Our God “makes himself nothing”

Wishing someone “Happy Holidays” can be quite cruel. I don’t mean to fight some sort of opportunistic culture war here. It is just that a number of newspaper articles have already been written on “holiday stress.” In December, students mercilessly face final exams, and workers in offices and elsewhere often have to desperately try to finish projects. The pressures of gift exchange force us to helplessly consider our rising credit card bills. Sometimes we dread having to travel to meet family members with their unmet expectations. On the other hand, we might be rather harshly reminded about the absence of departed family members and friends. As a psychologist writes in the Hartford Courant,  “The stereotypical Norman Rockwell image of a family happily gathered together for a sumptuous feast doesn’t represent those without family or loved ones.” And it often happens to be very cold and dark outside.

In the face of this, an unspecific wish of “Holiday Cheer” or “Season’s Greetings,” however well-intended, just might leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Who can bear having to force a smile again and again?

Now I sound like a killjoy. Or at least someone completely lacking in eloquence. But, really, I merely want to say that it is this bleak landscape, as opposed to political considerations, that might make the real message of Christmas so important for us to hear and contemplate once again. Geoffrey Rowell, the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, writes that Jesus “comes into the world in a filthy, dung ridden-cave for cattle,” making himself nothing, descending to the “lowest part of our need.” Why? So that, even if should find ourselves trapped in an unbearably dark place, God’s love is still there to transform us. 

Let all of this serve as an introduction to the Bishop’s moving Christmas message for this year, reproduced in full below:

Some two months ago, on a rare Sunday in England, I was presiding at the Sunday morning Eucharist in an old and beautiful Sussex village church. The parish priest and his wife had invited me to baptize their new baby boy whom they had named “Theodore”, which means gift of God – this was probably more appropriate than the name of a baby I baptized a year or so earlier, who had been called simply “Theo”, which means “God”.

By one of those happy chances, the Gospel reading was from the ninth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. Mark tells how Jesus having heard his disciples disputing as they walked together were along the road, knew that they had been arguing about who was the greatest. So he takes a child and sets the child in front of them and says in effect this little child is the greatest. If you want to be great, you must be like this little child. As a visual aid, I asked the vicar to stand up with his tiny baby in his arms and said that the greatest in this congregation is this little child.

In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that when Paul and Silas came to Thessalonika on their missionary journey, they were complained about as the men who had turned the whole world upside down. But it is God who turns the world upside down in its assumptions, its pretensions of power, its self-aggrandisement. At Christmas a little child, a fragile, vulnerable, new-born baby is set in the midst of us; the one who has the whole world in his hands, turning the world upside down. As his mother Mary sings in her Magnificat, “He has put down the mighty from their seats of power and has lifted high the humble and meek.”

It is of this that our Christmas cribs remind us. When St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century made the first ever Christmas crib for the poor and illiterate people of Greccio, it was to set before them this amazing grace and love of God; the God who turns our worldly expectations upside down.

The wonder, the overwhelming wonder of Christmas, its enduring magic and mystery, is this astounding reaching out of the love of God to the world and to each one of us. To enter the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem the doorway is so low that you have to stoop to enter. The baggage which all of us carry, of status, pride and possessions, must be left behind if we are to come and adore the child in the manger. Our God is not an autocrat, a powerful tyrant, like a Roman emperor or a Victorian headmaster, though sadly the Church (and for some people their own families), have distorted God in this way, our God is a God, who as St. Paul says, “empties himself”, “makes himself nothing”, stoops down to the lowest part of our need. He comes into the world in a filthy, dung ridden-cave for cattle. His family flee from massacre and terror to be asylum seekers in Egypt. He is among the outcast and the marginalized, and at the end he dies an excruciating death between two thieves outside the holy city, condemned by religious leaders and political power brokers alike.

So “he humbled himself”, made himself nothing, and of him we dare to say, yes, here is God. We call it ‘incarnation’, the enfleshing of God, God taking our nature upon himself. The Creator in a free outporing of re-creating love for a world gone wrong, for human beings who think themselves little gods, for men and women enslaved to greed or drugs or distorted desire, comes down to the lowest part of our need. And why? That we may find in that love ‘”so amazing, so divine” the very thing for which we were made, that which reaches out to change and transform us, to draw us to share in that love, to become Christlike, to be even, as St Peter tells us, “partakers of the divine nature”? Perhaps there was a sense in which the child I baptized as ‘Theo’ pointed us to Christian truth after all.  

May the God of this surpassing love and wonder, who came to us at Bethlehem and took us by the hand, bless you all this Christmas and fill your lives, even in the darkest places, with his grace and his glory.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to Our God “makes himself nothing”

  1. Talmida says:

    Cranky old St. Paul!

