What Distinguishes a Christian?
I wondered about this question while catching a glimpse of the cardinals processing into the conclave, each one speaking Latin in a particular accent. Sure, this ritual had its uniqueness in the world of religion and had impressed many a loquacious television commentator, but really, the solemn and secretive form aside, this event was hardly otherworldly. Leaders of an institution came together to select a new supreme head. Good old politics.
Now they’ve made their choice, and the new pope has adopted the name Francis after the saint of Assisi. One mustn’t be too hasty, as Treebeard reminds me, but this symbolic choice, coupled with Pope Francis’ asceticism, gives me hope for a greater emphasis among my fellow Catholics on the disposition of kenosis. Theologically, the word means “self-emptying,” and it is the word I would choose were I to speak of a Christian habit of being using only one word.
The kenosis of Jesus Christ refers to his emptying himself of divine majesty to become a fragile human being, his humility and obedience and receptivity to the Father, even unto death. Christ called his followers to kenosis, to humble themselves and serve and give everything they had for the good of others. It’s the ethic behind the principles of turning the other cheek, losing oneself to find oneself, and the last being first.
It is not passive slavery, but perhaps the greatest exercise of personal freedom. To empty oneself of ego and to make oneself unconditionally disposable to others is a choice that can come only from within; it cannot be coerced from without. Nothing can be taken from one who gives everything, but to give everything one must have everything to give.
Are Christians today a people of kenosis? Rarely and for want of trying. I include myself. Consider these questions. Do we care more about making the world full of us than about giving ourselves wholly to the world? Do we work more to fashion the culture and state in our image and likeness than to forgetting ourselves in care for the needs of the poor, oppressed, and destitute? Are we more concerned about protecting our rights than about responding to the rights of others?
The Scriptures say to work out your salvation in fear and trembling, not to seek it in power and strife. Christians who practice their faith by playing the game of thrones have little to offer. Christian doctrines and rituals are meant to translate into an orientation of loving self-giving toward other people, and through them, to God. I would suggest that without kenosis these doctrines and rituals are dead.