God Emptied? Why the Manger Matters

I think it’s perhaps the cuteness of Jesus that people walk away from. This is understandable, particularly at Christmas. The baby Jesus in the manger with all the animals–it’s all so adorable, and gets lumped in with the rest of the cuteness of the season. What, though, is the substance of the birth of Jesus? If one is to walk away, it should be from that, not from the starry night version that pairs so well with holly and Frosty.

For me, the substance comes down to one Greek word: kenosis. The word comes from any early Christian hymn, a Christmas carol of sorts, that a church planter named Paul quoted in a letter he wrote to a house church in the city of Philippi. The hymn begins like this:

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied [kenosis] himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2. 6-7, ESV).

The beauty of this word is its weightiness, or–better–the weight it can carry. Here we have the substance of a Christmas theology in seven Greek (and English) letters; the baby Jesus may still be cute, but if this one verb be true, he is so much more.

What, though, does it mean? Ahhhh, well. A word which can truck such theological freight has of course begotten a great theological debate, er, conversation. What, exactly, gets emptied? Is God divesting hiimagesmself of God’s “God-ness” in the birth of Jesus? Is he limiting himself in some way? If so, how? What divine attributes does Jesus not have, being “born in the likeness” of humanity?

Such were the questions asked of this one word from the time of the Reformation until about half way through the last century. Then, the conversation shifted, based primarily on the work of the two theological giants of the twentieth century: Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both of these theologians, one Protestant and one Catholic, saw that kenosis is about not only what God does; it is about who God is. (Other contemporary theologians are now building on this understanding of kenosis, including, notably, Alan Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Thomas Jay Oord).

This changes the substance of the manger. The birth of Jesus, God’s becoming human, is not a limiting of God; God is not holding back a bit of God’s God-ness so as to be human for a while. This is because God’s God-ness is not, principally, about being all powerful or about being everywhere at the same time. God is, inherently, kenotic: self-giving love. When God empties himself by becoming human he is not emptying himself of what it means to be God but is instead enacting this divine essence within the broken reality of his creation. God pours out, or empties, his essence into this babe in the manger because God has always been pouring out identity. This is what the Christian tradition names as the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit conferring identity on one another, giving to one another, pouring self into one another.

Ahrg. I just lapsed into that theologian thing, grasping at mystery through a bunch of words. Small matter, because we know the truth of kenosis implicitly. To be human is to be kenotic, to give ourselves in relation to others. Every aspect of my identity can be defined in this way. I am a father by giving myself to my children, a husband by giving myself to my wife, a friend by pouring myself into others. And, it must be said, in this giving I am not giving myself away. That is, in this kind of kenotic love I am finding myself, not losing myself. The kenotic image of God that I bear as a human being enables a strange pouring out that somehow produces abundance, an emptying that somehow never leads to being empty.

And so, does it not make theo-logical sense that when all of this goes awry–meaning, humanity as the image-bearers of the kenotic God failing to live up to this image–that God would step into the world as God, that God would not leave behind who God is but instead would enact this very essence in our broken world? So says theologian-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.

God is beauty; this beauty is God’s self-giving, and it is this beauty that the Giver gives. This is not cute; it is necessary. The form of God, God’s beauty, is a self-giving love that has been from eternity. God has imposed this form onto the form of the world; this imposition of beauty onto brokenness carries a total commitment from God. The totality that God incarnates ranges from the cute to the corrupt; God inhabits and lives through the full reality of human existence, which is why Jesus is born as a human, lives as a human, and dies as a human. God pours himself into all of the tragic, meaningless, and evil exigencies of human life, living through them as God, the God who is kenotic love. Because of the abundance that this giving engenders, God overcomes brokenness, including the brokenness of death. Jesus is raised from the dead not so as to provide a happy ending, but because this is the only ending that could have come from God’s enacting of beauty amidst brokenness, a drama that begins in a manger and ends with an empty tomb.

And so, can we really walk away from this manger? Can we do other than adore this baby, this God swaddled not only in cloth but also in this darkened world? This swaddled baby is God emptied, God’s giving of God’s very self, God’s kenosis. Oh, might we bend the knees of our hearts? Oh come, let us adore him! Christ the Lord!

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  1. Thank you Jeff. Very helpful words to me

  2. Michael Hansen says

    This is a good meaty word for a finished first semester seminarian who just learned about the early ecumenical councils of the Church!

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