Philippians 2:5-11 is as familiar to my ear as John 3:16 (“for God so loved the world”) or 1 Corinthians 13 (“but have not love, I am but a clanging cymbal”). And it’s familiar for the same reason: I had to memorize these verses for Bible class at least once a year. I really didn’t like this passage—I thought it was rhythmically unsatisfying, and it seemed to me to have that extended anaphoric quality that Paul probably enjoyed writing but that middle schoolers hate memorizing.
But it turns out that Paul probably didn’t write this little apparent list, and in fact, it’s not so boring as it first seemed to me. These seven verses were originally a hymn, an early Christian hymn, earlier than the Gospels, sung by the faithful when they gathered. I wonder, what was it like to sing this, back then? What would it be like, to sing these words in a world where you were not really welcome? What could it be like for a group of people from traditionally disparate even antagonistic backgrounds to sing this hymn together? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, humbled himself, and become obedient to the point of death.”
This word, “mind,” the mind of Christ, is translated from the Greek word “nous.” It doesn’t really mean “mind” as in the mind and the body, the thinking mind, mind and soul, brain, head, intellect. Rather, “nous” in Greek has the sense of a way of comprehending, a way of coming to comprehend.
As Frederica Mathews-Green explains in her essay on the Jesus Prayer, the nous is the receptive faculty of the mind, the part of the mind that engages directly with life, which comprehends and takes things in. The nous is also the perceptive faculty, the part that perceives truth in a direct, intuitive way. “Nous” is our understanding.
“Let the same nous—the same understanding—that was in Christ Jesus be in you.”
On Ash Wednesday this year, I had a very different hymn going through my head. There’s a song by the Alabama Shakes whose refrain says, “You—you ain’ alone / Just let me be / Your ticket home.” These words are sung over and over again to close the song; they sound almost wrung from the singer after she has described another’s confused sorrow. But there’s a kind of triumph or strength in them too—the same triumph we hear when she sings, “If you’re gonna cry / Come on, cry with me.” She sings all these words slowly, heavily, hitting every sound in every word, the lines equal part invitation—and challenge.
Today on Palm Sunday, it strikes me that these lines are the lines that Lent sings to us, that Christ sings in his Passion. “So if you’re gonna cry / Well come on, cry with me.” “You, you ain’ alone / Just let me be / Your ticket home.”
This is the nous, the mind, the way of understanding that Christ shows us in his Passion. Did you notice, in his triumphant entry, he’s all but silent, letting his followers and friends praise him, but keeping quiet himself. In the Passion according to St. Luke, though, he has many words to share. Not words of pain or petition, but words of compassion and forgiveness.
As he makes his way to the place called The Skull, he turns to the women wailing for him. He says, Don’t weep for me, but for you yourselves, and your children. He knows that Jerusalem will see more suffering in the future than he is feeling now, and his response is to warn them, to share their pain.
And then, crucified, humiliated, he asks for forgiveness for those who have done this to him. Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. Even in pain his gaze is on these people’s hearts and souls. He sees a way they can be redeemed, transformed.
And again, almost the last thing he says—words of comfort to the criminal dying next to him. This man’s heart was still open even as he hung there and in a desperate moment asks this innocent man just to be remembered. And Christ doesn’t say, You should’ve thought of this earlier, before you committed a crime—he doesn’t pause and he doesn’t hold back. He responds with generous, generous love and forgiveness: Today you will be with me, in Paradise.
Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.
That passage in Philippians is one of the foundations for “the imitation of Christ”, an understanding of Christian discipleship as an attempt to become more and more like the Christ we know in the Gospels. (That’s why my Bible teacher had us memorize these verses so many times.) We should imitate Christ.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death.
The mind, the nous, the understanding of Christ that we see in the Passion is not just servanthood and humility, but generous love. On the cross, Christ set a pattern for us to imitate, and this pattern is a way of comprehending our own and others’ suffering. A way of responding to impossible outcomes, the death of innocents, the unacceptable pain in the world. Theologian Simone Weil says that the glory of the cross—the point of the cross—was that Jesus felt himself lost and abandoned, but he kept (as she says) loving into the void. He loved the women who were crying; he loved these people killing him slowly; he loved the two men hanging there beside him. THIS, is the mind of Christ. This is what we should imitate.
In this, in Christ’s Passion, it’s God who says, “So if you’re gonna cry, come on / cry with me. / You, you ain’ alone / Just let me be / Your ticket home.” Amen.