At the beginning of the year I was moved by Jesus’ Kenosis, his self-emptying of his divine privilege, to become human:
“Though he was in the form of God,
[Jesus] 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.” (Phil 2: 6-8)
Jesus, the second person of the Triune God, chose to empty himself of his power, his will, his security, his appearance, and his life, in order to take on our humanity. What an act of humility! Rather than being called king and worshipped by angels, he was born into poverty, disrespected by many, and executed an innocent man. What an act of trust! Instead of being able to rely on his own authority or ability, Jesus left himself at the mercy of his Father, and remained obedient to the end. What an act of love! John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
Jesus’ self-emptying is the perfect act that Francis spent his entire life attempting to imitate. It is the reason that our Order is called the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” and why poverty is so crucial to our charism. Our lives are an act of emptying anything and everything that could leave us feeling self-reliant, in control of our own fate, proud, or above others, in order that we may be totally reliant on God’s love and mercy.
Moved by this, I decided to make an inventory of absolutely everything that I could claim as my own. If I were to follow the example of our Lord with my own act of kenosis, what would I need to give up in order to be completely reliant on God in humility, trust, and love?
At the top of the list were all of my possessions. These were the easiest to think of and included my laptop, camera, music, pictures, and clothes, among other things. I’ve reflected before on the need to keep possessions simple and to make sure that I use them in keeping with Gospel poverty, but now I wonder what it would be like to renounce ownership or use of everything. Luke’s Gospel mentions a number of times that the disciples of Jesus “left everything and followed him.” Could I do this?
As if that question isn’t difficult enough to answer, the rest of the inventory only got harder as I went on. What about all of my legal assets? I have a driver’s license, a decent credit score, US citizenship that includes a right to vote and protections under the law, and as a religious I am tax exempt. The list goes on. I have physical assets such as good health, all of my limbs, working senses, free of any malformations, and fit enough to perform all basic tasks on my own. I have intellectual assets such as normal memory skills, basic brain functioning, and an ability to study at a university. I have social assets that allow me to keep a desirable reputation, friendships, respect from peers and superiors, and the occasional praise. Lastly, I have assets related to the Church: personally, I am in good standing, have a right to teach and preach, and have the backing of an Order, and structurally the Church is alive, it is organized, and there are many opportunities to be active in it in this country.
So I ask myself: What if, like Jesus, I was an alien in a foreign land, was an innocent man treated as a criminal, or was an outcast in society? What if I were to contract a disease that left me physically or mentally dependent on others for basic tasks? What if my reputation was ruined, people no longer liked me, or I was left without any friends? What if the Church was to reject me, the Order was suppressed, or the Church structures were to crumble? Or what if, in a much more likely situation, I was given a direct order to do something without consulting my desires?
In moments of loss, whether it be life-changing or normal day-to-day disappointments, self-inflicted or imposed, there is the possibility for the greatest gain. In recognizing the futility of all of the many things we claim as our own and divesting of ourselves the ownership, feeling of entitlement, and need for any one of them over God’s love, we become free. In these moments, we are being asked to focus less on the gift that has been taken away from us and more on the One who gave it in the first place, the One who wishes to give us even more in return. In times of self-emptying, we realize how futile it is to put our trust in money, good looks, education, or a host of other things that have meaning to us, things that do not last, and how even more ridiculous it is to fight endlessly to maintain control over them.
My goal in all of this is to free myself of any need to control, appropriate, defend with violence, or hoard any gift from God as if that gift were an end in itself. In making this inventory, I seek not to rid myself of all of God’s many gifts, but to recognize the generous bounty of God in my life and to be more dependent on him.
The image I leave with is one that I recently heard in a homily. God’s abundant generosity is like the air all around us. We are gifted freely with more life-giving air to breathe than we could ever consume, and yet, we have a tendency to hold onto this breath, to claim it as our own, and to be afraid to exhale. What good is that gift to us if we hold onto it? We will eventually suffocate, and the air will leave us whether we like it or not. What I’ve learned from Jesus’ experience of kenosis is that it is only in the exhale, the letting go of all that we have, that we are ever able to receive anything else. It is in the letting go of all that we cling to, and the trust that God will provide for us just as he did before, that we are free to love and be loved by God.