There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis. Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that. But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.” That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God. Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that. But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so great.
Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about. The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one, who is a foreshadowing of Jesus. The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them. Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly what will happen to Jesus.
And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles. In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet. He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise. That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it. Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them. Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?
I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him a kind word. And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest. That was true for him, and it would be true for them too. That’s kenosis.
So if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too. Because our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all. Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one. Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument. We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous. Here’s a tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others.
So if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. Because nothing that looks like our earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. We have to pour out the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement and instead be filled up with Christ. That’s what kenosis looks like for us. And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.