Several weeks ago I attended a talk about the Incarnation given by Fr. Stephen DeLacy, vocations director in the Philly Archdiocese. He discussed the concept of “kenosis,” (Greek for self-emptying), and ever since I have been seeing the relevance of this word in my life, and its connection to the very life lessons I need to learn. In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he says ‘although Christ was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2:6-7).
Father DeLacy drove the point home with an anecdote from one of his high school classes.
He was teaching the fundamentals of Catholicism to a group of Jewish and Catholic students, trying to get them to understand the similarities and differences between their religions. Front and center in this Catholic classroom was a crucifix, and upon seeing it a Jewish boy raised his hand and said vehemently, “How could you!?”
In other words, how could Catholics dare believe that God would not only become a frail, mortal human, but then also subject himself to be tortured by other men?
To this student, the idea of God “being born in the likeness of men” is scandalous. God is too above us, too other-than-us to become one of us.
Now hold on. This sensitivity that comes from Judaism is not meant to be lost in Catholicism, but fully maintained, Fr. DeLacy explained to us, both high schoolers and young adults, who were of like-minded ignorance despite listening in different times and places. The disparity between the God of the Old and New Testaments has always been a stumbling block for me, but for reasons that only prove my lack of understanding of God.
The power of God portrayed in the OT, along with that which Jesus portrays through his miracles, would be just him showing off if it weren’t for his love and humility—because the true weakness is not in lowering oneself as God did in the Incarnation, but in the inability to bow down to God become man— as was the case for the fallen angels. A third of the angels fell because they preferred leaving heaven over worshiping a God who would become man. To them, the expectation that they would worship a human was an insult to their own magnificence.
Here’s the thing: The humility God showed in the Incarnation, and that the angels show in bowing to God become man, is at the very heart of Christianity. Abandoning self to live a life for God is the true path to joy. This is the secret that the saints knew and put into practice; and is at the center of our faith. In becoming man, God set a precedent for all those who choose to follow him, angels and humans alike: to fill ourselves with true joy we must first have humility, which is in essence the emptying of self: kenosis.
Underneath this paradox is another mystery. Despite how we are inclined to act, life is not about happiness. There is something more powerful than happiness, and that is love.
It’s this very approach that gives me an inadvertent sense of hope, because I have found that happiness is ever-fleeting, and I never expected there to be something to take its place. All of my pursuits of happiness have left me empty-handed or unsatisfied. So, I just figured ‘Oh well. Why bother? All is vanity anyway.’
However, if there is something bigger and better than happiness–something just beyond this life that I have not yet seen, felt, known or otherwise come to understand–then perhaps there is something to hope for.
Joy, happiness, eh. Who needs it? Or, at least, who needs the world’s version of these things?
The kind of joy Christ suggests is the joy acquired through suffering. The lives of the saints are full of examples of sacrificial love. So what was the ultimate end for them? Was their love an end unto itself? Or was it just another means to obtain happiness? For many of the saints, their sacrificial love ended in their martyrdom. I believe it is fair to say that for them, to die for the one they loved, or to die for the sake of love, was something more… the joy they had in doing it was merely a positive side-effect.
The story of the Incarnation has at least two paradoxes: God becoming man, and the Virgin having a child. And the lesson I learn from it is also a paradox: If the ultimate end and purpose in life is relationship with God, then the greatest lesson of life is found in the embrace of two things that seem directly opposed to each other: love and suffering. Because it is through uniting our suffering with Christ that we draw closer to God.
Our culture tells us that once we find the right person and fall in love, they will help fulfill our pursuit of personal happiness. It tells us having many friends and family members who love us will bring us true joy. While there is profound truth to those messages, it is a great poverty that suffering is not included in this equation. Think how many would, and do, shy away from marriage, when it’s followed by the caveat, “There will be suffering.” Hardly ever is it taught to our millennial generation, that suffering is not a hindrance to happiness but a means to it—just as humility is a means to self-fulfillment.
Ultimate happiness is found not in surrounding myself with loved ones, but in surrendering to God and self-sacrificing for those I love. This is not the world’s idea of happiness, and in fact no pursuer of self-fulfilling happiness will ever give it consideration. Yet, those who follow and understand their own heart have found it to be true.