by Fr. David May.
He emptied himself (Phil 2: 7).
How do you like those three words about Jesus Christ as a kind of resumé or shorthand for his entire earthly mission? In New Testament Greek it’s only two words: eauton (himself) ekenosen (he emptied, he poured out).
It is a phrase having to do with the eternal Son of God not clinging to his divine privileges, so to speak, but, while remaining God, fully embracing what it means to be a human being, even unto death on a cross.
All of this he did out of love for us, to become what we are so that we might through faith become what he is.
If you had lived in Madonna House during the years when Catherine Doherty was alive, you would have heard her talk often—especially during Advent and Lent—about the reality of Christ’s emptying himself for us, and the call for us, his disciples, to become empty of our selves.
After a time, the Greek word got anglicized, at least around here, and everyone was soon familiar with it. The word was kenosis, and as such, it was new to me at the time (1973).
I was happy to learn this morning that the word can now be found in a modern Webster’s Dictionary (11th edition, 2005), where the claim is made that the word entered the English language in 1873! Little did I know 40 some years ago that I was even then 100 years behind the times.
That word, in turn, became one of the more compelling chapters in the book, Poustinia and a key to understanding Russian spirituality, focused as it is on the humility and merciful compassion of Jesus.
(I never had much interest in the speculative aspects of some currents of theology and the concept of the "kenosis" in God. I’ve been too preoccupied for 40 years trying to deal with kenosis in myself!)
Allow me to give you a little sampling from that chapter entitled "Kenosis" of what Catherine meant by the word as applied to the experience of a Christian.
"How are our minds and hearts washed by Christ? The only way I can describe it is to say that they are cleansed as we pass through some experience of nothingness.
"There are periodic moments in which you are as if dead. There are certain moments in your prayers or thinking—moments in your life with God—when suddenly you mean what you are saying or doing with all your heart and soul, with everything that you are.
"At those moments you are saying in effect, ‘Take my mind and my will, Lord, and cleanse them.’ At these times you really mean it. Do these moments last a minute, an hour, a day? You don’t know. You only know that afterwards, your mind and your will have been returned to you cleansed. You are more alive….
"This is the first step in following Christ—the smashing of the idol of oneself…
"This point is not reached without a great deal of difficulty, fighting with ourselves, fighting with Satan. But this is the critical moment when symbolic hands slowly open the door wide enough to throw out all that shouldn’t be in you, to let in all that should be there.
"The moment of kenosis is approaching …. It is not done for any selfish reason. It is not even done to be ‘one with God’. One must go beyond such motivation and take upon ourselves the pain of humanity.
"Unless we can do that, we will not be able to place the gift of our kenosis into the hands of God. Kenosis, like everything else, is primarily for the other."
And so forth.
Through his self-emptying and offering for us, Christ released unto the world a force, a power that can never be taken back. It is divine love, utterly poured out, and this Love, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is pursuing souls everywhere, seeking to lead us on the same path as that of Jesus.
For me all of this would get captured in Catherine’s eyes, looking at me, looking through me, as if to say: "So lovable! So pitiable! So full of self!"
Although she said words to me that were themselves important, it’s the look that stays with me through the years, and I know so well that this gaze is not so much hers as Christ in her, living in her surrender to him.
So lovable! So pitiable! So full of self! I gaze on him today in the tabernacle. I glance his way in the face of an icon, and I ask: is it still true, after all these years? He has no need to answer. I already know the answer.
Hence Lent is a great gift, in many ways, but one way is this: I can cry out to my Lord to be emptied some more, and to really mean it, as Catherine would say.
Not because "I am in need of reform" (I am); not because "I am wearied by my sins" (true enough); not even because I want to be a better staff worker and a better disciple of Christ (I do, usually) … but so that I can be, like Christ, a better servant to my brothers and sisters wherever they may be.
And what, in the light of this discussion, does it mean to be a "better servant"? It simply means: to give Christ. To listen as Christ would listen, if he were me. To labor as Christ would labor.
To pray as Christ would pray. To speak as Christ would speak. To correct as Christ would correct. To write as Christ would write. To be hidden as Christ would be hidden.
To suffer as Christ would suffer. To console as Christ would console. To conduct a meeting as Christ would conduct it. To preach as Christ would preach. To be silent with his own silence.
All of this remains only words—nice words, pious-sounding words—until the kenosis of our Savior starts to be mine. Then it is that I catch a glimpse of a beauty I never knew existed. It is His beauty, His glory visible in the Gospels, enlivened by the Spirit, lived out by the saints and disciples through the ages.
Once you have caught a glimpse of Him, there is a growing ache inside your soul to decrease that he might increase within you. You are astonished that you acquiesce so slowly to what you in some ways love more than yourself.
It is a scandal, illuminated afresh in Lent by the grace of God, this resistance to the One who is Beauty itself, incarnate in our flesh.
So lovable! So pitiable! So full of self!
Lord, save me! Lord, empty me! Set me free at last!
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