Being God’s Beloved: Day 20: The Kenotic U

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This magnificent Christ Hymn is a description of Christ’s incarnation, humiliation and glorification. I find it helpful to visualise this as a U:

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On the left is the descent of Christ, through the incarnation, into human form, into the darkness of humanity, leading to his humiliation[1] and suffering. At the bottom of the U is the lowest point, his death on a cross. And then there is the ascent on the right, starting with “therefore God exalted him” leading to his glorification as the universal Saviour. This is the great story of Christ’s salvific work – his willingness to give up everything in order to join with humanity and win our redemption.

Today we give particular attention to the left side of the U, the descent. This descent is known as kenosis, a Greek word that means ‘emptying out’. Kenosis describes what the Second Person of the Trinity did in order to become human, and is thus central to the incarnation. Kenosis does not mean that the Son ceased to be God – gave up the divine nature.[2] The Nicene Creed says that two natures – both human and divine – coexisted in the one person of Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:9 also affirms that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” However, there is clearly an emptying, a diminishing and a humiliation in this passage from Philippians.

What is this emptying, this kenosis?

First, we learn that the Son let go of “equality with God” and “emptied himself”. The latter phrase is how some English Bibles (e.g. the NASB and NSRV) translate the Greek word kenosis. This may be a separating out of the Son from the perfect integration of the Trinity. Remember that Father, Son and Spirit had, from before the beginning of time, existed in perfect unity, harmony and loving relationship. This is the timeless essence of God and all that God had ever known. But the incarnation involved a separating out of one of the persons of the Holy Trinity, in order to take on a different kind of life – life as a human. This separating would require the Son to let go of – to not grasp – equality or unity with God.

Other translations of the Bible use “made himself nothing” for kenosis. We should not interpret that being human means to be nothing – we have seen by now that humans are far from ‘nothing’. Perhaps, rather, “nothing” describes the experience of the incarnation for the Holy Trinity. Perhaps the Son’s experience of emptying himself was one of becoming “nothing”. The radical contrast between the fullness, perfection, wholeness and relatedness of eternal triune fellowship and the isolation, finiteness and smallness of the incarnation may well have been experienced as becoming nothing. This is particularly so if we remember from yesterday that the incarnation took place at the level of a single cell, not the infant. The eternal and infinite Second Person of the Trinity was emptied into a strand of genetic material. That is an unimaginable diminishment. “Nothing” could well be what it felt like.

I think that the most helpful way of thinking of the kenosis is as a ‘becoming small’, being ‘diminished’. The omnipresent Son, who could be in all places and all times simultaneously, becomes constrained in a single, initially exceedingly small, body, a body that can be in only one place at one time. Surely that is an emptying out? A becoming nothing? It is a profound and complete limitation that the Son accepts in becoming the individual called Jesus of Nazareth. It seems that similar limitations were placed on the other divine attributes, such as God’s omniscience (knowing everything) and omnipotence (being all powerful). The Son must be fed, cleaned, clothed, burped and educated, just like any other infant. The Son is constrained, limited, confined and restricted in a way that God has never experienced. This is a whole new learning opportunity for God!

Second, we learn that the Son takes on the humble nature of a servant. The term ‘form’ (used by the NASB and NSRV, for example) is probably more appropriate here than ‘nature’ (used by the NIV), because we recall that in Jesus Christ we fully find both the divine nature and the human nature. So it is not that the Son changed natures. Rather, two natures – divine and human – became integrated. What is stressed here, however, is servanthood and humility. Twice Paul writes about becoming human: “being made in in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man.” These two phrases are sandwiched between two other important phrases: “taking the very nature of a servant, … he humbled himself.”

Becoming human certainly involves a diminishing, a becoming small. But the kenosis is more than just becoming human. It is also becoming a humble servant. One might have thought that if God were to incarnate into human form, it would be a splendid form. The God-man should be magnificent, big, imposing, powerful, wealthy, gorgeous, charismatic and well placed in society. But instead, this incarnation is into a person of no significance. The Second Person of the Trinity becomes a nobody, a servant. Small wonder that Jesus speaks out in support of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) and the “little ones” (Matthew 18:10). That is exactly what the Son became – a little one, a least of all people, a humble servant.

