Kenosis, Christmas and Christians



Whenever we reflect on Christ and who He is, we knowingly or unknowingly engage in what is formally known as Christology. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae wrote wonderfully on Christology in the third volume of his dogmatic theology series entitled “The Experience of God.” In chapter four of this volume “The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior”, just three sentences of Staniloae’s writing make it clear how closely our salvation is tied to a proper understanding of Christology. He writes:

“Christ would not save us were He to manifest Himself as purely divine through the divine nature’s attributes and actions toward us, and as purely human through his human nature’s attributes and actions. In both cases He would not raise His human nature to cooperation for its salvation and ours. Moreover, in both cases He would remain, as God, inaccessible to us, and then the two natures in His Person would remain unknown and ineffective.”

This brief passage succinctly captures what lies behind the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. As perfect God and perfect Man, our salvation is possible. In contrast, errors in Christology lead to a break between the deep union of theosis (deification) which come to us through Christ’s Incarnation. Thus, focusing on the intersection between Christ’s two Natures united in One Person leads us to consider some critical truths which are the focus of this essay; namely, the kenosis of Christ, His sinlessness, His connection to His Mother, and the implications of these three concepts. By meditating upon who Christ is, we can come closer to seeing what He has done in becoming Man for our salvation.

The second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians arguably contains the most distilled passage on the doctrine of kenosis, or self-emptying, of Christ. In verses five through eleven St. Paul writes:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In many ways, a more vivid means to see His self-emptying is seen through reading of His life in the Holy Gospels. When we see Him hungry, weeping, wounded, and dying, we tremble to consider how real His humanity is. How can God suffer through all of this? And yet the Byzantine tradition considers the moment of His Passion to be the most apt place to bestow upon Him the title of “the King of Glory”. Kenosis becomes the ability to see the glory of Christ most clearly, because it is precisely at the time of emptying and losing His life that our salvation and union with Him is accomplished.

In the context of Christ’s self-emptying, we understand that He maintains His divinity at every moment. A key way to reinforce that His divinity is present in the midst of Christ’s suffering as man is to meditate upon the key Christological affirmation that Christ remained sinless even during that suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the importance of Christ’s sinlessness clear when the author states:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:14-16

Christ’s complete self-offering is seen through His sinlessness both in terms of what His priestly offering is qualitatively, and through our understanding that He has been through all forms as temptation and yet is without sin. In terms of the perfection of His offering, no aspect of Christ’s personality was withheld from the beautiful union between the human and the divine, and as such His High priestly ministry is not focused merely on His dying on the cross and rising from the grave. Instead, His offering is made perfect because He is the spotless Lamb of God, as 1 Peter 1:19 makes clear. The fullness of human nature is purified because He lived a perfectly pure life that was fully human. Thus, holding to Christ as sinless is not merely a point of dogma, but is critical to bringing about completeness to our salvation.

In addition to speaking to the quality of His offering, the sinlessness of Christ is important for our salvation through our own perspective as we look to Him for salvation. The weight of our weaknesses and failures could lead us to despair, but it is made crystal clear that Christ’s sinless life is a beacon of hope that we have a high priest who truly sympathizes with us, living His human existence in a blameless manner. In contrast, Docetism represents a Christological misunderstanding whereby Christ only appeared to be man. Were this to be true, His life on earth would not be so deeply intertwined with our temptations and sufferings. He would be perfect because He was God and not truly man. If He were perfect as God but not truly human, this sinlessness would have no bearings on our own struggles because we are humans. The Christological formulations of the Orthodox faith embrace Christ’s true divinity and true human sinlessness so that we can have hope that we can conquer our sin through our union to Christ. The Orthodox view of Christ’s sinlessness therefore makes secure our salvation in terms of what is offered, and what we experience as imperfect people. As Staniloae says, our human nature is raised, His sinlessness shows that He is not inaccessible, but is instead close to our very hearts.

Between Catholic and Orthodox Christians, there is consensus that the Incarnation brings God and Man together not just in terms Jesus Himself. Rather, the Incarnation extends to those whom He has saved. This is seen perhaps the most clearly in the participation and union that His Mother had with Him, though this also extends to all Christians. At the foot of the Cross, Our Lord spoke to His Mother and said of St. John the Theologian, “Woman, behold your Son”, and to St. John Christ says, “Behold your Mother” (John 19:26-27). While the words of the Prophet Simeon were fulfilled as a sword pierced her heart (Luke 2:35), the death and resurrection of Christ showed not only His importance in bringing out salvation, but we can also see His Mother’s role as Mother of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church.

From the Council of Ephesus’ embracing the term Theotokos to state that the Mary is truly the God-bearer, to the Second Council of Nicea stating that icons of Our Lord and the Saints can be venerated precisely because of the Incarnation, the Church’s teachings on Christ can be seen to extend to those whom He has saved. After all, those non-Catholic Christians who deny the veneration of icons would not deny venerating Christ. But perhaps that is the whole shortcoming of their thinking, in that there is an implicit individualism separating us from Christ such that He deserves veneration but the saints do not. In Byzantine spirituality, our journey of theosis is so all-pervasive that the light of Christ shines through Mary and all of the saints, because the union is complete. This incarnational union began at the Annunciation when God became man in the Virgin Mary’s womb, and thus the Mother of God occupies a special place in highlighting that when we see her suffering at the Cross and glorified in heaven, we do not become idolaters. Instead, we profess the totality of the Incarnation and the fact that Christ’s union with us extends to our lives.

The Scriptures make it clear that we participate in the salvation of not only ourselves but of others (e.g., 1 Timothy 4:16). They also make it clear that the One Mediator between God and Man is Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). When St. Paul says that he fills up on what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), we realize that St. Paul is either contradicting himself, or that the reductionist viewpoint that only Christ is involved in our salvation comes up short. As Staniloae says, Christ’s human nature participates in our salvation. In sharing the same nature, and receiving the divine nature through grace, Mary and all of the faithful participate in our salvation. This is why when the Byzantine Tradition prays we hear words such as the following, which come from the Troparion of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos: ‘O Theotokos, in giving birth you preserved virginity; and in your falling asleep you did not forsake the world. You are the Mother of Life and have been transferred to life, and through your prayers you deliver our souls from death.”

We do not shrink away from saying that the Mother of God delivers our soul from death, just as the Apostle Paul speaks of filling up on what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. In both cases, the salvific work of Christ is lived out in those united to Him, and that brings salvation through the saints to the world. Through theosis, the divine union with the human comes to the humans who partake of the divine nature, and that divine nature shines through humans like St. Paul and the Virgin Mary in a beautiful mirror image of human nature shining through the fully divine nature in Christ. Therefore, to hold to the incarnation and salvation of Christ we must see the fundamental connection between His kenosis, sinlessness, and the holiness and union that we see between Christ and His Mother. As we grow to see our union of Christ, may we like St. Paul see that our own life is called to kenosis, sinlessness, and theosis so that we may share salvation with all people. Glory to Jesus Christ!

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