Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Modern interpreters agree: Philippians is the friendliest of Paul’s letters.

September 21, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30

Modern interpreters agree: Philippians is the friendliest of Paul’s letters.

But how friendly? Throughout the letter, Paul casts his relationship with Christ in the language of ancient love poetry. For those readers with ears to hear, erotic motifs invented by the archaic Greek poets, echoing through Paul’s day and well into late antiquity, can be heard in Philippians. Philippians, it turns out, is a really friendly letter.

There was, in the ancient world, a permeable border between eros, agape, and philia, forms of love which for sixty years preachers have been admonished to keep apart. Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren, a book whose influence on sermons has far exceeded its scholarly merit, drove a wedge between agape, on one side, and eros and philia, on the other. To make his case, Nygren had to smuggle in a false characterization of ancient eros. But one needs only to breeze through the fragments of Sappho (7th century B. C. E) to realize there is something very wrong with Nygren’s view of eros as only other-consuming. Poets in antiquity reveal how terrifying and self-consuming eros was. Eros ate away the soul of the lover; it burned, wounded, and pierced the heart.  And agape, whose supposedly unique Christian status it has often been the preacher’s proud obligation to emphasize, turns out to be a pretty reliable synonym for eros after all. As for philia (friendship), it never was far removed from eros; Cicero, Seneca, and their many admirers in the Christian tradition thought of erotic love as friendship gone mad. We would say eros is friendship on steroids. Nygren’s tidy divisions don’t hold up.

We need to admit the poverty of our contemporary language. The common habit of narrowing erotic experience to just sex ignores a broad range of human emotions. Eros feels like a dirty word. But it need not. When classical scholars, for example, speak of eros they are referring to a reality larger than sex. At its heart, eros is about communion. Eros seeks connection, the sharing of lives, knowing and being known face to face. So if Paul intensifies his loving of Christ by expressing it in the diction of erotic poetry, we do ourselves an injustice by hearing sex when he says eros. We miss the depth of communion, the completeness of the sharing, and the perfection of the knowing and the being known.

Where in Philippians 1:21-30 does Paul speak erotically? Verse 23 has two phrases that fit the bill. Each is an amplification of Paul’s desire (epithumia), a term which is itself not far removed from the ancient discourse of love. The first thing Paul desires is to “dissolve.” Yet, it appears that, like Paul’s critics mentioned in Philippians, modern translations and even the King James Version won’t tolerate a Paul who melts for Christ. Neither would they be pleased with believers “suffering for Christ” in 1:29, if this experience is a matter of missing an absent loved one, as I think it was. In modern translations, the de-eroticized Paul desires to “depart” or to “be gone.” The Latin Vulgate, however, preserves Paul’s wish that his body be altered, not removed, since it correctly translates the Greek to analusai with dissolvi. The root of analusai is luw, the first verb many students of biblical Greek learn to conjugate. It means “to loose” or “to untie.”

Clearly, Paul did not wish to be taken somewhere else. He desired to melt away. This might not mean much to us, but to an ancient audience Paul has just alluded to the dire effects of love. Eros, it was claimed by Sappho and a host of poets after her, loosened the lover’s limbs. Eros was even named “Limb-loosener.” Sappho got this idea from Homer who had given the same name to Death and Sleep. The ambivalent feelings we have facing death (and to a far lesser degree, sleep) help us understand Sappho’s brilliant insight. Death and sleep offer relaxation and an unburdening but at a price: the loss of self. Similarly, the ancients often faced Love with very mixed feelings, as this fragment of Alcman (7th century B. C. E) suggests: “and with desire that loosens limbs, but more meltingly than sleep and death she looks me over…” (tr. Monica Silveira Cyrino, In Pandora’s Jar, 83).

So it is striking that Paul desires to be loosened. There must be more to Paul’s desire. Otherwise, he leaves himself at loose ends. (Is this the “destruction” the critics in 1:28 think takes place when Paul’s erotic spirituality spreads into the church?) Paul wishes to dissolve and “to be with Christ.” English speakers are familiar with the idiom “to be with” used of lovers’ presence to one another. The Greeks had the same idiom. In fact, the phrase points to that moment in the Greek wedding when the bride and groom were finally left alone to share with each other all that they are and all that they have.

Christian interpreters from John Chrysostom to Bernard of Clairvaux thought along the same lines: Paul was speaking of his impending marriage to Christ. Death is Paul’s escort to the bridal chamber, as Chrysostom remarked. William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) extends Paul’s spirituality to the entire church in his Exposition on the Song of Songs:

Christ the Bridegroom offered to his Bride the church, so to speak, a kiss from heaven, when the Word made flesh drew so near to her that he wedded her to himself; so wedded her that he united her to himself, in order that God might become man, and man might become God… [T]he Bride had received this kiss from him in a partial manner and had been set on fire with eagerness to attain its perfection and full sweetness… She wished to be dissolved and to be with Christ, thinking, after a taste of the highest Good, that it was no longer needful for her to abide still in the flesh. (tr. Mother Columba Hart, The Works of William of St. Thierry, 2.25-26)

No prude, William.