Third, kenosis leads ultimately to death. And not just any death – “death on a cross.” One might think that a God-man, even one born tiny and raised in obscurity, would grow up to be a superhero. We think of Hercules in Greek-Roman mythology, born of Zeus and a mortal woman, who had superhuman strength. In modern times, we might think of Superman. Surely this would be the destiny of God incarnate? Instead, Jesus dies prematurely and painfully on a cross, a most excruciating and humiliating death.

Jesus’ entire human existence from conception to death is characterised by kenosis – relinquishing divine status and privilege, becoming small and insignificant, having no authority or stature, dying in disgrace. The first half of this Kenotic U is a disappointingly sad story. Of course, there is another side to the U. The cross, which lies at the base of the U, is both the last step of his humiliation and the first step towards his glorification. We know that there is a happy ending that is heralded with the resurrection, leading to a glorious ascension and a magnificent glorification at the right hand of the Father, culminating in a universal recognition of his greatness. But at this point in our journey, that is still a long way off.

Today, as we reflect on the kenosis, as an important aspect of the incarnation, I invite you to reflect on the extent of love that must have motivated the Second Person of the Trinity to take this tremendous dive into humility. How much love must the Triune God have had to elect this course of action? Not even thinking of the cross, how great must God’s love be to take on human form, to limit God’s self to such an extent? Surely, only infinite love could motivate such a choice? Surely this is a love that is willing to risk everything, willing to give up everything, willing to lay down everything? This is love come down in human form.

Meditation for the Day

What would your own kenosis entail? What would you have to empty out of yourself to become nothing? What would it feel like to empty yourself like this? Now reflect on the kenosis of the Son. What does that mean to you?

Prayer for the Day

Jesus Christ, I thank you for the great gift of yourself to us, to me, and the extent to which you were willing to give up for me. Give me courage to walk in your footsteps.

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[1] ‘Humiliation’ in ordinary language means to be publically embarrassed and shamed. It also has a theological meaning, which is similar, but more expansive. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 27) says that, “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

[2] Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House, p. 735.

Reflecting on the Incarnation

Click here to listen to a podcast of this 23 minute sermon.

Today is the start of Advent, that season in which we reflect back on Christ’s entry into the world some two thousand years ago and anticipate his coming again, one day, in glory. Western Christians (in contrast to Eastern Orthodox Christians) have tended to reduce Advent to a celebration of Christmas – the birth of Jesus. But the incarnation properly starts at conception. Somehow – who knows how! – God spliced himself into Mary’s egg. The incarnation is a full blending of human and divine in the individual called Jesus. It is a profound mystery that I really cannot explain. But we assert that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. What we learn from the Orthodox tradition is that this is the central event in Christian history – that in the incarnation God changed the course of history forever – changing the genetic makeup of humanity and opening up a spiritual path that had til then been closed.

In this sermon I try to unpack this in terms of two central theologies:

  • The notion of kenosis, that God emptied himself in order to merge with Mary’s egg – emptied of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence – to be teeny tiny small; left the eternal and perfect union between Father, Son and Spirit in order to join with humanity; immersed himself into human experience with all its sorrows and joys. Kenosis is a profound and radical expression of God’s love for humanity. What else could prompt such an extravagant and risky venture?
  • The notion of theosis, that the chasm between God the uncreated and humans the created creatures was closed when God became human, thereby opening a path for humans to participate in the divine. That God would have incarnated even if humanity had not fallen. That the purpose for Jesus coming into the world was not merely to die on the cross, but to pioneer a path for humanity to reconcile with God. Theosis points us towards hope – hope for the future, hope for what God is able to achieve in us, hope for the coming transformation and restoration.

This is a rather cerebral sermon – be warned! It invites us to engage with ways of thinking about the incarnation that may be unfamiliar to us. Don’t feel obliged to agree with what I say – I myself am not sure about all of it! But engaging with different Christian perspectives can be deeply enriching. I do, however, assert that Love and Hope are key Advent themes, and hope that these reflections on kenosis and theosis may provide some food for thought to underpin these themes.

Oh, and it is World Aids Day today, so I attempt to make some links from all of this to the ongoing fight against HIV and Aids.

Blessings and joy during this season!