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. We would probably say we’re all about the being filled up with God part. But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so much fun.
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. 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, of course, what will happen to Jesus. So this first reading is a bit of liturgical foreshadowing.
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 so much as a kind word, let alone reflect on what that might mean for them, and the mission. 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. Quite frankly, it’s true for us too. That’s kenosis, and to one degree or another, we are all called to share in it.
Here’s the thing: if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too. Think about it: 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 spiritual pro-tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others, have relationship with him, and live the Gospel.
Some of the resistance, too, is internal. Some of the resistance is because, on some level, we love our sins more than we love Jesus. Ouch – it hurts to say that, but there’s truth there. Unless we have the desire to give up our sinfulness, really have a firm purpose of amendment, as the Rite of Penance puts it; unless we want that more than anything, then we can’t want Jesus, or his Kingdom, or the Gospel, or eternal life. We’ve got to be ready to give up everything that takes up space in our lives if we ever want to inherit the glory that God created us to have.
Imagine you have your hands full of stuff that you really like. Maybe it’s not the best stuff, but it gives you pleasure and so you hang on to it. Or maybe it’s not really safe, but it makes you feel comfortable, and that’s as good as it gets right now. Now someone comes and offers you something much better. But your hands are full, and you’ve become used to the pleasure or the comfort, and so you don’t have any way to receive, to grab the really good thing you are being offered. The only way you’re going to be able to receive that good gift is by letting go of the garbage in your hand. Can you do that? Can you empty your hands so that you can receive grace?
Because here’s the truth: if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. We’re going to have to repent of our sins, give up every distraction, and focus entirely on our God. Because nothing that looks like earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. Hanging on to the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement will prevent us from filled up with Christ, from receiving his grace, from inheriting eternal life. We have to get rid of it all: 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.