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Kenosis: The Cross and Christian Moral Life



In the first chapter of Genesis we read that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God endowed with preternatural gifts of intellect and free will and a special communion and intimacy with God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them,” (Gen 1:27-28). Through the divine mercy and omnibenevolence of God, humanity is given the grace of this special intimacy in God and through the fault of pride chooses to turn away from that gift and God in original sin, severing that intimacy. During the Easter Vigil, the liturgical celebration in preparation of Christ’s resurrection on Easter, the Exsultet is sung in which the line ‘O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit hanere redemptorem’, or in English, ‘O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer’, illuminates the theology surrounding the fall in original sin. This comes from the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who saw that God works through the occurrence of sin or evil to bring even greater good and redemption. Who is this Redeemer, so great and glorious, and what was done to redeem the original sin, the fall from intimacy with God? Only through the Divine Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God becoming man and then sacrificing himself fully in ultimate surrender could remedy the eternal offense of turning away from God. Think back to Abraham and his son Isaac, in complete uniformity to God’s will Abraham was willing to offer his ‘only begotten son’[1] at God’s word, and in the moment before doing so an angel came to stop Abraham, and “behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his thorns, and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up… The Lord will provide” (Gen 22:13-14). This typology refers to and foreshadows the gift of God’s redemption, as Christ the lamb, the only begotten son of God, scarified himself willingly for the sins of humanity on the cross. The self-emptying of Christ upon the cross enlightens the meaning of Christian suffering and Catholic moral life. Kenosis is the ‘self-emptying’ action in which Christ willingly gave entirely of himself becoming fully receptive in uniformity to God’s will. This self-giving action, done fully of his own will in perfect and complete surrender to the mercy of God is the ultimate call to the moral life of a Catholic.


As we begin our study and exegesis of the impact of the cross on Christian moral life, let’s look at Exodus 15:23 which says: “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; …the people murmured against Moses, saying “what shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.”[2] Here we see the foreshadowing again of the saving quality of the wood that God provided when the Israelites pleaded for his help. Throughout Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church and the saints, the parallel and typology of God’s divine intervention can be seen in sacrifice and wood. This is vitally important in the Christian moral life because it embodies the essence of Christ’s redemptive suffering. It was only through the unblemished sacrifice of Christ that God’s wrath could be satisfied, and it was in Christ’s ‘sinlessness and innocence that made his suffering so keen.’[3] The wood of the cross upon the shoulder of Christ bore the weight of original sin and all sin. “In his suffering and death his humanity became the free and perfect instrument of his dive love which desires the salvation of men” (CCC 609). It was out of the love for his Father and all men that Christ willingly chose to bear the cross and empty himself completely. Christ’s kenosis upon the cross brings not only redemption to the entire world but also the sanctifying ability to change and enlighten the moral life of a Christian on the meaning of suffering and uniformity with God’s will.


It’s important to note as we continue that God’s omnibenevolence and love for man and the world, in offering his only begotten Son as redemptive sacrifice through the innocent suffering of the Word made flesh, is ‘salvific love. Suffering is part of our human history and is caught up with the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection’[4] and illuminates the necessity and call to holiness of uniformity to God’s will through the ever deepening spiritual life within God. We find the ability and example to be fully in uniformity with God’s will by Christ’s example of kenosis upon the cross, in taking up our own crosses and following in the life of Christ. We read in Romans that we ‘rejoice in our sufferings’[5] through our endurance, character, and hope as we grow in charity, that is, love. It is through a gradual process of coming closer to God in this growth and spiritual life that we fall more into uniformity with God’s will and an understanding and desire to participate in Christ’s suffering, ‘this was the goal on which the saints constantly fixed their gaze.’[6] Through the spiritual life in regards to suffering we can learn to embrace and even find joy in suffering, but it begins with the stage of endurance. Endurance in the spiritual life is the childish stage, where suffering is heavily a burden and avoided, while only mildly attempted. Moving beyond endurance, or the beginning stage of spiritual life, we move to character or the adolescent stage, where suffering no longer a terrible trial, but rather more bearable, and allows the person to grow more in love with God and understand and comprehend the trials given them. Only after moving beyond the stages of endurance and character can the spiritual life reach the stage of hope, which illuminates the striving and desire of the saints, where suffering is a joy and a privilege in a deeper and more intimate connection with God as their sufferings bring them into the participation of the life of Christ and in turn bring more clarity to the moral life of a Christian. It is in this willingness to suffer and fully conform to God’s will that we see the essence of the cross coming to fruition in the life of the faithful in the ‘interior freedom and happiness’[7] of a spiritual life deeply rooted in Christ.


