March 25, 2018
(Philippians 2:6-1; Mark 14:1—15:47)
Palm Sunday. An interesting name the Church has given to this passage of Jesus’ life. As soon as the Church obtained her freedom in the fourth century, the faithful in Jerusalem re-enacted the solemn entry of Christ into their city on the Sunday before Easter, holding a procession in which they carried branches and sang the “Hosanna” (Matthew 21, 1-11).
In the early Latin Church, people attending Mass on this Sunday would hold aloft twigs of olives, which were not, however, blessed in those days – a custom/rite that came a couple centuries later. The faithful would continue to hold the palms during the reading of the Passion. In this way, they would recall that many of the same people who greeted Christ with shouts of joy on Palm Sunday would later call for his death on Good Friday-a powerful reminder of our own weakness and the sinfulness that causes us to reject Christ.
The Palm Sunday procession, and the blessing of palms, seems to have originated in the Frankish Kingdom. The earliest mention of these ceremonies is found in the Sacramentary of the Abbey of Bobbio in northern Italy (sometime at the beginning of the eighth century). The rite was soon accepted in Rome and incorporated into the liturgy. A Mass was celebrated in some church outside the walls of Rome, and there the palms were blessed. The prayers used today are of Roman origin and has spread to the many Catholic branches in the centuries since.
Palm Sunday is meant to be one of the most joyful days of the Christian year. It's a day that involves a king and a colt, plus crowds and cloaks. However, as we know, it has a tendency to be “clouded” by that which takes place on Good Friday.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as a king. He's riding on a colt. And crowds are laying their cloaks on the ground before him as he rides. They cry, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9). The people are tired of corrupt King Herod. They want Jesus to be their ruler. Little did they know, that he was not to be the political king they may have been praying for or understanding from the Scriptures.
However, all of this story we know well, and it's easy for us to grasp the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt while crowds praise him and roll out the red carpet by spreading their cloaks on the road.
The crowds go wild, and so do we. We wave our palm branches. We want Jesus to be our king and to rule our world with love and justice. Everyone is shouting, jumping and jostling to get a better view. The king, the son of David, is coming!
But the Palm Sunday story is not just about a king and a colt, or a crowd and their cloaks. It's also about kenosis. It's a Greek word to describe (in Christian theology) the renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the Incarnation. It comes to us in Paul's letter to the Philippians, and it's much harder to understand than the meaning of the words king, colt, crowd and cloak.
Kenosis, although a difficult and captivating word of the Christian faith, it is very important to the Christian faith.
Kenosis means "emptiness," but has deeper significance in that it communicates the self-emptying that Christ voluntarily offered on the cross.
Kenosis raises a number of important questions for us as we enter Holy Week. What was accomplished by kenosis? How did this self-emptying result in fullness? And how can we empty ourselves so that God will fill us?
For starters, what was accomplished by kenosis? Paul tells us that Jesus was in the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.
The Kenosis theory states that Jesus gave up some of His divine attributes while He was a man here on earth. These attributes were omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Christ did this voluntarily so that He could function as a man in order to fulfill the work of redemption. Take Mark 13:32 for example. In it, Jesus said, "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." If Jesus knew all things, as is implied in his divine nature, then why did he not know the day or hour of his own return. The answer is that Jesus cooperated with the limitations of humanity and voluntarily did not exercise his attribute of omniscience. He still was divine but was moving and living completely as a man.
Instead, Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.” This is where we run into kenosis in the original Greek, where its meaning is "emptied out." Christ Jesus "emptied himself," taking the form of a slave so that he looked for all the world like an ordinary, very common, nondescript, perhaps even marginalized human being!
What is accomplished by this? Our reading tells us that God "highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Palm Sunday would be easy to understand if it contained only the familiar: kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. In this version of the story, King Jesus would ride into town and confront King Herod, and the one with the biggest crowd would win. But kenosis turns our expectations upside down. Precisely because Jesus emptied, humbled, lowered and abased himself, God exalted him and made him the king of all creation.
The accomplishment of kenosis is fullness, glory and power. This is the opposite of what you would expect from one’s God-- emptiness, embarrassment and powerlessness.
Next, exactly how does this self-emptying result in fullness? For Jesus, kenosis leads to glory and power because it's based on humility and obedience. We turn to the Good News interpretation of the Bible to see it in a slightly different manner, and it says: “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” He had the nature of God, but chose to accept the form of a servant. That's humility. That is the example he wants to see us emulate.
This is one of those paradox’s of Christianity – Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and thus he is God, but he lives within his divinity and humanity. Both fully divine and fully human. Just as he relinquishes some of his divine nature while on earth, he also relinquishes the sinful nature of humanity. All meant as an example for us to follow.
It's a counterintuitive attitude. In Lewis Carroll's famous book, Through the Looking Glass, Alice steps through the mirror in the living room to find a world on the opposite side where everything is backwards: Alice wants to go forward, but every time she moves, she ends up back where she started. She tries to go left and ends up right. Up is down and fast is slow.
