Overture in Philippians

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13/8/17 8:24 pm

Growing up in the ‘60s, even though our family went to church on Sundays, my true sacred hour was Saturday at 5 pm when I’d go downstairs to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. Remember the unsinkable Bugs Bunny, ‘that Oscar-winning rabbit’ who loved carrots and never met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome?

The hour began with its opening theme song. “Overture, curtain, lights…” sang Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as they confidently marched on stage and tipped their hats. The song ended with a parade of the show’s characters joining them, from tiny Tweety Bird to Foghorn Leghorn, the big chicken. Though it’s been decades, I can still remember all the lyrics. As Bugs and Daffy sang, “I know every part by heart.”

It might seem like a bizarre connection, but this theme song came to mind when we learned that a passage in Philippians serves as the overture for the whole letter. The “Christ hymn,” as it’s often called, didn’t quite appear at the beginning like the Bugs Bunny theme song, but it serves in the same way. In the six months since our course ended at Watershed, I can still remember all the words and its theme. And like the Bugs Bunny Show, our study was often the highlight of the week.

What is an Overture?

In classical music, an overture is a piece of music played at the beginning of an opera, ballet, musical or oratorio, and often contains the main musical themes of the work. Think of the ‘William Tell Overture’ or ‘The Barber of Seville,' both by Rossini (and interestingly also both used in Bugs Bunny cartoons). Listen to these opening songs and you might end up humming them all week.

Sections of the overture keep repeating throughout the rest of the longer musical, pulling the listener back to the main theme. It often makes the most sense at the end of the concert when themes that were only hints in the overture have been played out in full. Listening to it again when the whole piece is over, an overture takes on new depth and meaning as the listener hears the themes. With a good overture, the joy in recognizing key themes continues to increase with time. It’s like a gift that keeps on giving. Or to use a non-musical analogy, like a single photograph that sums up the whole journey.

Many sections in the Bible have an ‘overture’ or short passage with a central theme serving as a miniature for the whole book. For example, the gospel of John starts with a well-known, poetic prologue. The author could have just written about the themes in a straightforward introduction, but a poem is much more evocative. And as we hear its opening epic phrase, “In the beginning…," echoes of the Genesis creation story come to mind. All the themes of John can be heard in this prologue.

The Christ Hymn

This famous passage in Philippians (2:5-11) is used in a similar way by Paul, serving as a spring board for the rest of the book. All of the descriptions of an overture apply to the Christ hymn: its themes keep coming up in the rest of the book, and the more you read and understand it, the more it takes on deeper meaning. The hymn is the heart of the letter and even Paul’s entire theology. Everything beforehand is preparation and everything after is commentary. The passage is so well known that it’s the most commented on section of the entire Bible.

In many of his other letters, Paul often discusses one single idea, but Philippians is a series of short, reflective essays revolving around this central hymn. The whole gospel story is here; how Jesus came to earth, lived a human life, died and was resurrected. It’s a beautiful poem and worth committing to memory with its summation of the gospel story. As we learned in Week 9, most scholars agree that’s it was not written by Paul himself and reaches back to the very first years when Jesus’ followers began meeting. It’s one of those songs to which everyone would have known the words.

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The themes of the Christ Hymn keep coming up in the rest of the book, and the more you read and understand it, the more it takes on deeper meaning.

The hymn describes the poured-out life of Jesus, who revealed who God is. He had the high status of God, but didn’t cling to the advantages that position could have given him. Instead of demanding his rights, he emptied himself and came down to our level on earth. He became the kind of king who aspired only to serve and seek the good of all rather than lording it over others. His path was misunderstood by those who wanted a mighty king and it led to a criminal’s death on a cross, the most disgraceful place of all. Yet, mysteriously, it became exactly where God’s glory shone the brightest. Christ knew embarrassment and shame and yet, instead of grasping for status, he allowed his rejections and frustrations to drive him toward trust in God’s love.

During our study, we came back to this story over and over again as we considered the rest of the passages, and it continued to resonate after we were done. In fact, I’m sure everyone would say the hymn will stay forever embedded in our hearts. Like any good overture, we hum its themes often, in conversations and subsequent studies, and we see its truth enacted everywhere. When we’re focusing on the life of Christ, everything reminds us of this hymn.

Putting on the Mind of Christ

The hymn describes the principle of kenosis, the self-emptying love Jesus lived by. Paul wanted his readers to think this way; to let Christ be their example as to what their attitude should be. Paul introduces it by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”:

Though he was in the form of God,
yet he did not regard equality with God
something he should cling to.

Rather he emptied himself
and assuming the state of a slave,
he was born in human likeness…

The phrase “emptied himself” in line 4 is the English translation of the Greek verb kenosein, which is where the word kenosis comes from. In context, the meaning becomes more clear: it’s the opposite of the word “cling” in line 3. Jesus practices this emptying in every moment of his life, as the next verse makes clear:

And being known as one of us
he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Author Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Once you see this, it’s the touchstone throughout all Jesus’s teaching: Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret.” This expresses the very nature of God. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor (void, empty) in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

It is the quintessential Jesus response Paul was calling the Philippians to: to meet any and all life situations by the complete, free giving of oneself. Just as Paul imitated Jesus’s own kenotic path, the Philippians (and now us 2000 years later) are invited to have this same ‘mind of Christ’ within us, guiding our actions.  


A single composite word captures this idea: cruciformity. It means to be conformed or shaped by the cross-like, self-emptying pattern exemplified in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Michael Gorman wrote that Philippians 2:5-11 is Paul's Master Story, the key to unlocking all of Pauline thought.

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Through this kenotic hymn and its invitation to take on the mind of Christ, our love for one another was strengthened and our joy increased.

Our own master stories are often given to us by our family, culture and church, and are what we often live by. Stories such as materialism or careerism can unconsciously shape our thinking, feeling and acting, as well as our personality and choices.

The cruciform way of kenosis or self-emptying that Jesus lived can turn our master stories around, just as it had turned Paul’s life around. Later in the letter, Paul writes of singing in prison, even while he’s waiting to hear whether he’ll be executed in the morning. Paul’s life was transformed through the downward journey of love. Whether Paul is writing to his friends or telling his own story, the Jesus story found in this hymn is worth imitating. It becomes his Master Story.


All these new words — kenosis, self-emptying, cruciformity, Master Story — became like words to a new song we learned throughout our study in 2016. They were poetically summed up in the overture to Philippians, that beautiful Christ hymn. Our community was all the richer for having spent some time inside the pages of this letter and especially its ancient hymn. The deeper narrative it provides is indeed tailor-made for the turbulent times we currently live in. It has given us a template to live by.

We remain grateful to God for taking hold of the apostle Paul and turning his life around through Jesus. Through this kenotic hymn and its invitation to take on the mind of Christ, our love for one another was strengthened and our joy increased. We hope God uses it to do the same for you.


Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross by Michael Gorman — This excellent book was one of the main texts for our course.

The Heart of Centering Prayer: Non-dual Christianity in Theory and Practice by Cynthia Bourgeault — Centering prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer which Bourgeault describes as “kenosis in meditation form”.

“Three Minute Theology” on Youtube has an excellent short video called “What is the Kenosis?”, describing kenosis and the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures.

Just for fun, watch the theme to the Bugs Bunny Show, called “This Is It”:

Question of the Week

What did you learn from the study of Philippians? How did it shape your discipleship?