The final weeks of a woman’s pregnancy are an intense time of longing. Her discomfort is at its peak, and she just wants to meet her child. She knows that the only way to hold her baby, though, is to pass through the suffering of labor and delivery.
This is the invitation that is placed before us this Advent, at the conclusion of the year 2020. We are invited into that experience of longing and anticipation, while also embracing suffering in love.
The Divine Kenosis
We have all heard the passage from Philippians many times before,
“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself…”
Since this reading is one of the ones read during Holy Week, we sometimes forget its connection to Christmas and the divine kenosis. The term “kenosis” refers to the fact that the Son of God, while remaining fully divine, took on human nature. He became human, accepting the sufferings and inconveniences of the human condition, although he could have remained free of that entanglement. The only reason that God became flesh was because of love. There is no comparable example of this kind of emptying of self.
The cross is the sacrifice and suffering that we point to most frequently. But just as real was the loving sacrifice of God Incarnate having to be potty trained, hungry, skin his knees, be cold and tired, and to remain in this state for over three decades. Conforming our hearts to his is not just about the big sacrifices and sufferings – it is especially about the little ones. He did not have to suffer for us in these little ways. He could have remained removed from us. Yet, his love for us was so great that he gladly suffered for us – even in little ways.
The Incarnation and the Parables
Time and time again, Jesus tried to convey the absolute, “over the top” love of God for his people. A parable that I have been praying with recently, is that of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to go and find the one.
There is nothing logical or pragmatic about the actions of the shepherd in this parable. His absence was surely an inconvenience to the ninety-nine happy, healthy sheep. Why should they have to suffer, just because one sheep had gone astray? It is absurd.
And yet…love is absurd. Lovers are absurd in their devotion to each other. Parents are absurd in their doting affection for their children. Love is not logical or pragmatic. It simply, freely gives. It sacrifices. It does it without counting the cost.
In reflecting on that parable, I would imagine that there are two ways that the other ninety-nine sheep could have responded. They could have been frustrated with their shepherd, who was inconveniencing so many of them, just to save one, lousy sheep. Likely, there was something slightly defective or weak about that one lost sheep, because healthy, thriving sheep do not wander away from their shepherd. They were healthy. They were happy. So, what if 1% of the sheep were lost? If the shepherd wandered off to find that 1%, 99% would be inconvenienced and suffer in lesser ways.
But there is the alternative route for the ninety-nine sheep. If those sheep’s heart were perfectly conformed to the heart of their shepherd, they would accept his actions with trust and share in his joy that the lost sheep was saved. The sacrifice would have been worth it.
During this particular Advent season, how can we conform our hearts to the hearts of the Good Shepherd?
The Pandemic as an Invitation to Kenosis
No matter what precautions or changes you undertook, you were unlikely to escape the suffering of this year.
I am young and healthy. My husband is young and healthy. Our children are young and healthy. None of us is at a high risk for serious complications from covid-19. We are not afraid for ourselves, our own well-being, or afraid of our own deaths (at least, not more than is normal).
Yet, we find ourselves being asked to stay at home as much as possible, significantly limit our close contacts, wear masks, wash our hands, social distance, etc. I know that people around the world find themselves in a similar situation. It definitely has taken a toll on my mental health. Masks make breathing feel harder, especially in anxious moments. Hand sanitizer smells bad and is inconvenient at times. I miss our friends and family, and sometimes I just want a hug.
I have the feeling that everyone feels the same.
Regardless of what you may think the best or worst approaches are to the pandemic, most of us are not policy makers or public health experts—we can only do what we can. Most of us find ourselves being handed a heavy cross that we do not want to have to bear, and that we did not choose.
And, especially for those of us who are not in a high-risk category for covid-19, it can be very tempting to not want to have to sacrifice so much for those who are at high risk. It is easy to feel resentment that we are being asked to give up so much, without any personal gain.
But there is another way of looking at this. It is an invitation to conform our hearts more closely to the heart of Christ. Normally, if I am lonely, I can easily go out and see friends. But, even in the best of times, elderly people often suffer from being lonely and forgotten. Typically, I do not have to worry about whether or not I get sick, and I do not need to frequently sanitize my hands or wear a mask in public. But for those suffering from serious conditions that compromise their immune systems, none of those things are new.
I can fight against these sufferings and sacrifices that are being offered to me – or I can embrace them as an opportunity to offer them up for those who always have to make them. When it comes to embracing the cross and conforming our hearts to Christ’s – we only have this life to do that. Nestled in that invitation to suffering is an opportunity to draw so near to the suffering Christ that we can embrace him on the cross. We can love him and experience union with him in a way that is only possible in suffering.
What I fear that I, personally, too often forget during this pandemic is that this is an invitation to suffer with Christ, especially for the sake of those who are often forgotten. To Jesus, those who are elderly, with pre-existing conditions, with genetic predispositions that raise their risk level are beloved and worth suffering for. They are the one. What if those of us among the ninety-nine offered up our own unwanted suffering and sacrifices to Christ, asking him to unite them with his own cross? Can you imagine the magnitude of that on a spiritual level? And can you imagine what a consolation that would be to the heart of Christ?
If we can accept the invitation to suffer in love, then we can experience a gift – the gift of glimpsing the power of a love that suffers for the sake of others. It is not the way of the world. It is the way of divine love.