”He emptied himself” (v7)
These six verses known as the Kenotic Hymn contain some of the most profound theology ever written, alongside the prologue of the Gospel of John.
Both are philosophical examinations of the nature of Christ, both speak of the pre-existence of Christ and the wonder of his incarnation.
Kenosis (ekenosen) is the Greek word which means he “emptied himself” and is the centrepiece of this passage. It is described as a hymn, and is thought by many not to be originally by Paul. It is certainly more poetic than much of his writing, and in context appears to be a quotation – in the form of a common reference, so Paul cites something in common knowledge amongst the Christian communities, communities which at that time did not have the benefit of Scripture.
At the beginning of the passage is the recognition of Christ’s position within the Godhead, and his willing abrogation of that position for the lowliness of humanity. The Orthodox Church with which I have much affinity places much emphasis on the incarnation, the awe-inspiring thought that Almighty God should choose to come alongside us, and be treated not only like us, but be treated worse than most of us and be put to the death of a criminal.
In the Garden of Gethsememe, Christ said that if he wanted, angels could have come and defended him, but he chose not to let that happen, he chose to allow human events to carry him to the place of the skull. The true showing of power is in not exercising it.
Kenosis, or pouring out, is a self-initiated activity; although Christ’s Passion was inflicted upon him, his kenosis can only come from himself. Nothing could force it out of him, only by his choice. The hymn says that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross”, as an act of choice, not of compulsion.
The Passion that we have just heard is not therefore a tale of injustice, of a helpless victim or a scapegoat, but is the prelude to a far greater story: the victory over sin and death whose denoument is the resurrection itself. What Christ endured would have been intolerable for us as mere humans to bear, the Mel Gibson film, the Passion of the Christ is a testament to that; but was willingly undertaken for our sins. At the climax of the Gospel of John, Christ declares “It is Accomplished” – his heavy task is complete, and it is a task that only one who is in the form of God could accomplish for our sins.