“He emptied himself”Katerina K. Whitley Matthew 26:14-27:66; Philippians 2:5-8 Year A: Sixth Sunday in Lent - Liturgy of the Passion
Reading the story of the Passion in its entirety is a liturgy in itself. An act of worship and a participation of the people in a drama that continues through the ages. It is like listening to Bach who, inspired by this gospel’s account, composed the heart-breaking St. Matthew’s Passion.
The drama unfolds in the words of the greatest simplicity. Short sentences fraught with meaning: “But Jesus was silent.” And his answer to two questioners who asked him if he was the Anointed one: “You have said so.”
No adjectives, no adverbs, just strong verbs that peel and resonate like huge bells: “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” And in the case of Peter’s terrible denial: “At that moment the cock crowed.” And then the aftermath for Peter: “And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Stark, simple, utterly devoid of description, for truth needs no embellishment.
St. Paul and the early church took this immense story and, in the fashion of the gospel writers and the gift of the Greek language with its powerful verbs and avoidance of pronouns, fashioned a hymn that contains the awesome truth of the Passion story. As we read it today in Philippians, “he emptied himself.”
In the Greek, which does not need the pronoun “he” we have only two words with the “emptied” coming last. It falls on the ears, it stuns, and then it’s up to us whether we have the courage to take it in or not. From the verb for emptying comes the theological concept of kenosis. The kenosis of the divine.
In the whole Passion story as told by Matthew we have evidence of this emptying: the human Jesus needing his friends, wanting their company in this, their last supper together. His sadness at the thought that one of them would betray him; his sparring with Judas; and then his walk with them in the garden. The human Jesus takes his three best friends with him to pray and they let him down. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?”
A plaintive and sad question that must have cut them to the core every day of their subsequent lives. And the agonizing cry, “Let this cup pass from me,” echoing through the cosmos. Jesus did not want to die, but he did want to obey. We read it and we weep because we know what a bitter cup this is.
The other scene of his full humanity and his elected kenosis never fails to break my heart. They come at him with swords, knives, and clubs. He had been with them for nearly three years, loving them, healing them, saying good words to them and over them (blessing them), but here they are seeking to destroy him. He looks at them and all the memories of his walking among them come flooding back. He knows that if he just says the words, “This is not how I want it to end,” all his suffering will end. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels to my aid?”
I have an image every time I read this part of the story. The hosts of heaven are begging the Creator to allow them to intervene in this drama. They don’t want the blameless hero to go to such an ignominious death. Yet, they know that the Divine Will is beyond their understanding. They are hoping to be sent to his rescue, they are barely contained from rushing to the realm of the earth to give him succor, but they are creatures who live to obey, and they do. Do you think my Father would abandon me if I asked for help? But he does not.
How the heart aches.
The drama now unfolds with the illegal proceedings which, to avoid his supporters, the authorities hold at night. They represent the religious leaders who have made a pact with the enemy; and the political leaders of the occupying forces who do not want to displease the emperor. But neither faction cares about displeasing God as long as they are allowed to hold on to power and to profit. They make decisions about an innocent human being in the pragmatic and totally immoral manner of politicians.
Caiaphas, the high priest, who has no priestly feelings and conscience, like so many preachers of today, puts nationalism above the will of God, deliberately conflating the two in order to hold on to power. During this terrible night of illegal court proceedings, we see the sin of Caiaphas, the sloth of Herod, the Roman justification of Pilate, and we tremble, realizing that this kind of injustice is continuing 2000 plus years later.
A few years after this terrible night, it was left to the brilliance of St. Paul and the devotion of early believers to put the event into perspective:
Though he was in the form of God.
The reference here is to the eternal Christ, to the Word Who was with God from the beginning. . .
He did not grab possessively
Onto his equality with God,
But emptied himself;
He who was with God from the beginning let go of his status as the second person of the Trinity by emptying himself of the Godhead. This powerful phrase encompasses the awesome doctrine of the Incarnation.
Taking the form of a slave,
He was born in human likeness.
Here the writer of this hymn chooses the Greek word for slave instead of servant, a strong identification with the human condition.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
It is not enough that he chooses the weakness of humanity and all that is implied in taking human form, he further humbles himself—this humility which was anathema to the Jews in their expectation of Messiah and a laughing matter to the Greeks and their superior rationality—
He humbled himself
We have seen this obedience in the struggle in the garden: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me: yet not what I want but what you want.”
Even death on the cross.
The most terrible and painful of all deaths, reserved only for non-Romans, only for criminals. Even death on the cross.
(The translation of Philippians 2: 6-8 is the author’s.)
The mind reels. The heart breaks. We need to focus on this, not to turn our faces away because it is so painful we cannot endure it.
We must not treat this truth casually, we must not re-crucify Jesus by making his death something bland and inconsequential by excusing violence and torture and war.
We must honor the pain of Jesus by refusing to hurt others, by saying no to those who put national interest above the value and dignity of human lives, no matter who they are and where they come from.
This interminable night of pain and suffering should remain with us to guide us to the heart of Christ.
About the Writer:
Katerina Katsarka Whitley has delved into the characters present on the Via Dolorosa in her book, Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross, based on woodcuts by the artist Noyes Capehart Long. She is a native of Thessaloniki, Greece and a graduate of Furman University. A lecturer, dramatist, and retreat leader, she is the author of seven books. In addition to her work on Next Sunday Worship, she has been writing sermons for the Episcopal site, “Sermons That Work,” for the past twenty-five years. Katerina, lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org and www.katerinawhitley.net
Scripture and Music
At The Name Of Jesus
All Hail The Power Of Jesus’ Name
He Is Lord
Blessed Be The Tie That Binds
Go To Dark Gethsemane
He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word
Hosanna, Loud Hosanna
Mantos y Palmas/Filled With Excitement
All Glory, Laud, And Honor
Hosanna, Loud Hosanna,
Let This Mind Be In You
God So Loved The World