Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19;
John 13:1-17; 31b-35; 1st Cor. 11:23-26
Holy Week began with Jesus’s demonstration countering the pomp and
circumstance of imperial force; Monday was a foreshadowing of the
consequences of taking such a stance against the powers and
principalities of normal human systems, as Mary anoints Jesus,
preparing his body in advance for death. Tuesday provided the
theological context. God’s wisdom raises the slave above all
others who would pretend to be the rulers of the universe.
Wednesday suggested Jesus as the model of that kenotic Servant. This is not
a power-over others, but a power-with the seamless matrix of Being in
the Universe. On Thursday those who would follow that model
receive the mandate.
When the Church conflates John’s pre-Passover footwashing with the
imagery of the Paschal Lamb and the stories of the “last supper” in the
synoptic gospels, the result is a mixed metaphor: Forgiveness of “sin”
is confused with deliverance from injustice, and the radically
inclusive equality of the Kingdom of God is lost.
In John’s version of Jesus’ story, Jesus “loved his own, who were in
the world, [and] he loved them to the end.” As a demonstration of
that self-less love, Jesus takes off his outer robe, wraps a towel
around himself, and proceeds to wash his disciples’ feet and dry them
with the towel. In the normal course, as the master teacher,
Jesus would be justified in expecting that his disciples wash his
feet. But Jesus never does what would be expected in the normal
course. His kenotic action
is a demonstration of how his followers are to treat one another.
After he has washed their feet he says, “I have set you an example that
you also should do as I have done to you . . . I tell you, servants are
not greater than their masters, nor are messengers greater than the one
who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you
do them.” In other words, John’s Jesus says, if you understand
the conventional social arrangement (servants are not greater than
their masters), Congratulations. But look at what I have just
done. The master has become the servant; the order of normal
human interaction is reversed. When Peter objects, Jesus says,
“Unless I wash you, you have no share [i.e.,
nothing in common] with me.” Taken at face value, these words
seem contradictory or exclusionary; instead, they illustrate the
profound equality of power in the Kingdom of God.
The inclusion of Exodus 12:1-14 in the list of readings for Maundy
Thursday seems to confirm John’s theology that Jesus is the new Paschal
Lamb. Twice John refers to the day and time of Jesus's death
being the "day of preparation" for the Passover, when the
Passover lambs were ritually slaughtered in the temple (see John 19:14; 19:31). But
the synoptic tradition does not make that connection. The blood
of the Paschal Lamb was smeared above the doors of the ancient Hebrews
enslaved in Egypt, so that God’s angel of death would pass over
them. The Paschal Lamb is a symbol of deliverance, both from
God’s judgment for injustice, and from the people’s enemies. It
is not a symbol of forgiveness of sin. As John’s high priest
Caiphas says (albeit without a clue what he was saying at the time), “.
. . it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to
have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50-52) Jesus is
the willing sacrifice – the one who willingly chooses to give up his
life in the process of restoring God’s justice-compassion to God’s
world. Borg and Crossan say it best:
"Recall, however, the
challenge of Jesus in [Mark] 8:34-35: “. . . those who want to save
their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake . .
. will save it.” Recall also [that] . . . Peter wanted no part of
that fate, the Twelve debated their relative worth, and James and John
wanted first seats afterward. But Jesus had explained to them
quite clearly that his and their life was a flat contradiction to the
normalcy of civilization’s domination systems. In other words it
was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his
followers were to pass through death to resurrection, from the
domination life of human normalcy to the servant life of human
The Last Week, pp. 119-120.
There is no “institution of the Lord’s Supper” in John, and so the Revised Common
Lectionary offers what is thought to be the original from
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s Jesus declares,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as
you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Paul explains, “for as often as
you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death
until he comes.” But these words have become identified with
substitutionary atonement and apocalyptic second-coming imagery.
The Eucharist has become the commemoration of Jesus’s betrayal and
death, and the confession of sin as complicity on the part of his
followers (then and now) in that action. The celebrant proclaims
“The blood of the new covenant poured out . . . for the forgiveness of
sins.” But that is not what Paul intended.
The purpose of the shared meal that became the defining ritual of early
Christianity was to renew the Covenant with God for radical,
distributive justice, and to pledge to keep the Covenant until the
Christ would come again. Like the foot-washing ritual in John’s
story, the usual social order was reversed. Instead of a public
sacrifice and banquet intended to maintain the proper relationships
between the social elements of clients and patrons, extending to the
emperor and ultimately to the gods (and to the god Cesar), the bread
and cup were a symbol of the absence of hierarchy among the members of
the communities founded by Paul (the body of Christ). In the
Corinthians passage, which is of course lifted out of context, Paul
explains that if the ritual meal maintains the usual social hierarchy,
then it is not “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:17-22).
