The One Who "Emptied Himself"

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 17 February 1988, the Holy Father reflected on the mystery of Christ's Kenosis (emptying of himself), becoming true man even while remaining true God.  

1. "Here is the man" ( Jn 19, 5). In the previous catechesis we have recalled these words spoken by Pilate when presenting Jesus to the high priests and the guards, after having him flogged and before pronouncing the final sentence to death on the cross. Jesus, wounded, crowned with thorns, dressed in a purple mantle, mocked and slapped by soldiers, near death, is the emblem of suffering humanity.

"Here is the man." This expression contains , in a certain sense , the whole truth about Christ, the true man : about Him who became "in all things like us except sin"; about the One who "has united himself in a certain way with every man" (cf. Gaudium et spes , 22). They called him "a friend of publicans and sinners." And precisely as a victim for sin he makes himself solidary with all , even with "sinners", until death on the cross. But precisely in this condition of victim, to which Jesus is reduced, one last aspect of his humanity stands out, which must be accepted and deeply meditated upon in the light of the mystery of his "emptying" (Kenosis) of the. According to St. Paul, He, "being of divine condition, did not greedily retain being equal to God. Rather, he emptied himself by taking the condition of a servant, making himself similar to men and appearing in his bearing as a man; and he humbled himself to himself, obeying unto death and death on the cross " ( Phil 2, 6-8).

2. The Pauline text of the Letter to the Philippians introduces us to the mystery of the "Kenosis" of Christ. To express this mystery, the Apostle first uses the word "emptied himself", and this refers above all to the reality of the Incarnation : "the Word became flesh" ( Jn 1, 14). God-Son assumed human nature, humanity, became true man, remaining God ! The truth about the Christ-man must always be considered in relation to God the Son. Precisely this permanent reference is pointed out by Paul's text. "He emptied himself" does not in any way mean that he ceased to be God.: that would be absurd! On the contrary, it means, as the Apostle perceptively expresses it, that "he did not avidly retain being "equal to God", but " being of divine condition " ("in forma Dei") —as true God-Son—, He assumed a human nature deprived of glory, subjected to suffering and death, in which to live obedience to the Father to the point of extreme sacrifice.

3. In this context, becoming like men entailed a voluntary renunciation , which extended even to the "privileges" that He could have enjoyed as a man. Indeed, he assumed "the condition of a servant." He did not want to belong to the categories of the powerful , he wanted to be like the one who serves: well, "the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve" ( Mk 10, 45).

4. In fact, we see in the Gospels that the earthly life of Christ was marked from the beginning with the seal of poverty . This is highlighted already in the birth narrative, when the Evangelist Luke notes that "they (Mary and Joseph) had no room in the lodging" and that Jesus was given birth in a stable and laid in a manger (cf. Lk 2, 7). From Matthew we know that already in the first months of his life he experienced the fate of the fugitive (cf. Mt 2, 13-15). The hidden life in Nazareth developed in extremely modest conditions, those of a family whose head was a carpenter (cf. Mt13, 55), and in the same trade Jesus worked with his putative father (cf. Mk 6, 3). When he began teaching him, extreme poverty continued to accompany him, as he himself attests in some way, referring to the precariousness of his living conditions, imposed by his ministry of evangelization. "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" ( Lk 9:58).

5. The messianic mission of Jesus encountered objections and misunderstandings from the beginning, despite the "signs" that he carried out. He was under observation and was persecuted by those who exercised power and had influence over the people. Finally, he was charged, convicted, and crucified : the most infamous of all kinds of death sentences, applied only in cases of extremely serious crimes, especially to non-Roman citizens and slaves. Also for this reason it can be said with the Apostle that Christ literally assumed the "condition of a servant" ( Phil 2, 7).

6. With this " emptying of oneself", which profoundly characterizes the truth about Christ the true man , we can say that the truth of the universal man is restored: it is restored and "repaired". Indeed, when we read that the Son "did not greedily hold fast to being equal to God", we cannot fail to perceive in these words an allusion to the first and original temptation to which man and woman yielded "in the beginning": " you will be like gods, knowing good and evil " ( Gen 3:5). Man had fallen into temptation to be "equal to God", even though he was only a creature. He who is God-Son "did not avidly retain being equal to God" and by becoming a man "emptied himself", rehabilitating with this option every man, no matter how poor and dispossessed he may be. in his original dignity.

7. But to express this mystery of the "Kenosis" of Christ, Saint Paul also uses another word: " he humbled himself ". He inserts this word in the context of the reality of redemption. Indeed, he writes that Jesus Christ "humbled himself, obeying unto death and death on the cross " ( Phil 2:8). Here the "Kenosis" of Christ is described in its definitive dimension. From the human point of view, it is the dimension of dispossession through passion and infamous death. From the divine point of view is redemption who realizes the merciful love of the Father through the Son who voluntarily obeyed for love of the Father and the men he had to save. At that moment there was a new beginning of the glory of God in the history of man: the glory of Christ, the Son of him made man of him. Indeed, the Pauline text says: "Therefore God exalted him and gave him the Name, which is above every name" ( Phil 2, 9).

8. Here is how St. Athanasius comments on this text from the Letter to the Philippians: "This expression exalted him does not mean that the nature of the Word has been exalted: in fact, the latter has been and will always be equal to God. on the contrary, it wants to indicate the exaltation of human nature. Therefore, these words were not pronounced until after the Incarnation of the Word so that it would be clear that terms such as humiliated and exalted refer only to the human dimension. Indeed, only what is humble is liable to be exalted" (Athanasius, Adversus Arianos Oratio I, 41). Here we will only add that all human nature—all humanity—humbled in the painful condition to which sin reduced it, finds in the exaltation of the Christ-man the source of his new glory.

9. We cannot finish without making a final allusion to the fact that Jesus normally spoke of himself as the "Son of man" (for example , Mk 2, 10. 28; 14, 67; Mt 8, 20; 16, 27; 24, 27; Lk 9, 22; 11, 30; Jn 1, 51; 8, 28; 13, 31, etc.). This expression, according to the sensitivity of the common language of that time, could also indicate that He is a true man like all other human beings and, without a doubt, contains the reference to his real humanity.

However, the strictly biblical meaning , also in this case, must be established taking into account the historical context resulting from the tradition of Israel, expressed and influenced by the prophecy of Daniel that gives rise to that formulation of a messianic concept (cf. Dn 7, 13-14). "Son of man" in this context does not mean only a common man belonging to the human race, but refers to a character who will receive a universal domination from God and who transcends each of the historical times, in the eschatological era.

In the mouth of Jesus and in the texts of the Evangelists, the formula is therefore charged with a full meaning that encompasses the divine and the human, heaven and earth, history and eschatology, as Jesus himself makes us understand when, testifying before Caiaphas who was the Son of God, foretells forcefully: "From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Father and coming on the clouds of heaven " ( Mt 26, 64). In the Son of man is therefore immanent the power and glory of God. We find ourselves again before the only Man-God, true Man and true God. Catechesis continually leads us to Him so that we believe and, believing, pray and adore.

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