Carmen Christi

Nobody lives in Philippi anymore. It’s a ruin on the Greek Thracian coast, a short journey from the island of Thasos. In its time, though, it was a busy city that connected the Aegean to Thrace. The city began its life in around 360BC. The original settlers called it Κρηνῖδες, “fountains”. When Philip II of Macedon conquered it, he renamed it, rather predictably, Philippi. That name stuck, and by Paul’s time it was an important transit point between Europe and Asia Minor. Thousands of years later it would give its name to a community in the Western Cape of South Africa.

The city owed its wealth and prestige to the nearby mines. It also occupied a strategic position on the Via Egnatia, a great Roman Road that connected the Adriatic coastal cities to Constantinople through Thrace. It had a forum, and its theatre received refurbishments to accommodate Roman games. It is safe to assume that there was a peaceful and affluent, although small, community here for centuries. It would have been multi-ethnic, but framed by the Greek language and Roman law. However, this describes many Greek cities. We probably would not have any memory of Philippi at all, were it not for its close association with the Apostle Paul.

Paul arrived in Philippi somewhere around 50 AD. He would revisit the city a few years later. He would also compose the Epistle to the Philippians as part of his pastoral mission to the Christians of the city. According to tradition, he founded the Christian community there. The space in which they congregated may well be the same structure that archaeologists unearthed, bearing Paul’s name in a floor mosaic. Thankfully, Paul’s writings have survived into the present, as part of the manuscript tradition.

Letters to the Philippians

Paul writes to the community at Philippi to encourage them. He exhorts them to remain steadfast. He also talks about his uncertain future. He likens himself to a libation, poured out. Paul’s tone is irenic, forward-looking. He has occasion to remind the Philippians that the old law is void and he requests that they be of one mind. A century later, Polycarp’s letter to the same church has similar themes – Polycarp refers to the martyrdom of his friend, Ignatius.

Carmen Christi

One passage of Paul’s letter that stands out as both a Trinitarian testimony and an artefact of the worship of the early church appears in chapter 2, beginning at verse 6. In the west this passage is known as “Carmen Christi” – hymn to Christ. It has a clearly lyrical character and is widely believed to have been a hymn sung in congregations at the time. In the context of Paul’s imminent destiny, this passage has a poignancy that is hard to find elsewhere in world literature. Here is the passage, in my own translation. As always, I’ve tried to be English about it:

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο
τὸ εἶναι ἴσα Θεῷ

ἀλλ᾿ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσε
μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος,
καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος

ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν
γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ

διὸ καὶ ὁ Θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσε
καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ ὄνομα
τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα

ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ
πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ
ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων
καὶ καταχθονίων

καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται
ὅτι Κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς
εἰς δόξαν Θεοῦ πατρός

Dwelling in God’s form
he did not guard
his sameness with God

But rather emptied himself
taking the form of a servant
coming into the likeness of men
and being found in human shape

He humbled himself
becoming obedient to death
even the cross-death

For this God lifted him up
and graced his same name
the name above all names

So that, at Jesus’ name,
every knee might bend
in the heavens and on earth
and beneath the earth

And every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of the Father

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