Christmas is about God becoming one of us in Jesus. We are familiar with John the evangelist’s expression: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), which sums up the mystery of the Incarnation. Paul conveys the same idea of God becoming one of us in Jesus, but we are less familiar with the expression he uses: “He emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of human beings” (Phil 2:7).
John and Paul give two perspectives of one reality. For John, it is “putting on”; for Paul, it is “taking off.” For John, God becomes one of us by “putting on human flesh,” whereas for Paul, it is by “emptying himself of divine glory.” John’s concept is what theologians call the “incarnation.” Paul’s concept instead is known as “kenosis,” from the Greek kenos, meaning “empty.” This concept is beautifully described by the following ancient Christological hymn, which Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)
We usually look at the “incarnation” as one moment in the life of Jesus, and the “redemption” as another separate moment. But in the mind of Paul, kenosis is a single sweeping movement in time which embraces both moments. The self-emptying of Jesus begins with “taking on the form of a slave and being born in the likeness of human beings,” and reaches its climax in his “becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” For Paul, therefore, Christmas and Good Friday are two sides of the same coin. The entire earthly life of Jesus is in fact kenosis, a continual process of emptying himself out.
Paul uses the kenotic hymn not to teach the Philippians any sublime doctrine, but rather to exhort them to assume certain attitudes in relation to one another. He wants to check the Philippians’ tendency to be ambitious, to feel self-important and to compete with one another. He puts forward Jesus Christ as the ultimate model for moral action.
In many ways the hymn can be paralleled to the gospel episode of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet (Jn 13:3-17). Jesus takes off his outer garment and assumes the menial work of a slave, stooping down to bathe the feet of his followers. At the end of this act, he exhorts them, “Do with one another as I have done to you.” Concretely, this is what Paul means when he tells the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). We have to learn to wash one another’s feet, anticipate one another’s needs through humble service, consider each one as better than ourselves. The kenotic hymn gives testimony to Jesus’ teaching about true greatness: “Whoever among you wants to be the greatest must be your servant and whoever wants to the first must be the slave of all” (Mk 10:43f, 9:35; Mt 20:26f; Lk 22:26) For indeed, because of Jesus’ self-emptying “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9).
Excerpted from Glimpses of Paul and His Message
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of St Paul and biblical Greek.