Poverty and Kenosis

The Kenotic Decision of the Son and the Filial Obedience of the Christian

Jean-Pierre Batut

“Christ in his kenosis is not simply an example to follow; he is the Son, whose filial attitude is given through communion with those who believe in him.”

Kenosis means a self-emptying, an abandonment by an individual of his own substance. This idea is not specific to the New Testament: we find it already in a text of Deutero-Isaiah that played a central role in early Christian preaching, the fourth song of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13–53:12). When Jesus opened the scriptures for the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24:13–33), we do not know which passages he referred to for his demonstration, but there is a good chance that he linked the experience of the Cross, which was crushing to the disciples’ faith, with the tribulations of the Servant. This likelihood becomes certainty when we turn to an episode that is, in many ways, the ecclesial transposition of Emmaus: Acts 8:26–39.

In this well-known text, Philip meets Queen Candace’s eunuch on the road to Gaza, while the latter is sitting in his chariot reading the fourth song of the Suffering Servant: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32–33; cf. Is 53:7–8). It is remarkable that these verses of the fourth song are among those that insist most on the apparent total passivity of the Servant. The word “passion” connotes passivity, and in fact the Servant seems in no way to be an actor in what happens to him. In this respect, the eunuch’s question to Philip—“About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34)—is somewhat incongruous. How could someone prophesy about his own intention to enter into total passivity? Unless, of course, he were to prophesy about a disaster that would inevitably befall him, in which he would be unable to play any other role than to submit to it.