Our first reading at Mass this week is taken mostly from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. St. Luke describes Paul’s mission to Philippi, ” a leading city in the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony”, in the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. “We spent some time in that city” , Luke says, indicating he’s describing something he knows firsthand. It was a dramatic and fruitful stay.
Paul encounters Lydia, “a dealer in purple” at the place along the river where women prayed. She listened to his message and asked for baptism for herself and her household. She also convinced Paul and his companion to stay at her house, which became a house church. Women play a major role in the spread of the gospel.
Paul also encountered persecution in Philippi when he was accused of causing businesses to fail because of a cure he worked. ” The magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After inflicting many blows on them, they threw them into prison and instructed the jailer to guard them securely. When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake. ( Acts 16:22-24)
An earthquake broke the walls of the prison and the jailor, fearing the prisoners had escaped, was ready to kill himself. The earthquake led to his conversion along with his household – another house church in Philippi. It also led to Paul’s exoneration by the fearful magistrates of Philippi.
Commentators describe Paul’s warm relationship with the Philippians. It looks like a lot of important people there were on his side, or at least very respectful of his mission. They say he wrote this letter– to Lydia’s house and the jailor’s household– from prison, either in Rome, Ephesus or Caesaria.
Paul had his share of prisons during his ministry. That experience and others like it convinced him to see his life in the light of the suffering Christ. He told the Philippians they were granted “for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him. Yours is the same struggle as you saw in me and now hear about me.” (Philippians 1, 29-39)
Have the mind of Christ, Paul tells them– and us– in this important passage, probably from an early Christian hymn:
Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and, found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those 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.” (Philippians 2, 6-10)
This passage occurs often in the church’s prayer tradition. On Palm Sunday, it’s read as Jesus enters Jerusalem to suffer and die on the cross. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily prayer, it’s read each Saturday evening. The passage even appears before Christmas, a reminder that from the beginning Jesus accepted the weakness of “human likeness.” Unlike Adam who grasped for equality with God, Jesus humbled himself.
We follow Jesus from birth to death and then to resurrection. It’s not a grim unhappy journey. Commentators on the Letter to the Philippians call it a “Letter of Joy.” Having the mind of Christ make life a journey to glory.