Similarly, Christianity is a kind of looking glass world where everything works on principles opposite to those of the world around us. To be blessed, be a blessing to others.
+ To receive love, give love.
+ To be honored, first be humble.
+ To truly live, die to yourself.
+ To gain the unseen, let go of the seen.
+ To receive, first give.
+ To save your life, lose it.
+ To lead, be a servant.
+ To be first, be last.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that the way up is down. Down is up, up is down. The way to be great is to go lower. The way up is down. The logical flow of Philippians has been building up to this great truth."
An example might be a modern hero like Captain "Sully" Sullenberger who was at the throttle of Flight 1549 when he had to land his jetliner in the Hudson River, saving more than 150 passengers in the process. In the aftermath of that experience, Captain Sully exemplified humility as few could. According to one account, "In an interview after the crash, he was modest about his acts of courage, attributing his poise to his training over the years. 'One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years,' he said, 'I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.'" The event became known as "The Miracle on the Hudson," and was made into a 2016 movie starring Tom Hanks.
Or, you might point to heroes of the past, such as astronaut Neil Armstrong, a political leader like Nelson Mandela, equal rights preacher Martin Luther King Jr., a religious leader like Gandhi or a humanitarian figure like Mother Teresa and many others. Surely there are athletic heroes too that might come to mind, or some heroes in our own community.
Glory and recognition came to all of these people, although none of them sought it, nor did they think it important. But the glory came in a counterintuitive way.
The self-emptying of Jesus was based on both humility and obedience. Paul tells us that "he was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead of remaining in the safety and security of his divine existence, Jesus entered human life as a fetus, a baby, a child and eventually a man. "If you want to get the hang of it," suggests C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, "think of how you would like to become a slug or a crab."
But Jesus said "Yes" to emptying himself and entering human life, and he did this out of obedience to God. Paul tells us that "he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.” Because of this choice, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, making him Lord of heaven and earth.
For Jesus, kenosis led to kingship. Because he emptied himself by being humble and obedient, God filled him with glory and power.
Finally, how can we empty ourselves so that God will fill us? Most of us are not going to be asked to follow Jesus to the point of death on a cross. But we are certainly challenged to show humility and obedience as we walk the path of Christ in the world.
We might try to develop a welcoming attitude toward others. Martin Hengel was a great New Testament historian who taught at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In that country, professors are highly esteemed and put on a pedestal. But Pastor John Dickson remembers how Professor Hengel would have his students come to his home on Friday evenings for meals and discussions. "He wasn't influential just because he was a brilliant scholar," says Dickson. "It was the fact that he let people come very close, that he shared his life with them -- that humility is what made his influence lasting."
We can show the same kind of humility, whether we are influencing students, coaching a team or leading a group of workers. People are grateful when we take them seriously and welcome them into our lives.
We might try to be the servant of others. Our practice of kenosis also includes obedience to Jesus Christ, who said to his followers, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:26). He wants us to empty ourselves, as he did, and act as slaves to each other, just as he "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We might try to be generous with material things.
We might try thinking the best of others, forgiving them when they don't know what they're doing.
We might try praying for our "enemies," and those who "persecute" us.
We might try being a peacemaker.
We might try denying ourselves and carrying a cross for a while.
You want to know how to experience a self-emptying? An emptying of self? That's how! Think about it – some of those things are hard to do.
The good news is that this emptying does not lead to embarrassment and powerlessness. Instead, it leads to great fullness. Jesus says that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12).
Palm Sunday has always been a predictable story of kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. But the addition of the Greek word kenosis turns our expectations upside down. This self-emptying of Jesus, grounded in humility and obedience, is the unexpected key to his heavenly fullness.
And our fullness as well.
Let us pray.
That the suffering and death of Jesus Christ will strengthen the Church in holiness and give her new growth. We pray to the Lord.
That civil authorities will use their power to protect the poor, oppose injustice, preserve freedom, and promote lasting peace. We pray to the Lord.
That Christians everywhere will live this Holy Week with special reverence, self-giving, and devotion. We pray to the Lord.
That God will shelter all persecuted Christians and make their witness effective for the redemption of all. We pray to the Lord.
That our Lenten discipline will continue to transfigure the way we live so as to bring forth even deeper conformity to Christ, and to follow His example of kenosis. We pray to the Lord.
That all the peoples of the world will begin to see each other as brothers and sisters, not as people of different race, religion, or class. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are sick this week, that even in their infirmity, they may find the peace of Christ during this most Holy Week. We pray to the Lord.
Merciful Father, by the holy cross of Christ, Your Son has redeemed the world. Help us to take up His cross and to be united to Jesus in His passion, to be united in Jesus in our emptying of ourselves so that You may fill us. May we be united with our Lady Mary who saw firsthand her Son, our Lord, empty Himself that we might have life everlasting. We ask all these things, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA