:21, and Sirach 24.[3]

Second, the hymn points to a contrast between the first and second Adam’s choices. The first Adam was created in the image of God but desired to be higher through eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In turn he was brought lower, forced to work the soil for survival, and banished from the garden (Genesis 2:15-3:24). The second Adam (Jesus, Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49) was created in the form of God yet willingly went lower into a human form that was subjected to suffering and death. In turn he became exalted to the highest place through his humility.[4]

Third, Christ’s humility to the point of death reframes another Jewish source, the suffering servant found in the prophet Isaiah (53:12). The bending of knees and the confession of tongues at the exaltation of Jesus is also a quotation from Isaiah (45:22-23). This hymn would have been a word exhortation to the community at Philippi. “If the one in the ‘form of God’ could humbly abdicate the dignity of his original status so as to suffer in order to show love for humankind, can the Philippians refrain from following his conduct?”[5]


“Let the Same Mind Be In You” is a musical setting of this passage that I wrote/recorded:

 


Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

For further study check out:

[1] Joshua W. Jipp, “Hymns in the New Testament”, n.p. [cited 13 May 2018]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/passages/related-articles/hymns-in-the-new-testament

[2] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 350.

[3] Michael Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 357.

[4] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

[5] Cook, “Christ Hymn,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 357.

“Christ our Mother” Benediction

If you are in the Lutheran world and use Sundays and Seasons resources, you probably have noted the blessing/benediction prescribed for the season of Lent:

God our Father bless you and shield you. 
Christ our Mother shelter you and carry you.
God the Holy Spirit guide your journey 
+ both now and forever.
Amen.

If a few eyebrows raised, not to worry. If people revolted in violent protest, worry. Ideally, people will engage, enquire, reflect, and theologically wrestle with the concepts and images in our liturgy. You’re lucky if you have people that do this.

hen and chicksIn responding to one parishioner, Pastor Kerry offered some insights:

I assume that the language in the benediction during Lent has something to do with the image of God as a mother hen longing to gather her chicks as was referred to in a gospel reading.  

We use words that carry both gender and relational connectedness when we refer to other people.  So “father” and “mother” refer both to a biological connection and to gender.  When it comes to references to the Trinity, God has no gender.  Referring to God as “Father” or “Mother” is about using relational terms to describe our relationship with God. The earthly Jesus was clearly male.  The resurrected Jesus?  Mystery to me.

I offered some explanation as well:

We have to start from the perspective that God has no gender. God is spirit. The roles that God plays, however, include both mother and father. “From the Bible: In Isaiah, God says (about God’s self), “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). In a prayer of desperation, Moses uses similar womb imagery, speaking of God as one who gives birth, asking God, “Was it I who conceived all this people? or was it I who gave them birth…?” (Numbers 11:12). Hosea describes God as a mother bear, attacking those who steal her cubs (13:8) Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks together under her wings (Matt. 23:37, one of the gospel texts during this season of Lent).

The saints of the past also have more to say: St. Augustine observes that just as a mother’s body transforms ordinary table food–too complex for a baby’s delicate digestive system–into milk that is tailored to the baby’s needs, so does the Lord convert Wisdom into “milk” appropriate for our limited understanding. Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria, devotes an entire chapter to this mysterious process of mother’s blood becoming milk, musing over the various ways this connects to the spiriutal world. In one example, he views Christ as the nourishment that flows from the “Father’s breast,” feeding us with the milk of love. St. John Chrysostom writes of Christ as a mother who does not farm her babies out to a wet nurse but rather feeds them personally and tenderly.

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother,” wrote 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich. “To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God. . . The mother can give her child a suck of milk but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself and does. . .” (I think she was speaking of the Eucharist here?)

St. Catherine of Siena compared Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to a mother who takes a bitter medicine so her nursing baby can get well again.” (quoted from Julie McCarty)  So, throughout the history of the church there is a rich heritage of understanding God as having mothering characteristics.

I would argue that the title “Mother” is not a gender specific title and that Jesus’ actions and very words recorded in the gospel warrant the title “Mother.” Consider the context of single parents or same-sex couples. Regardless of gender, a single parent fulfills both the title of “mother” and “father” (possibly not with the greatest ease, possibly better than two opposite gendered people). Actions and titles are too closely related to disassociate them. I mother my children when they need to be mothered. Does that make me a mother? Maybe temporarily. That’s why we like the term “co-parent.”
 
Also, historically the church is referred to in the feminine as “her” or “she.” If the church is the body of Christ, wouldn’t that be inclusive of Christ (as head of the body) to be called “her” or “she”? There is some mystery there. I’m comfortable living in the tension.

(HT: Spiritual Drawing Board)

Peace Out

20120130-202455.jpgEvery Sunday during our worship services at Faith, we have this little ritual that takes place. This particular ritual happens after the Prayers of Intercession, and before the offering is collected. It is a momentary time of chaotic interaction during an otherwise orderly assembly. People get up, move around, shake hands, greet one another, and say these words: “Peace be with you.”

But what is the point of doing this? Why is it important to do this action in the context of a worship service? Does it carry any more significance than the high-five that they do at the conclusion of Little League and football games?

Passing the peace of Christ is actually an ancient component of Christian worship and liturgy. Our modern day version of peace passing is descended from an earlier act of worship known as “the kiss of peace.” 1 Peter 5:14 says, “Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” Through his letters Paul repeatedly reminds the churches to greet one another with “a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). It was the custom in the ancient western Mediterranean for men to greet one another with a kiss on the cheek.

Passing the peace is a tradition rooted in Scripture that embodies our identity as peacemakers. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The practice of verbally and physically sharing Christ’s peace trains ours hearts, hands, and tongues in the ways of peace. It is also a comforting reminder of the greeting Jesus himself used with his disciples, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36).

Similarly, when we regularly pass the peace we practice God’s call to maintain the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Grudges and bitterness should fall away when we greet one another in the reality of the peace Jesus brings to us. By regularly performing this gesture our hearts and minds can become shaped in the form of peace.

Finally, when we shake a hand and say, “Peace,” we are actually imparting Christ’s peace to one another. It is as if Jesus himself is physically embracing and speaking to you and through you. Just as the bread and wine are transformed into something more than physical nourishment, our gestures and words are transformed into something more. “Peace” becomes more than a word shared between two parishioners. The words of peace spoken become the words of Christ delivered to us in the human flesh.

The Symbolism of Baptismal Vestments

From Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 74-75.

“We know already that the unvesting of the catechumen before Baptism signified the rejection by him of the “old man” and the “old life,” that of sin and corruption. It is indeed sin that revealed their nakedness to Adam and Eve and made them conceal it with vestments. But why were they not ashamed of their nakedness before sin?  Because they were vested in divine glory and light, in the “ineffable beauty” which is the true nature of man. It is this first garment that they lost, and they “knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). But then the post-baptismal vesting in the “robe of light” signifies above all the return of man to the integrity and innocence he had in Paradise, the recovery by him of his true nature obscured and mutilated by sin. St. Ambrose compares the baptismal robe to the vestments of Christ on Mount Tabor. The Transfigured Christ reveals perfect and sinless humanity as not “naked” but vested in garments “white like snow,” in the uncreated light of divine glory. It is Paradise, not sin, that reveals the true nature of man; it is to Paradise and to his true nature, to his primordial vestment of glory, that man returns in Baptism.”