Christ’s kenosis upon the cross and his salvific sacrifice embody the true nature of becoming fully human in our own self-emptying and willing suffering as participants in the life of Christ. It is the through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the theological and Cardinal virtues, the habitual nature of our lives in union with the life of Christ that allow humanity to fully feel the weight and effect of the cross, which redeemed the original sin of Adam and Eve, and brought us back into the familial relationship of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, the moral life of Christianity is a call to be sharers in the suffering of Christ and in turn his death on the cross and resurrection. This is the essential and eternal meaning of Christian suffering, that ‘the eloquence of the cross and death is completed by the eloquence of the resurrection, for we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.’[8] The cross is a symbol and realization of the divine love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Christ willingly giving of himself in fullness, the Word become flesh nailed upon a tree in humiliation out of true love. The cross was a ‘strange combination of humiliation and power’[9] that echoed the life of Christ and his kenosis, and foreshadowed the strive of the moral life of a Christian, following in the footsteps of Christ. The self-emptying sacrifice in true surrender and uniformity to God’s will of Christ on Calvary leads the faithful to the pouring out of love from the cross. The cross therefore is the essential journey of the moral life of Christianity, to come to know and love Christ intimately through the desire and joy in sharing in his suffering, that we too might empty ourselves completely and truly surrender in uniformity to God’s will.


Through the virtuously lives of the saints, we can see the cross, the sweet wood at Marah, the wood carried to the place of sacrifice by Isaac, the redemption of the felix culpa, bringing about the true meaning of kenosis and sacrifice in growing more intimately close to Christ, in participating in his life, and ultimately surrendering to the mercy of God. Let us therefore look at the saints, let us look to Mary and John as they knee at the foot of the cross with their eyes fixed upon Christ, become sharers in the suffering of Christ, participants in the life of Christ, empty ourselves in ultimate surrender to God’s will.




Todd Mesler, Jr.





Bibliography

  1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church

  2. The Holy Bible

  3. Liguori, Alfonso Maria De', and Thomas W. Tobin. Uniformity with God's Will from the Italian of St. Alphonsus De Liguori. Print. 5.

  4. Paul, John. On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering = Salvifici Doloris: Apostolic Letter of John Paul II. Boston: Pauline & Media, 1984. Print. 31, vii.

  5. Philippe, Jacques. Interior Freedom. New York: Scepter, 2007. Print. 11.

  6. Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958. Print. 573.

  7. Sheen, Fulton J. Seven Words of Jesus and Mary. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1945. Print. 19.


[1] Genesis 22:13 [2] Exodus 15:23-25 [3] Sheen, Fulton J. Seven Words of Jesus and Mary. New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1945. Print. 19. [4] Paul, John. On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering = Salvifici Doloris: Apostolic Letter of John Paul II. Boston: Pauline & Media, 1984. Print. 31, vii. [5] Romans 5:3 [6] Liguori, Alfonso Maria De', and Thomas W. Tobin. Uniformity with God's Will from the Italian of St. Alphonsus De Liguori. Print. 5. [7] Philippe, Jacques. Interior Freedom. New York: Scepter, 2007. Print. 11. [8] Paul, John. On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering = Salvifici Doloris: Apostolic Letter of John Paul II. Boston: Pauline & Media, 1984. Print. 53. [9] Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958. Print. 573.

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