    We are NOT nothing. Humans are created by God in God’s image. That’s Something, in my book (and in the Good Book, too, come to think of it). Our very humanity takes its value from the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of our Creator.

    Jesus became human, he did not become nothing. And telling people that Jesus became nothing “just like you” is hardly likely to dispel any seasonal depression!

    ;)

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Talmida,

    Thanks, as always, for writing. You are certainly right to imply that St Paul’s language of “self-emptying” can be destructive if misinterpreted. Furthermore, you are also right to remind us that Jesus does not call us to eliminate the self – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he says, suggesting that there is a place for self-love.

    So what do we make of Philippians 2, where St Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself”/”made himself nothing” (heauton ekenosen)?

    The feminist theologian and Anglican priest Sarah Coakley has suggested that we think about “self-emptying” as a “making space” for God, who, far from obliterating the self, will transform and empower it. Using contemplative prayer as an example, she writes:

    “What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God. Prayer which makes this ‘space’ may take a variety of forms, and should not be conceived in an elitist way; indeed, the debarring of ‘ordinary’ Christians from ‘contemplation’ has been one of the most sophisticated–and spiritually mischievous–ways of keeping lay women (and men) from exercising religious influence in the Western church. Such prayer may use a repeated phrase to ward off distractions, or be wholly silent; it may be a simple Quaker attentiveness, or take a charismatic expression (such as the use of quiet rhythmic ‘tongues’). What is sure, however, is that engaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable. But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense; for it is a feature of the special ‘self-effacement’ of this gentle space-making–this yielding to divine power which is no worldly power that it marks one’s willed engagement in the pattern of cross and resurrection, one’s deeper rooting and grafting into the ‘body of Christ.’

    “If these traditions of Christian ‘contemplation’ are to be trusted, this rather special form of ‘vulnerability’ is not an invitation to be battered; nor is its silence a silencing. (If anything, it builds one in the courage to give prophetic voice.) By choosing to ‘make space’ in this way, one ‘practices’ the ‘presence of God’–the subtle but enabling presence of a God who neither shouts nor forces, let alone ‘obliterates.’ No one can make one ‘contemplate’ (though the grace of God invites it); but it is the simplest thing in the world not to ‘contemplate,’ to turn away from that grace. Thus the ‘vulnerability’ that is its human condition is not about asking for unnecessary and unjust suffering, nor is it a ‘self-abnegation.’ On the contrary, this special ‘self-emptying’ is the place of the self’s transformation and expansion into God.”

    So telling people that Jesus became nothing “just like you” isn’t meant to make economic distress or political marginalization or spousal abuse seem alright. It is a reminder that, just as Jesus was ultimately exalted, God can reach into our nothingness and empower us, if we will just give him space.

    Does this make sense?

    Best,
    Neil

  3. Steve Bogner says:

    Neil, you have a great point about people needing the real message of Christmas. The social expectations and busy-time at year-end certainly do take a toll on some of us.

    Years ago I read a couple good books about Contemplative Prayer written by Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk (www.snowmass.org/keating.htm). He talks about unloading the consciousness, or something like that – which I think is the same as ‘emptying yourself.’

  4. Talmida says:

    Dear Neil,
    I should apologise — I am not well versed in Paul’s writings, and there was no citation, and I was lazy. I now realize that “became nothing” and “emptied himself” are 2 different translations of the same expression. It took me a long time to figure that out, because I couldn’t find ANY translation that used “became nothing” and I would never have thought that they were synonymous. Finally did a search at Bible Gateway.com and hit on the NIV.

    I understand and agree with “emptied himself”, and the comments on such. I just don’t think they apply if the translation says “became nothing.”

    I retract my cranky label from St. Paul’s forehead (in this particular instance) and transfer it to the translators of the NIV.

    Now of course, I feel like that great Gilda Radner character, Miss Emily Litella, who happily tripped out tirade & rant based on verbal misunderstanding, and when finally enlightened, would sit quietly for a moment and then say, “Oh. Never mind.”

  5. Dear Steve and Talmida,

    Thanks for the advice about Thomas Keating. I once went to a retreat based partially on his works, but never delved very deeply into them, since I found myself largely unable to “center” (as opposed to, say, meditate). I’ll have to take a look.

    Talmida has absolutely no reason to apologize. I suppose that I thought that the translation “became nothing” was functionally equivalent to the King James’ “made himself of no reputation.” But the NIV’s (and Bishop Rowell’s) “made himself nothing” is potentially dangerous without at least some clarification – I can see this now. I’ll have to be a bit more careful in the future.

    And St Paul can be cranky sometimes! It’s fair to say, I think, that “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal 4:12) is a little cranky.

    Thanks again.

    Neil

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