The Kenosis of Christ in the Politics of Paul

“As she listened her tears ran and her body was melted,
as the snow melts along the high places of the mountains
when the West Wind has piled it there, but the South Wind
melts it, and as it melts the rivers run full flood…”
(Homer, Odyssey, 19.204-207)

“… he emptied himself…” (Philippians 2:6)

“… I long for all of you…” (Philippians 1:8)

[1] Quite inadvertently, three philologists have opened the triune life of God and the ecclesial politics of Christians to the longing of love. Each makes it possible for us to imagine a place for desire in the Trinitarian history of God and in the body of Christ. They do this by providing the lexical justification for a physiological interpretation of Paul’s momentous Christological sentence “he emptied (ekenosen) himself.” The A.D. 5th century lexicographer Hesychius glosses erasai (“to pour forth,” “to vomit,” but also “to love”) with kenosai (Lexicon E 5630). That the same verb might express loving and the pouring forth of liquid is not surprising given the ancient association of falling in love with the liquefaction and draining away of the lover’s organs, a point that will be pursued below. But to stay with obscure sources a moment longer, we turn to another lexicon, this one of the 13th century falsely ascribed to the 12th century historian, Zonaras. Looking up kenosai we find: “to drain away (antlesai); and it is equivalent to ‘to melt (texai)’ (Lexicon K 1196).” Last, listen to an eminent classicist of the recent past draw what he believes to be an obvious connection between love and liquid in the one word erao: “No satisfactory etymology has been found for erao [“I love”]… It was, I suggest, in origin just erao ‘I pour out (liquid)’… eramai would thus originally mean ‘I pour out myself, emit liquid’ (Middle) or ‘I am poured out’…”[1] This will be our last use of obscure sources.[2] The idea, however, has been planted. Now, it is up to us to figure out what the semantic friendship of emptying, melting, and loving has to do with Christ’s kenosis.

[2] Yet, why would we want to do such a thing? Despite the vigorous debate over the meaning of the Christ Hymn, there does seem to be broad agreement that kenosis is best understood, in some sense, as voluntary self-limitation. Scholars argue more about timing than the character of the action.[3] If the agent is the pre-incarnate Son of God, his kenotic action is thought to be a matter of setting aside privileges, rights, powers, divinity and so forth. There is a problem here. It is the presupposition that the “self” referred to in “he emptied himself” is not actually a body but a cipher for the things a very powerful being might own and which he might, in condescension, part with. Were we to refocus our attention on the physiological sense of kenosis , we might avoid the flight from the body that traditional exegesis abets.

[3] If, on the other hand, the agent is the earthly Jesus, kenotic action is humility in subordination to God’s will. Christ empties himself in the sense that he refuses to reproduce in his own story the first Adam’s grasping after divine status. It is important to note that just as in the case when kenosis starts from the position of the pre-incarnate agent, here, too, the body disappears from view, and we are left with the attitude of self-abnegation and subservience. Yet, so what if the body disappears? Other than misrepresenting the linguistic features of this Pauline text, what is the problem?

[4] The subtle efficiency of voluntary self-limitation as the projection of one-sided power has not been lost on feminist critics of kenosis, as Sarah Coakley has pointed out in her helpful map of the complicated ways kenosis functions in exegesis and theological systems.[4] She is sympathetic (as I am) to their observation that the limiting of the self, at first glance, is a fine message, if it is delivered to those persons who have selves to limit, but it is immoral for the elite themselves to keep on celebrating Christ’s self-limitation universally, since it appeases the bad conscience of the powerful, to the extent that we have one, through compensation in a fantasy world. Moreover, praising Christ’s selflessness makes it the highest Christian virtue, perversely mixing spiritual aspiration with self-denigration. The interests of the powerful are served when those persons who do not have selves are persuaded that it is the highest expression of faith not to want one. The first reason, then, to attempt a physiological interpretation of kenosis is to break the cycle of elitism and masculine hegemony that self-limitation and humility in fact preserve, even if on the surface of things it feels, mostly to men, as though power were being critiqued. Instead of subjecting traditional kenosis to further refinement with hopes of purging it of these acknowledged difficulties[5], I will pursue the inadvertent hints from the philologists and place Christ’s kenosis in an entirely different web of meaning, that of bodies melting with longing and desire.

[5] Again, why would we want to do such a thing? Not only are Christology and Trinity at stake in the way we view emptying but the doctrine of the church as well. Philippians is full of terms drawn from ancient political theory. Paul is busy refashioning this rich political vocabulary into an ecclesiology, and interpreters have observed that Christ’s kenosis is the measure by which this creation takes place. The second reason, then, to attempt a physiological interpretation of is to block the understanding of the nature of the church as a set of practices aimed at inculcating the voluntary self-limitation of Christ. That is stated too negatively. Here is a constructive approach: to promote the idea of the church as a collection of political practices that embody Christ’s longing for complete communion with mortals. What follows is prolegomena to this proposal.

