One of the more enigmatic terms to describe what happened in the Incarnation is the Greek word kenosis, which is used in an extraordinary way in the hymn of Philippians 2.
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,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Kenosis, translated above as empty, could refer to things that were empty, fruitless, void, or persons who were bereft or destitute, according to the Liddell-Scott lexicon. In Euripides’ play Andromache it is used to describe how one of the heroes of the play was left without any room—no ‘emptiness’ if you will—in which to breathe as armed assailants surrounded him at the altar. (Elsewhere in the New Testament kenosis appears in a different context, where its core sense of emptiness has been extended to the idea of having no effect, so that is of limited aid to us here.)
In the context of the hymn itself, the use of kenosis implies that in assuming our humanity, Christ assumed our emptiness. This is the kind of language that speaks to modern man. But in the context of the hymn it seems, on the surface at least, to have a different meaning. Christ was ‘equal’ with God but then He ‘emptied’ himself.
The next few lines elaborate on what this means. We can discern five elements:
- Christ taking the form of a slave
- coming in human likeness
- being human in appearance
- humbling Himself
- being obedient
- experiencing death on a cross
In one sense, Christ emptied Himself because He was a king who became a servant, subjecting Himself in obedience to the Father (points 1, 4, and 5). But in what sense did his ‘emptying’ consist in assuming human nature (points 2 and 3)? On the surface, this seems contradictory: when we talk about Christ assuming human nature we tend to think of it as a kind of addition. The second person of the Trinity united Himself to human nature. This is not what is suggested by the word emptying.
In her book, Gravity and Grace, Christian philosopher Simone Weil interprets such emptiness in terms of the fallen state of our nature and the world around us. Here is one example she offers:
Those whose city had been destroyed and who were led away into slavery had no longer either past or future: what had they with which to fill their minds? Lies and the meanest and most pitiful of covetous desires. They were perhaps more ready to risk crucifixion for the sake of stealing a chicken than they had formerly been to risk death in battle for the defence of their town. This is surely so, or those frightful tortures would not have been necessary. … Otherwise they had to be able to endure a void in their minds.
Weil also offers the example of forgives. According to Weil, it goes against the grain of human nature, such as it is, for us to forgive someone who has wronged us. Our “desire for essential equilibrium” drives us to seek vengeance. When we refuse to give into this urge we encounter a void of sorts in ourselves—the vacuum left by the desire unfulfilled and the act of revenge which was conceived in the mind but never brought forth into action.
For Weil, then, the ‘void’ refers to the spaces opened up by sin in the world. This is in line with the classical definition of sin as what separates us from our true selves, our neighbors, and from God (I’m relying on this scholar for this definition). In terms of biblical history we could think of the void as the undefined space outside of Eden into which Adam and Eve were cast after their sin.
This void in turn invites the opportunity for further sin. Think especially about addictions to drugs, sex, gambling, or even work. As Weil puts it, “All sins are attempts to fill voids.”
For Weil, the solution is not to fill the void ourselves, which is the path of sin, but to accept the void. How do we do this? For Weil, Christ showed the way by emptying Himself—by taking upon Himself the void of human nature:
‘He emptied himself of his divinity.’ To empty ourselves of the world. To take the form of a slave. To reduce ourselves to the point we occupy in space and time. To nothing. … To strip ourselves of the imaginary royalty of the world. Absolute solitude. Then we possess the truth of the world.
For Weil, then, we imitate Christ by renouncing the world and denying ourselves. Such emptying is necessary, she says, in order to be open to God. Only once we have emptied ourselves can grace fill the void. Or, as she puts it, “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.”
We could say, then, that Christ emptied Himself in order to fill us. Paul himself says this elsewhere in his epistles. For example, in Ephesians 3, Paul says that he prays that Christ “may dwell” in the hearts of his readers so that they might be able to,
comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (verses 18-19).