If we don't appreciate the early Christian conviction that those who follow Jesus die with Jesus, we're going to understand neither Sunday's three readings nor our entire celebration of Holy Week.

Notice what Paul says immediately before the second reading (Phil 2: 6-11): "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus."

Jesus' first disciples believed the only way to achieve the life Jesus achieved was to suffer the death Jesus suffered. Yet from the writings they passed on to us, we know they rarely conceived of their "imitation" death as a physical death. Dying with Jesus almost always revolved around a psychological death, a death which resulted from giving themselves to others.

Form of God

That's why Paul doesn't seem to be speaking about Jesus' pre-existence when he reminds his Philippian community that though Jesus "was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God something to be grasped."

In speaking about Jesus being in the "form of God," the Apostle probably is referring to the first chapter of Genesis. There, the author tells us that in the beginning, the creator God proclaimed, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Then the writer assures his audience, "God created man in His image; in the divine image, He created him; male and female, He created them."

Like all humans, Jesus began His life in the image or form of God. But what makes Him unique is that during the course of that life, "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave,....He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Paul appears to be convinced that Jesus' physical death was the eventual and logical result of the many psychological deaths by which He emptied Himself for the sake of God and others.

The first Christians often turned to Deutero-Isaiah's four songs of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh to help understand not only Jesus' death, but also their own. Yet the first two-and-a-half songs mention nothing about the prophet's physical suffering. In the first reading (Is 50: 4-7), for instance, the bodily pain he eventually experiences comes from being constantly open to God and others.

"Yahweh God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning, Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear."

Nothing brings death more quickly than our day-by-day listening for God's voice in our life. But the prophet assures us that our determination to listen guarantees that we'll not be "put to shame."


Knowing the earliest Church's attempts to imitate Jesus' death helps us understand why Mark's first mention of any physical suffering in the Passion narrative (Mk 14: 1-15: 47) doesn't happen until halfway through the two chapters: "They all condemned Him as deserving to die. Some began to spit on Him. They blindfolded Him and struck Him."

As you listen to this long narrative, notice how the evangelist mentions almost nothing about Jesus' physical pain. But at the same time, note how often he informs us of Jesus' psychological suffering. Mark reminds us that we're imitating someone completely open to whatever God wants, someone who will continually give Himself to those who almost never understand Him, even worse, to people who will betray, desert and deny Him in life-threatening situations.

Some misguided Christians actually "crucify" a hapless individual on Good Friday. Jesus' first followers would not only have thought such an exact imitation of Jesus' death to be a sick expression of faith; they would have also been amazed that any of Jesus' disciples would have to go outside the normal circumstances of their daily lives to find a situation in which they could die with Him.