Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.
John 18:1-19:37; Isaiah 52:13-53:12
John’s detailed story of the arrest, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus is intricately interwoven with the third Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. John is especially interested in showing that Jesus died in fulfillment of scripture. Two millennia of tradition, visual art, musical art, and film confirm the basic belief of all Christianity. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . he was wounded for our transgressions . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” There isn’t a choir member on the Planet who has not sung these choruses from Handel’s great Messiah.
As should be evident from this past week of commentary, this Christology cannot be reclaimed; it must be replaced. Neither guilt nor self-loathing are emotions that empower people to love others, or spur people to take action with justice as radical fairness, or to give up systems that demand retribution and payback. Jesus was not executed by the representatives of the Roman Empire because God needed a scapegoat to carry away the sins of the world. Jesus was executed because the way of life that he taught challenged and contradicted the conventional order. Jesus’s Way overturns the normal systems of piety, war, and victory, and restores God’s Covenant: non-violence, distributive justice, and true peace.
The question for 21st Century Christians is not whether you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, but whether your Jesus – your Christ – your Lord – your God – is violent, demanding retributive justice, or non-violent, expecting and desiring distributive justice-compassion. The choice we make regarding the nature of our God determines the quality of life for all sentient beings on the Planet. The non-violent, non-interventionist, kenotic God, without ego, without being, is the context within which and from which the earth and all its creatures realize wholeness. The crucifixion and death of Jesus – indeed the violent death of anyone working for the cause of justice-compassion – signals the absence of that kenotic god whose presence is justice and life.
Kenosis, in this series of essays, means the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion. When we make that choice, as John’s Jesus showed and taught us, we suffer because that choice can mean going against family, friends, church, society, government. What is most difficult to deal with is that seldom do we see any confirmation that our choice has made any difference. The versions of Jesus’s death in Mark and Matthew graphically describe Jesus’s certainty that he had been abandoned by God. If injustice and death indicate the absence of the kenotic god, then Jesus was not only betrayed and abandoned by his friends; he was indeed betrayed and abandoned by his God.
John 19:38-42; Job 14:1-14
"As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep . . . If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come." So the writer of Job – taken out of the context the writer intended – plunges us into the stark reality of the death of the Servant, who dies in the service of God’s justice, and waits for God’s vindication. Holy Saturday is the via negativa: the journey into darkness, despair, hopelessness, death. (See Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Bear & Co., Santa Fe, 1983).)
The developers of the Revised Common Lectionary, of course, have cherry-picked the passages from Job, ending with the Servant’s anticipated release. If the entire chapter is read, the mourning for loss is profound: If my release should come, the servant Job says, “[God] would call, and I would answer; [God] would long for the work of [God’s] hands. . . [God] would not keep watch over my sin . . . But the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place . . . so you [God] destroy the hope of mortals . . . their children come to honor and they do not know it; they are brought low, and it goes unnoticed. . . .” By stopping with verse 14, the possibility is left open for the theological argument about how Jesus descended into Hell to release the souls of the martyrs. But as far as Jesus’ community of followers was concerned, as of the Sabbath, the powers and principalities had won. It is important to realize how possible such an outcome is in the 21st Century.
The powers and principalities, the normalcy of civilization, the seemingly inevitable domination of empire and systems of retribution have brought us to the brink of human if not planetary extinction. To quote Borg and Crossan yet again, “ . . . we can do it already in about five different ways – atomically, biologically, chemically, demographically, ecologically – and we are only up to e” (p. 171). Politically, the United States is the first among equals of violent empire, following the drumbeat of military and economic power in pursuit of world domination. U.S. foreign, domestic, and economic policies are grounded in violent ideology that is deaf to reality, even provable, measurable, physical realities such as global warming, mortal poverty, and ignorance. We should sit in dust and ashes for a moment, and not skip blithely into Easter’s happy ending. Without experiencing via negativa, without traveling to the middle of the labyrinth, past the demons, we can never arrive at the fire at the center where the creative response is generated, and the key to the way out into transformation is found.
Without death, there is no life. This is the law of the Universe.
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