The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae ritual, whether it includes footwashing,
or simply the re-enactment of Jesus’ last supper, sends us out of the
church in silence and darkness to contemplate our complicity in Judas’
betrayal. The betrayal is understood to be the sin that Jesus
forgives. But traditional commemorations of the last night Jesus
spent with his disciples risk empty if not dangerous piety. Piety
is empty when it relies on the certainty of forgiveness without
accountability and unaccompanied by transformation; piety is dangerous
when it is aligned with imperial injustice.
Followers of Jesus’s Way are complicit with Judas, not because of
personal wrongdoing, or some kind of “original sin” dating back to Adam
and Eve, and certainly not because of vicarious responsibility for
Jesus’s death. Followers of Jesus’s way are complicit with Judas
because it is so much easier to settle for survival. If we try to
organize a union where we work in our local grocery store chain, we
will be fired. If we preach a 21st Century faith, based on
scholarship and the realities of 21st Century life, we will be ignored
at best or fired and defrocked. If we defend terrorists, our
homes may be fire-bombed. If we come out as gay, lesbian,
bi-sexual, transgendered humans, we will be drummed out of the
military. If we provide legal abortions to poor women, we risk
It gets worse. Whether we claim to be followers of Jesus’s Way or
not, if we invest our money in the companies that give us the best
return, we will be supporting companies that exploit workers,
intimidate whistle-blowers, and disrupt the balance of the Earth’s
eco-systems. If we move to the country to escape the stress of
the city, we end up with a much less sustainable life-style, unless we
grow our own food. The “interdependent web of which we are a
part,” celebrated by Unitarian Universalists, is nearly totally
compromised by the normalcy of human social systems.
Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, may be a time of profound ritual
of remembrance but what is more important is that it is a time for
recommitment to the great work of distributive justice-compassion, in
the face of the overwhelming strength of conventional, normal, social
and political systems. Maundy Thursday, when the mandate to love
one another as Jesus loved his disciples is powerfully demonstrated by
Jesus, is actually the heart of Holy Week. The execution of Jesus
at the hands of Rome is not the point. The belief in the
resurrection of Jesus as a verifiable fact is also not the point, no
matter how many reinterpretations of the metaphor of the empty
tomb. The point is kenosis:
the radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of
distributive justice-compassion, with the expectation that living such
a life leads to death on a cross, and the willingness to take that
On the last night with his disciples, as they lounged at
their dinner, Jesus decided to try one last time to make them really
understand what he was doing, and what it really meant to follow him.
picked up a loaf of bread, and spoke into the hubbub of their
conversation: Listen! – he said – This bread is like God’s justice in
this world. Then he tore the loaf into two pieces. This is
God’s justice in the hands of the Romans and the Temple authorities who
collaborate with them. Believe me, one of you is going to turn me
in to them soon. If not tonight, then as soon as the Passover is
finished. Whenever you eat together after this night,
remember that, and remember me.
Then Jesus picked up the jug of wine.
This wine is also like the Kingdom of God – it is the blood of
the paschal lamb, painted on the lintels and doorposts of our people as
a sign that they belong to God and not to Pharoah’s Empire. But
now the collaborators have made this wine into a corruption – a
libation poured out in honor of the Empire of Rome. – a repudiation of
God’s protection and deliverance.
And he poured the wine into a cup and held it
up to them.
said, “Let the one who has chosen this cup take his possessions and do
what he must.” And he dumped the contents into a bowl for
Several of the company began to leave quietly,
and he let them go. Then he poured a second cup of wine and said,
“But this cup that I drink is a new cup. It is a libation of my
blood poured out for justice for all those who chose to share it.
Drink it. All of you who are willing to commit to establish God’s
justice-compassion, and remember.
passed the cup to them, and they passed it among themselves as a
pledge. And while they were doing this, one of the women –
perhaps it was Mary of Magdala – the one who Jesus loved – left the
room and returned with a tiny jar of essential oil of lavender.
And she came up to Jesus’ couch and said, “You will die for what you
have done this week – perhaps tonight – and I know I will never have
the chance to prepare your body for burial. If they take you,
there will be nothing left.”
Then she broke open the vial and anointed his face and
hands. And he took it from her and went to the one next to him
and said, “She has done what she could. She has prepared my body
for death. Do the same for one another in remembrance of
her.” And he anointed that one, and that one went to the next
until all in the company had been so ordained.
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