A provocative title? What could I possibly mean by such a seemingly contradictory title? How could I associate emptiness with God? God, who is the fullness of everything? Jesus Christ, whose fullness becomes our fullness? (See Ephesians 3:19 & 4:13.) Ah, but that’s the problem with language, with human language! We interpret God’s fullness in terms of infinite power, magnificence, perfection, and imperial greatness. Emptiness is of course incompatible with such a view of God’s fullness. But is our view of fullness correct? Have we perhaps turned God into a Zeus-god? an imperial God?
During this pandemic I have answered the perennial question, “Where is God?” with the perennial answer, God is there with the suffering, with the dying, with the nurses and doctors attending to the victims of this virus. And then the cynic strikes back: “Yes, that’s how you Christians get God off the hook. You say God is in control of everything, but then when God does not heal and when God allows disasters to kill thousands or millions, you turn the switch and get him off the hook!” Well, the cynic is not completely wrong; he accurately perceives what we Christians do. The problem is in how we present God to the world. And the God we present to the world is not the biblical God.
We have joined the God of the Bible to our human gospel of health and wealth. This human gospel is most blatantly espoused by TV preachers and hucksters of false Christianity. But in all honesty, this health and wealth gospel is not the invention of American TV. It is part and parcel of Christian tradition for 2,000 years! In every village in Greece, in every imperial palace of Byzantium, in every bourgeois household in Europe; indeed everywhere in Christendom, the gospel has been about promises of rewards here on earth and rewards in heaven.
Back in 1987 a wonderful book came out by an author I had never heard of before, Maggie Ross, but which caught my attention in one of my frequent trips to Alverno’s Bookstore in Chicago. The book? The Fountain & the Furnace, The way of tears and fire. A deep book of spiritual theology, tapping especially into the extraordinary Christian witness of the Syriac tradition of ancient Christianity. Saints Ephrem and Isaac inspired Maggie Ross to plumb deeply into who God is and how we relate to God. At the very beginning of her book, on page 3. She refers to tears as “a key to understanding the mutual kenosis of the relationship between God and creation; a key as crucial to understanding what a person is as created in the redeeming love of God as is the double helix in understanding the genetic code.”
That Greek word she uses, kenosis, is a word that comes from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied (ekenosen, ἐκένωσεν) himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-9)
The “mind” of God, the “mind” of Christ, is a mind of self-emptying. And it is in that self-emptying that God’s fullness, Christ’s fullness, and our fullness are manifested! Have this mind, Paul tells us, that was also in Christ Jesus, who was equal to God, but freely and willingly emptied himself in order to be one of us and to show us the way to fullness of life. Christianity is misunderstood when it becomes a religion of power and wealth. Maggie Ross talks of “mutual kenosis”, a phrase I had never heard or read from a Christian writer before. I would say that’s as close as anyone has come to understanding Saint Paul’s mighty teaching in Philippians. Thirty-two years later I open her book again and I’m stopped in my tracks by those two words. I know kenosis as a theological concept. But “mutual kenosis” I have to live in order to understand. I’m not there yet.
So when we say that God is in the midst of the suffering, with the dying, with the doctors and nurses working hard to save lives, we are not creating a new God, or an excuse for God. This is the God we believe in! The God who is one of us, who is in us, in life and in death. And Jesus Christ is the human face of God, who emptied himself, even to the point of death on a cross, in order to fully know everything that every human might and does endure. This is the emptiness that allows God to know who we are from the inside. And this emptiness of God allows us to experience the fullness of what it is to be human!