24 August 2015

On taking up our Cross: Accepting the Call to Kenosis and Authentic Humanity

The articles I put up recently on emptiness and the hiddenness of the eremitical vocation are profoundly linked, as I noted, to the theologies of the cross of Paul and Mark. Readers might remember that Mark's Gospel is often called a "passion narrative with a long introduction". But really, it is a passion narrative, a long story of self-emptying that climaxes on the cross. I was thinking about this recently because of one of our Friday gospel lections that had Jesus inviting and calling us to take up our crosses to follow him. Always before I have spoken of crosses as those difficult, challenging, and painful times we associate with suffering. We take up our crosses when we suffer well with the inspiration and empowerment of God in Christ. But I also understand more clearly that when we speak of Jesus taking up his cross it means his relinquishment of all of the ordinary ways to honor and success, power and prestige, relationships, family, even his own People, so that he may be completely transparent to the One he called Abba.

In Mark's Gospel the shadow of the cross marks the whole of Jesus' life. It stands as the summary and culmination, the most radical example of everything Jesus has been, done, said, and experienced until now. It is the symbol of the entire dynamic of self emptying which drove Jesus on as he ministered in compassion, prayed in the silence of solitude, felt the anguish of being rejected in so many ways or celebrated with his friends and disciples. Jesus is the one person in human history who did not only say yes to God, but who emptied himself (allowed himself to be emptied) so completely that in him God might be exhaustively revealed in the senses of both being made known and being made real with a human face in our world. Jesus allowed the will and purposes of God to so overshadow him, he opened himself so completely to the love and power that he perfectly fulfilled the human vocation to image God. Our doctrine of two natures is one of the ways the Church has tried to speak adequately of this NT paradox that where Jesus was fully and exhaustively human there was God definitively revealed, and where God is definitively and exhaustively revealed there we see authentic humanity.

This is the dynamic Paul is speaking of when he talks of Jesus being obedient (open and responsive) to God even to the point of death, death on a cross. Jesus' entire life is one of taking up the call, task, and challenge to be fully human, and therefore to be imago dei --- not in the weak sense of mirroring God, but in the strong sense of allowing God's power and presence, his love and mercy, to flame up in him without obstacle, obscurity, or distortion so that Jesus is incandescent with God, and so, when we see Jesus' humanity we see Divinity face to face. This is the heart of the Eastern notion of "deification" and it is something we are each called to allow God to achieve in us in our own way. Humanity and divinity are not in conflict here. They are counterparts in genuine covenant existence.  This is why my most important (and beloved) theology professor (John C Dwyer) was fond of saying, "Human freedom is the counterpart of Divine sovereignty." What must lessen, what we must be emptied and stripped of is our false selves so that God may be entirely sovereign. And where God is sovereign we are most truly ourselves.

The emptying of self happens throughout Jesus' life and reaches its furthest points, its most radical form, in his crucifixion. Because Jesus embraces the godlessness of sin and death while trusting his Abba completely this kenosis is similar to that of the rest of his life. For this reason, although it is especially true that we can speak of taking up our crosses to refer to those times of significant suffering we might have in our lives, taking up our cross also means taking up the task, challenge, indeed the very vocation we have to be authentically human. We take up our cross every time we consent to being emptied and to allow God to be God, every time we allow the mercy of God to transform us or the love of God to empty and strip us of all falseness --- as well as to fill and make us whole and true with Divine meaning and purpose. To take up our cross daily is to take up the continuing call to become the persons God wills us to be whether this process is marked by the suffering of various forms of emptying and being made true, or the joy of completion and personal fulfillment we know in union with God. Taking up our cross is simply the task of embracing a life entirely committed to trusting and mediating the love of God as imago dei.