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The Self-Emptying of Jesus

After our monthly French prayer group, I was taking home two friends and in the car one of them asked: “But what does it mean exactly that “Jesus emptied himself?” I tried to explain it in a few words but we got to her place very quickly and I felt my answer was not enough. So I told her that I was going to think about her question and put my thoughts down in writing and email them to her.

The following day, I got my Bibles out and I started by looking up the original passage of Philippians 2:5-11
5 Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped.
7 But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
8 he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
9 And for this God raised him high, and gave him the name which is above all other names;
10 so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus
11 and that every tongue should acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I read all the comments, in English and in French. I love to read and study, compare and research the verses, I found it exhilarating! I could see that this particular passage of the Letter to the Philippians, this Christological hymn, has generated a large amount of commentaries over the years. I also checked “Introduction to the NT” by Raymond Brown and “The thought of St Paul” by Fr. William Most. I googled the word “Kenosis” which is the Greek word for this mystery of self-emptying. I could see how theologians have argued about it, about its exact meaning and its ramifications, for centuries! I took Latin for 5 years but I never learned Greek and I was thinking that I wish I had learned it so I could read about this “kenosis” in the text.

But then it hit me: What am I doing? My friend only asked for a short and clear explanation of what this emptying means. If I start thinking that I should have learned Greek to better answer her then it is obvious I’m going off on a tangent here. So I told myself to go back to the subject and concentrate! I am no scholar at all, I’m not even very much educated, I never went to college and English is not my native language. BUT I trust that God has given each one of us the two or three grains of common sense that we need in life and if we apply ourselves earnestly, we will manage. So although I can’t boast of any special credentials, I am certain I can throw some light on this passage of Scripture and the reason I know this is because I struggled with it myself.

What is it that Jesus “emptied himself” of? It is of his glory, his divinity. He let go of his divine power to be human, to be just like us. What is the main tenet of our faith linked to this passage? It is that Jesus is both divine and human, he is both God (and he is fully God with all of God’s attributes) and he is also fully human (with all the strength and the weaknesses implied – except sin). Why does it matter that we understand this passage correctly? Because if we don’t, we can easily fall into common heresies (which means the wrong ways of thinking): one is to deny that Jesus was fully human, implying that he was only “pretending” to be like us. If you deny the humanity of Jesus next you’ll say that he did not really suffer on the cross and soon you will end up denying the Resurrection, since why would there be a need to resurrect if he did not really die in the first place… Another common heresy (which is the flip side of that same erroneous and rebellious idea) is to deny that Jesus was God, to say instead that he was a very good spiritual leader, a prophet. If you deny his divinity (as do the Muslims and the Mormons today, and of course the Jews) then you deny the true power of the Incarnation and eventually you’ll deny the need to follow him for your salvation.

The Church has spent a considerable amount of time debating, correcting and articulating more and more clearly who Jesus really was - and is - and the Kenosis is at the heart of this effort. To this day, we proclaim Jesus Christ one person with two natures, truly God and truly man, every time we say the Creed.

This is why he needed to “empty himself of his glory” for us, he did it voluntarily so he could be like us in all ways. But my friend asked, what were the practical ways in which he did it? He never used his powers for himself but only for others, he used them to heal and to serve. He healed the blind man, he brought back Lazarus to life although he had been dead for 3 days, he healed the sick daughter of the Centurion, he multiplied the loaves to feed the hungry crowd, he freed Mary Magdalene from the 7 demons that tortured her, he healed the paralyzed man from his handicap etc...

This “emptying” is part of his sacrifice for us, for our good and for the good of the world and many, many pages have been written about this, about the ransom paid for us, about this outpouring of love for us. It is a luminous mystery which will enlighten our lives if we accept it. The questions is not to “understand” it in an intellectual way but rather to welcome it. It is all about love! When someone loves us and says they want to spend the rest of their lives with us, we do not need to analyze it, we get it! We accept it as a gift and we are thankful for it. It is the same with the faith. Although understanding them is good, it is not the most important.

I thought of a good and experienced teacher who will know exactly how to adjust his teaching pace to the need of his student, not because he cannot deliver the knowledge quickly but because the student could not process it and needs more time. The sacrifice, the gift, the teaching by example and the direct commandments of love God and love neighbor are all various facets of the faith.

One more possible analogy is the ability of speaking a foreign language. Do you know how it feels to be in a foreign country and not being able to understand what they say? Especially if there is a different alphabet, it is so stressful to be unable to decipher the street signs or read the menus, to be wandering and drifting…. But I am not using this analogy implying that Jesus does not know our language. Oh! No, my point is exactly the opposite, it is that we do not know “his” language, the language of God. And this is the reason for the Incarnation: Jesus came to us, as a human being, as our brother, so we could learn the divine language, so we could see him and know him and love him. We try, more or less successfully, and the saints are definitively one step ahead of us. But the truth is that it is in acknowledging his life and death that we can learn; it is in following his example that we can grow; it is when we do what he told us to do, when we cling to him with all our strength, emptying ourselves of ourselves so divine grace can fill us that we can become a new person, we can know the abundant life and stop wandering and drifting around….

Michele Szekely @2011
first posted on facebook September 23, 2011 at 10:30am

St Cecilia church, SF, Dec 2017.

PS The two extreme points of his life (his birth in a simple and poor manger), and his death (crucified as a criminal, misunderstood by most - but not all!), are great illustrations of his emptying. And it is when praying the rosary that I saw this more clearly. And remember that all of this, as everything else in his life, was done Pro Nobis!

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