Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.
John 12:20-36; Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Light versus darkness, revelation versus secrecy, wisdom versus foolishness are the motifs that are interwoven in the readings for this day. Christian tradition has so intertwined and literalized these metaphors that it is nearly impossible for post-modern exiles to glean any other meaning than what has come to be “orthodox” (correct) belief. The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) does not follow the sequence of John’s narrative. Knowing that John’s Gospel was written 70 to 90 years after the death of Jesus, and 30 to 50 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple hardly helps. As presented by the RCL, John’s Gospel bears little if any connection to participation in God’s justice-compassion on earth, here and now. Instead, it dazzles and distracts us with promises of becoming “children of light” if we will only believe. The story is not important; conveying the theology and proving the supremacy of Christianity is what matters.
The “servant’s songs” in Isaiah are attributed to an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon during the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people during the 6th Century, BCE. The servant is often interpreted to be the nation of Israel, not an individual, and in this second song (Is. 49:1-7) God declares to the entire earth (bounded by the “coastlands”) that the nation of Israel has been called to serve God’s justice-compassion. The servant Israel has been hidden away, and even though it looks as though that great work of justice-compassion has gone unnoticed, it has not. God will restore the Servant people to power and kings and emperors will stand up and take notice. God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” “Salvation” in this context does not mean “going to heaven at death.” “Salvation” in terms of the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile means liberation from enemies. In the wider sense of Isaiah 55, it means living in God’s kingdom of distributive justice and peace for all of the days allotted to life, whether of the community, or the individual members.
The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels may have pointed to these prophecies as encouragement to his followers, struggling to love justice and live in non-violent resistance to Rome. He is highly unlikely to have claimed that he himself was the fore-ordained embodiment of Isaiah 49, which Christian tradition continues to do.
The readings for holy week from John’s gospel do follow their own logic. On Monday, Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anoints Jesus’s body in advance for burial. On Tuesday, John’s Jesus delivers his last public dialogue, in which he claims the metaphor of seed and grain, life and light, and God Himself speaks from heaven in response to Jesus’ pious invocation: “Father, glorify your name.” God thunders that “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” And we understand that to mean the glorification of the once and future Christ Jesus. Jesus proclaims that the ruler of this world (Satan) will be driven out, and that Jesus the Christ will be lifted up and “will draw all people to myself. . . While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
After this, Jesus (the Servant) goes into hiding. This is not the first time in John that Jesus has disappeared for some period of time (see 7:1,10; 8:59). Most recently (12:36) after the raising of Lazarus, Caiaphas, the high priest, declares “. . . it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” From that time on, John says, “they planned to put Jesus to death.” So Jesus “no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”
Jesus does a lot of hiding out in John, and swears everyone to secrecy in Mark. But that is no reason to think that when the prophet says in Isaiah 49:2b “in the shadow of his hand he hid me,” the prophet is talking about Jesus. When the prophet says “I will give you as a light to the nations,” he is not talking about John’s Jesus, who says, when the people ask him who is the Son of Man who will be lifted up, “The light is with you for a little longer. . . While you have the light believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” That is John’s insightful metaphor, which may be said to claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of the servant song. But in order to fulfill that prophecy, the servant must suffer the consequences of countering the political powers that be.
The portion from 1st Corinthians is apparently pivotal to Christian orthodoxy because it is required reading in all three lectionary years: twice in years B and C and three times in year A: Holy Cross (all three years; September 14); Lent 3 (year B); Tuesday of Holy Week (all three years); and 4 Epiphany (year A). But 1st Corinthians 1:18 cannot be taken at face value: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Taken out of its context, and put together with the other readings understood in the traditional way, this verse is arrogant, exclusive, and – given its association with verse 23b – antisemitic.
Paul’s opening salvo needs to be studied in its whole context, from 1:10 through 2:17. Two points made by Crossan and Reed in In Search of Paul need to be kept in mind. First, Paul’s theology sets the realm/kingdom of God in opposition to the empire of Rome. Second, Paul’s theology contrasts the self-serving normalcy of civilized life with the radical denial of self-interest (kenosis) of those who are committed to the great work of restoring God’s distributive justice-compassion. When these two points are understood, antisemitism disappears, along with Christian spiritual exclusivity and Christian political hegemony.
So, Paul is blasting his friends in Corinth for fighting about which baptism carries the most weight. Paul says he wishes he hadn’t baptized anyone, because Christ did not send him to baptize people but to proclaim the power of the cross of Christ. That power, says Paul, makes no sense to those who are “perishing” by living according to the unjust systems of Roman imperial society. But those who get the point of the crucifixion of Jesus are liberated from injustice, and empowered to join and continue the work. Paul calls for the Corinthians to consider who they were when they joined the group. “Not many of you” were powerful or of noble birth – which implies that some indeed were. But those who were of high rank or social status don’t get to brag about that, and claim power over others in the community. “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord,” Paul says.
21st Century Christian leaders must repudiate the emphasis on Paul’s phrase, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Clearly, this phrase has been used in the service of antisemitism from the beginning of the organized Christian Church. Further, “Gentiles” has often meant non-Christians other than Jews who do not believe the Christian myth. Both interpretations have been and continue to be anachronisms because the phrase has been lifted out of its context. Paul goes on to say that “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In other words, to those who agree to participate in the restoration of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, regardless of who they may be, the crucified Christ symbolizes the power and the wisdom of God’s kenotic action in the world.
Because Paul was a devout Jew, and a Pharisee, he uses Jewish theology to powerful effect. One aspect of Jewish theological tradition is the concept of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is personified as the feminine spirit who was with God from the beginning, who pitched her tents among the people, who calls from the heights beside the way. When Paul says that “Christ [is] the power and the wisdom of God,” he is drawing on ancient and revered Jewish tradition. In 1 Corinthians 2:8, he says “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom . . . But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” “Lay aside immaturity,” Wisdom says, “and live and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:6; see, especially, Proverbs 8).
God’s wisdom is revealed through God’s kenotic, radically self-denying spirit, which was embodied in Jesus. When Jesus died, that same spirit was then extended to those who can accept it. This is craziness to people caught up in the normalcy of social hierarchy and control. It is liberation to those who are able to discern that it is spiritual truth. They (we) “have the mind of Christ” – as we were inspired to do by the readings for Palm Sunday.
What is revolutionary in these readings is not the magic of believing a story about Jesus. What is revolutionary is that the very nature of power as humanity generally understands it is reversed. The servant is the cornerstone. Relinquishing one’s very well-being to the point of death carries more power than any earthly ruler who relies on retributive systems to maintain his or her position. Faith is knowing the truth of that assertion regardless of all evidence to the contrary.
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