[6] Where did emptying show up in antiquity? There were indeed patterned ways of speaking about humility and self-limitation, but in these kenosis is noticeably absent. Instead, kenosis was a basic term of science, most at home in medicine both at the theoretical and practical levels.[6] By practical, I mean evacuations of the stomach or bowels, bloodletting, or other forms of physician initiated emptying intended to return the sick body to a balanced state.[7] As interesting as these may be, they will not be our concern. Rather, we will visit a passage in the Hippocratic Nature of Man identified as one of the two “most ancient definitions of health that can be directly located in Greek thought, and consequently in Western thought as a whole.”[8] Judging from the numerous citations of it and commentaries on it up through Galen in the second century, this very old piece also became a classic text out of which medical minds reasoned and sick people were treated (with those physician induced evacuations that we were not going to talk about).[9]

[7] How does pain happen? The human body is composed of blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, which, when they are combined in a balanced way, produce health.

[8] Pain is felt when one of these elements is in defect or excess, or is isolated in the body without being compounded with all the others. For when an element is isolated and stands by itself, not only must the place where it left become diseased, but the place where it stands in a flood must, because of the excess, cause pain and distress. In fact when more of an element flows out of the body than is necessary to get rid of superfluity, the emptying (kenosin) causes pain. If, on the other hand, it be to an inward part that there takes place the emptying (kenosin), the shifting and the separation from the other elements, the man certainly must, according to what has been said, suffer from a double pain, one in the place left, and another in the place flooded. (Nature of Man 4; tr. is Loeb Classical Library)

[9] This passage teaches us that kenosis, whether within the body or proceeding from the body, involves liquids on the move. Whether it is internal inundation or a drying out due to outward flowage, kenosis hurts and it is, oftentimes, noticeably wet. Running on for too long, kenosis is the death of the body.

[10] The missing piece in this Hippocratic account of pain is an explanation for the transition from body solids to those liquids we have little difficulty in imagining draining away. How does liquefaction occur? Bodies melt. Organs melt. Flesh melts. The Greek term is tekw. Reflecting on the divine provision for the human need for food, Plato observes in the Timaeus, “And now that all the parts and members of the mortal animal had come together, since its life of necessity consisted of fire and breath, and it therefore wasted away by dissolution (tekomenon) and depletion (kenoumenon), the gods contrived the following remedy (77A).”[10] The vital heat that animates the body also melts it, empties it, and, in short, causes it to waste away.

[11] Throughout the ancient period, the elite gentleman, ever concerned to preserve a balanced bodily condition, needed to be wary of the therapist who did not understand the melting effects of prolonged, gentle massage. With the stakes this high, Galen faults Theon’s failure to discuss the duration of massage, but he acknowledges that this earlier expert on gymnastics (which included the subspecialty of massage) pretty much teaches what Hippocrates taught. If only he would have maintained the Hippocratic vocabulary, the exact terms of which concern us as well: “Theon, therefore, when he says in his discussion of gentle and prolonged massages that it dissolves (diaphorein) and liquefies (tekein), if by liquefying (dia tou tekein) he means emptying (to kenoun), designates nothing more than dissolving (tou diaphorein).”[11] This quibbling over terms suggests a more or less standardized way of speaking about illness and pain shared by physicians, gymnastic trainers, massage therapists, and most likely anyone using their services. At the core of this discourse is the belief that pain was the result of the body melting and emptying.

[12] Now, forget about the doctors and all their fussy talk about your body drying out, emptying, and wasting away. You, you lucky duck, are on your way to the theatre! What could be more pleasant? It is Pompeii shortly before AD 79, and you walk carefree to the Small Theatre through its graffiti covered west entrance gate. You notice on the wall the last line of an epigram, the first in a series of what appears to be a poet’s corner: “incedunt tabificantque animum.”

[13] Poetry. This is refreshing. Love poetry. Even better. What’s to keep you from making your own contribution? Others have. Apparently, everyone is a poet nowadays. Anything is better than that first epigram scrawled up there of Taburtinus which filches the Greek chestnut about the fire of love that melts the soul and the tears unable to put out the flame, “[and even they] burn…and waste my spirit.”[12] Though you thought you were escaping the dour doctors, yet even in love it seems there is no protection from the melting that kills.

