The Year of Saint Paul:
A 20-Part Series - Part 8: Have a "Kenotic" Christmas
Search though we may, we will never find in the letters of Saint Paul any heartwarming description of that first Christmas night. We look in vain for images of a star-lit winter's night through which a young couple traveled toward Bethlehem. We do not meet the unaccommodating innkeeper. We neither hear the angels nor see the shepherds approaching the manger to see the Babe in swaddling clothes. We do not meet the mysterious kings who came from afar.
Nowhere does Saint Paul paint an image of the Virgin Mother and her husband, Joseph, caring for the newborn Son, the Prince of Peace, the long-desired of the ages. He simply says, "...when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption." Paul adds, "As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God" (Galatians 4:4-7).
At this point, you might be tempted to imagine Saint Paul's saying to us, "Have a merry, theoretical Christmas!" It seems as if Saint Paul's words are far removed from the warmth and humanity that we associate with the birth of Jesus.
But let's not sell Saint Paul short, especially in this Year of Saint Paul! What he is doing in Galatians and in the other passages we are about to consider is helping us see the truth and beauty that lay behind the Christmas scene which the Evangelists Matthew and Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have depicted in their Gospels.
To demonstrate this point, we can reflect on the foregoing passage from Galatians together with what is known as the "kenotic" hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. It is called "kenotic" after the Greek word "to empty."
In this passage, Saint Paul exalts the Son of God who "emptied" Himself, who "took the condition of a slave" by assuming our humanity and dying on the Cross - all for the sake of our salvation. We will refer also to a few other passages along the way so, as I have suggested in past columns, you may want to have your New Testament at the ready.
Returning for a moment to Galatians 4:4-7: first we notice that it deals with an event in human history. The Incarnation is not a myth but, rather, God's breaking into human history by becoming one of us. That is why Saint Paul in Galatians speaks of the Lord's birth as taking place "in the fullness of time." In the last installment of this series, we focused on God's mysterious plan for the salvation of the world. Saint Paul's phrase in Galatians, "the fullness of time" can be understood in reference to that plan which unfolded in human history.
The birth of the Savior took place in "God's good time," the time determined in the hidden counsels of God for the Son to reveal the Father in human history. Conversely, from the human point of view, the birth of Jesus took place at the juncture of history marked by a faithful remnant that longed intensely for the Messiah. As we are about to see, however, God visited His people and fulfilled the promise He had made to Abraham and his descendents in a manner that far exceeded all expectations (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 422).
For in our passage from Galatians, Paul goes on simply to say, "God sent His Son." Here Saint Paul wants to tell us that God the Father took the initiative in sending us His Son. He is giving of Himself to us. This means that the Son whom the Father sent existed before human history began, indeed from all eternity. This is referred to as the "pre-existence" of Christ.
We can see this truth even more clearly in other passages from Saint Paul. For example, in Romans 8:3, we read: "God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering." In 1 Corinthians 8:6 we read that "...there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we live; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made and through whom we live." We can also cite Colossians 1:15: "[The beloved Son] is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creatures. In Him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible."
We can hear the strong and mighty echoes of these early professions of faith, re-affirmed when on Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed and profess our faith in "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father."
We can further enrich our reflections on this passage from Galatians by turning now to Philippians 2:6-11. Here we read, "Though [Christ] was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at." Saint Augustine tells us that the phrase "the form of God" does not imply that Christ was an inferior semblance of God: "He was not in any way unequal to the Father. He was not in any respect inferior" (On Faith and the Creed, no. 5).
This interpretation fits well with other passages from Paul which speak of Christ's preexistence. And it is important for us to reflect on this – not merely as a cold and abstract point of doctrine – but rather in a prayerful effort to take in something of the magnitude of the gift. The Father sent His Son and Christ the Son, for His part, did not cling to His equality with the Father but rather emptied Himself for us in loving obedience.
