Holy Week – An Exploration of the Meaning of Kenosis
copyright  2010 by Sea Raven


Throughout Holy Week, the Revised Common Lectionary readings for all three years focus on the Gospel of John, and the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  The readings are carefully selected to show that Jesus is God’s Son, the Anointed One, known and ordained by God from the beginning of time to suffer and die for the sins of humanity, as foretold by the Prophet Isaiah.  The writer of John’s Gospel intensifies his proof that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the eternal Logos, the Word of God known from the beginning of time, and the light of the world.  

Over the next two weeks, this Holy Week series assumes particular answers to the four questions for the apocalypse, which have defined Liberal Christian Commentary for the past 4 years.  

1) What is the nature of God?  Violent or non-violent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’ message?  Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith?  Literal belief, or trust and commitment to the great work of distributive justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance?  Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?

“God” here is non-theistic, and “kenotic.”  Kenosis classically means “emptiness.”  As a Christian term it has been defined as in Philippians 2:6-7: “. . . although [the Anointed] was born in the image of God, [he] did not regard “being like God” as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot. . . . [H]e was born like all human beings  . . .” (Scholars Version, forthcoming from Polebridge Press [October 2010])  In John Dominic Crossan’s words, a kenotic god is “the beating heart of the Universe, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death” (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, Harper SanFrancisco, 2004, pp. 288-291).  In these commentaries, that “god” is the creative force that both contains and is contained by the Universe.  

In answer to the questions, the nature of that force is nonviolent; Jesus’s message is inclusive.  Faith is trust in an inclusive, non-violent universe.  The context for human personal, social, and political life then becomes a Covenant with justice and life, and commitment to the ongoing struggle for liberation from injustice.

Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye.  But the deeper meaning of justice is fair distribution.  “Distributive justice” usually is narrowly defined as the fair distribution of wealth.  But here the meaning is both wider and deeper to include the fair distribution of justice.  Far beyond economics, as the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality, distributive justice shows no partiality for any particular human condition. Human civilizations have not used that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture.  The classic example in the United States is that if you are rich, white, and male your chances of serving jail time for possessing cocaine is an order of magnitude less than if you are poor, black, and female, charged with possessing marijuana.  Occasionally there is a reversal of this pattern, as when an over-zealous North Carolina prosecutor trumped up a case of gang rape of a black stripper against a championship team of white LaCrosse players.  In either case, distributive justice is at work – although in a negative sense.  

The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion.  The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens.  But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities).  Members of societies who are denied access to those powers often become ensnared in activities deemed anti-social or criminal in order to survive.  Distributive justice-compassion would not demand payback or retribution for such activities, but would provide solutions: reeducation, rehabilitation, redress of grievances.

Distributive justice-compassion holds sway in the Covenant relationship with the non-violent, inclusive, kenotic realm or Kingdom of God.  Justice as retribution/pay-back holds sway in the normal march of humanity into civilization.  The short-hand term for the seemingly inevitable systems of injustice that are the result of that march is “Empire.”  

See especially the work of Jesus Seminar scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg for a thorough discussion of these concepts.

The context for the above four questions of the apocalypse is the post-modern era of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Generally, historians speak about time in terms of premodern, modern, and post-modern.  Pre-modern refers to the time before the Enlightenment and Descartes.  The Modern era (post-Enlightenment) lasted for about 350 years.  During that time, God was a separate being or entity, who created the universe, and proclaimed humanity to be the fulfillment of God’s creativity.  The “post-modern” era might be argued to have actually begun with Charles Darwin.  But regardless of the timing, “post-modern” means the time in which humanity began and continues to deal with the nature of the Universe as science has defined it.  “God” as a separate being who intervenes in human life from “heaven” somewhere beyond Antares no longer makes intellectual sense.

This leads to another term that has migrated from post-modern science into post-modern spiritual and religious language.  Cosmology means the science or theory of the universe.  But the term as used by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox in his ground-breaking theology of original blessing goes beyond the scientific. Cosmology for Fox means humanity’s intellectual understanding of the nature of the universe.  “Cosmology” as Fox (and this writer, among others) uses the term can describe the mind-set of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern people, as each of these evolutions of human thought has understood our place in and our relationship to the universe, and God.

If, as John Shelby Spong argues, Christianity is to have any relevance at all to post-modern spirituality, changes in focus and metaphor must be made.  This series of essays for Holy Week calls for a change in paradigm, and points toward a beginning.

Palm Sunday

Holy Monday



Maundy Thursday

Good Friday and Holy Saturday