[14] Whether cliché ridden or not, ancient love poetry simply did not happen without the melted lover flowing away. Commenting on the phenomenon in connection with her analysis of lovesickness in the 6th century B.C. poetry of Anacreon, Monica Silveira Cyrino explains the motif, which would live on at least another 1200 years if not to the present day:

[15] The idea of erotic melting is an indication of the physical decomposition of the lover’s body, which is related in epic poetry to the activity of weeping and usually accompanied by a certain psychological disintegration… the notion of melting is presented as a loss of material form, due to the manipulation of the body by strong emotion; erotic longing especially works itself upon the lover’s physical integrity, heating and disturbing the body until its composure is utterly dissolved. This entire complex of ideas is implied in the phrase when Anakreon calls his eros takeros.[13]

[16] Before Anacreon, Homer set the linguistic stage with his portrayal of Penelope melting (teketo) like high mountain snows in a warm wind, but the vocabulary of the loving body’s liquefaction under the force of longing would prove to be remarkably variegated. We can convince ourselves of this if we stand with Paulus Silentiarius looking out on the sea of kenotic sufferers in the poetic tradition. This A.D. 6th century poet wrote fine, even moving, erotic epigrams when he was not otherwise occupied with praising the recently rebuilt Hagia Sophia. Surveying the tradition from his vantage point, we would see lover after lover melt like wax,[14] and just plain melt.[15] We would see them emptied,[16] sucked dry of blood,[17] and emaciated.[18] We would see lovers dissolving,[19] dripping,[20] pouring out,[21] overflowing,[22] draining[23] and drained until dead.[24] We would see lovers grown old in a single day,[25] withered,[26] shriveled,[27] wasted away,[28] with hollow eyes[29] and empty hearts,[30] and chasms where hearts used to be.[31] We would see lovers roasted so that all that remains is bones and hair,[32] lovers with innards eaten by love,[33] and lovers’ limbs consumed by longing.[34] Perhaps as a respectful gesture to Hesiod, Sappho, and Alcaeus, Paulus himself preserves the idea of “limb-gnawing” in the most tender of his poems (AP 5.255), which describes the longing (pothos) of two lovers.

[17] We need now to apply to the Christ Hymn what we have learned about from the philologists, the doctors, and above all, from the poets. Quite inadvertently, our teachers encourage us to imagine that Christ’s story is about a lover longing for communion with an absent beloved. The longing and desire are so strong that death in complete solidarity with the beloved is the only possible ending. This re-reading may be a very odd experience, since, as I pointed out above, in its long history of interpretation the Christ Hymn has been celebrated as the great condescension of God in Christ, the magnanimous act of humility that would be required if humankind were to be saved.[35] But our teachers convince us that even odder yet is the distortion performed on the phrase “he emptied himself.” If kenosis befalls those who long for an absent beloved, then the story of the Christ Hymn tells not of humble condescension but of Christ’s longing for union with mortals and his desire to share with them all that he is and has and all that they are and have, just as lovers want to do.

[18] The test facing this new reading is to see if the other elements of Phil 2:6-8 cohere with this kind of kenosis. Can these themes, which in the past have supported the story of Christ’s humble self-limitation, now be returned to the discourse of longing? We begin with “form of God.” Philosophically minded interpreters think it anthropomorphic to visualize God and have transformed into “nature” or “essence,” but early audiences might have understood that Paul begins the narrative with a comment about Christ’s uncommon beauty. It was a cliché in poetic speech to say that a really beautiful person, who could easily make onlookers, including gods, melt with desire, existed in the divine form.[36] Greek mythology had a favorite story line: gorgeous mortal snatched by divine being lives with gods, undying and forever young.[37] Aristonicus, editor of Homeric texts in the Augustan age in Alexandria, compresses Zeus’ abduction of Ganymede (Iliad 22.230-235) into this very plot line. First, he lets us know that Ganymede was beautiful. Ganymede was so beautiful, in fact, as to be equal to god (antitheos), a point apparently worth repeating: “…Ganymede, who was the most beautiful of mortal men. The gods seized him to pour wine for Zeus on account of his beauty, in order that he might exist with the immortals.”[38] The story is less about abduction and more about Ganymede’s good looks, that is, more about Ganymede as the one desired by all, but only Zeus may have him. As one perceptive interpreter of the abduction motif has noticed, “With his Homeric reputation as the most beautiful youth in the world, yet unattainable and fit only for a god, Ganymede corresponds rather to the sexy, unattainable ‘pinup’ of the mid-twentieth century America, the Betty Grables and the Marilyn Monroes.”[39]