As noted earlier, this whole passage in Philippians is called "the kenotic" hymn which refers to the Greek word for "emptied" (ékčnosen). We should also reflect prayerfully on what it means to say that God's Son "emptied Himself" and "took the condition of a slave." Here, Saint Paul does not mean to say that the Son of God jettisoned His divinity when He became man. Rather, His glory as God was hidden within our human nature. As the 4th century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, comments: "This occurred not by a loss of his power and nature but by an assumption of a new condition" (On the Trinity, 9.38)
If you would, let's now switch back to our passage from Galatians and read the next phrase. Here, we read that God's Son was "born of a woman, under the law." This is the only reference that Saint Paul makes to Mary and it is an indirect reference. While Paul does not dwell on Mary, his teaching on Christ has enabled the Church through the centuries to understand Mary's role and her privileges in salvation history more profoundly.
In the passage we are studying, Saint Paul teaches us that Jesus' humanity was not merely an appearance. He truly became man. Likewise, in the parallel passage from Philippians, Saint Paul tells us that Christ "emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found in human appearance" (Philippians 2:7). By this Saint Paul does not mean to say that Jesus only appeared to man but, in fact, was fully human. As the second-third century author, Tertullian, commented, "...in this case, figure, likeness, and form all point to the reality of his humanity. He is truly God, as the Son of the Father, in his figure and image. He is truly man, as the Son of man, found in the figure and image of man." (Against Marcion, 5.20)
The point to take away is this: we won't appreciate the Father's gift of His Son if we deny or downplay either His Son's divinity or His humanity. Christ is truly "the Son of God and the Son of Mary." We won't really appreciate how, in accord with the Father's saving will, the Son "humbled himself." Saint John Chrysostom put it this way: "The measure of [Christ's] sublimity corresponds with the depth of His humility" (Homily on Philippians, 8.11).
Jesus' humanity was not merely an appearance. He truly became man.– Saint Paul
In Galatians, Saint Paul indicates that Christ assumed our human condition by being born "under the law." This is used to indicate human servitude. We were not really free to embrace the truth and beauty of what the law taught because of our enslavement to sin.
In Philippians, Paul is more explicit. He speaks of Christ as being born in "the form of a slave." This spells out more clearly the wondrous fact that Christ assumed our human condition. To quote Saint John Chrysostom once again, "With few exceptions, [Christ] had all our common human properties. The exceptions: He was not born from sexual intercourse. He committed no sin..."
Indeed, these "exceptions" show us the transformation which Christ came to bring about in us through the redemption.
A final point to note is the obedience of Christ, His oneness with the Father's saving will, His utter and complete cooperation with the Father's plan of redemption. In Galatians, Paul speaks about Christ as coming to deliver us from servitude to the law. In Philippians, Paul tells us that Christ "humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, death on a cross."
All of this gives us a privileged window into the inner life of the Trinity wherein the Father gives Himself wholly to the Son and Son reflects perfectly the Father's love in the power of the Holy Spirit.
God's inward life is a life of humble self-giving. The Incarnation is not an exception to the rule of how God is but, rather, the revelation of how God is! It also reveals to us how we should become. An index of this is found in the Beatitudes which reveal for us the heart of God in Christ: the God of Jesus Christ is poor in spirit, meek, pure of heart, hungering for our holiness, the giver of peace, and persecuted in those who suffer for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Acts 9:4).
When we have in us "the mind of Christ" (Philippians 2:5), then we will finally embrace the law of God not as a matter of servitude but as it truly is, the law of love, the graced expression of that dignity shared by those called to adoption as the Father's beloved sons and daughters.
All of this should be consoling to us, particularly in this Christmas season when so many people find themselves in difficult circumstances. We think of those who have lost their jobs and others who find themselves financially stretched and even imperiled. We find these uncertain times unsettling, even frightening.
Perhaps it is against this backdrop that we appreciate more deeply the utterly generous, the true, and the lasting gift that the Father gave us and all humanity on that first Christmas night. He didn't give from His surplus; He gave us His Son, all that He had. In a sense, it could be said that not only the Son but, indeed, the Father "emptied" Himself, by giving us His beloved, only begotten Son.
So as you sing Christmas carols and look upon beautiful Nativity scenes and take part in the liturgy of Christmas, listen for these words:
"In the wonder of the Incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In Him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see" (1st Christmas Preface).
With the teaching of Saint Paul before our eyes, Scriptural accounts of the first Christmas and the Liturgy itself will overflow with truth, joy, beauty, and good cheer!
May you and your loved ones have a truly blessed Christmas!