[19] Not merely titillating, the abduction motif brings together deeply religious themes: beauty, desire, and undying life. With this in mind and getting into the spirit of Aristonicus’ plot compression, we might re-tell the Christ Hymn in this way: “Christ Jesus, who, although exceedingly beautiful, so beautiful in fact as to be godlike in form and thus worthy of living in undying youth, did not regard his existing equally with God a matter of abduction…” Our re-telling of the story comes to a bump in the road over the word harpagmos, a very rare word outside of later Christian commentary on this passage. Traditional exegesis avoids the embarrassment of erotic seizure in the Godhead by claiming that although Paul wrote harpagmos he must have meant the more abstract term harpagma (“something to be held” or “something to be grasped after”), which is not rare at all and works very nicely with kenosis as voluntary self-limitation. While some scholars concede that harpagmos in a treatise roughly contemporary to Paul’s letters should be given pride of place, lexicographical method in this case, it is asserted, gives a bad result.[40] They move on to the convenient abstraction. Perhaps, with a deeper appreciation of the religious and aesthetic dimensions of the abduction motif there will come an openness to reading it in the Christ Hymn.

[20] Yet, if one is still embarrassed by abduction within the Godhead, one need only be reminded that the condition of having been snatched is precisely what Christ Jesus did not regard existing equally with God to be. It is vital we take abduction seriously so that we do not miss the “not said” in this denial, because beauty, desire and undying life are at stake, woven into every one of the many instances of this myth in literature and iconography. Let’s pick up the thread of the story and face down our fear of sexualizing the relationship of God and Christ Jesus, who, though exceedingly beautiful, did not regard himself a Ganymede and God a Zeus and his life with God a state of being universally desired in undying youthfulness. He turned the table on the usual story of desire and longing.[41] He became the subject of desire, no longer its object. He longed. He emptied himself. He became our slave.[42]

[21] Longing is the heart of Paul’s story, too, at least in his relation to the church at Philippi, whom he addresses as his “beloved and longed for ones (agapetoi kai epipothetoi, 4:1)”: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart… For God is my witness, how I long (epipotho) for all of you with the compassion (en splanchnois) of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:7-8).” Phil 1:8 is a precursor of the Christ Hymn and provides some clues for understanding the movement of the kenosis of Christ into the body of Paul and, ultimately, into his ecclesial politics. First, Paul and Christ have organs in common: ta splanchna. Which organs are these? Ruth Padel writes,

[22] Splanchna (singular splanchnon) are the innards, the general collection of heart, liver, lungs, gallbladder, and attendant blood vessels. English translations of splanchna depend on context. The lexicon reaches for words like ‘entrails’ (in contexts of divinization) and ‘bowels’ (in contexts of emotion). ‘Feeling,’ ‘mood,’ ‘temper,’ or ‘mind’ often seem more apt. Slanchna feel. They feel anxiety, fear, grief, and sometimes love and desire.”[43]

[23] Truly, they are acutely sensitive to love, as the poetic tradition witnesses. It is possible to die from longing (pothos) as innards are tossed by desire.[44] This is how Paul longs for the Philippians: in the innards. This is how Christ longs, too, in his self-emptying. One more note about organs. Audiences trained to hear longing and desire in such references to the innards would have also appreciated the finely wrought ambiguity in verse 7 where the rules of Greek grammar allow us to translate either “I am in your heart” or “You are in my heart,” or we might do well to let the ambiguity simply sit there and express the same mutual ecstasy and communion of organs between Paul and the church that Paul and Christ have.[45]

[24] The second thing that makes 1:8 a precursor of the Christ Hymn is the verb which typifies Paul’s relationship to the church: epipotho (“I long for”). Next to eros, pothos is the most important term in the ancient discourse of desire.[46] Only one thing distinguished the two. It is eros when your beloved is present; pothos when he or she is absent.[47] Remember that sea of kenotic sufferers whom you and Paulus Silentiarius looked out upon? Most had pothos. Better, pothos had them. The kenosis of Christ in longing for mortals has made its way via Paul’s innards to longing for the church. The consequences of this sharing between Christ and Paul work themselves out in the letter as Paul “kenoticizes” ancient political theory, imagining the church’s common life as a happening once again of the narrative of longing in the Christ Hymn.[48]

[25] It has been my goal to shift the foundational narrative of the church away from Christ’s kenosis understood as an act of voluntary self-limitation to kenosis as the physiological result of erotic longing. Kenosisin the sense of traditional exegesis suffers from delusions of humility. It appeases the guilt of the elite by projecting into the Christian view of reality the ideal of selflessness, condescension, and humility, but the truth of the matter is that the most powerful people in this world, both spiritual and secular, hide their power, mask it even from themselves, by describing themselves as “servants.” I fear that interpretation of the Christ Hymn too often protects the self of the one who has a self and ridicules the one who lacks a self but has the impudence to want one. Kenosis in the sense that I would wish to dominate (and this is the only sense it was known to the ancients when speaking of bodies) means melting and draining away. It is the bodily sign of longing and desire for communion. Christians like Paul appropriated this kenosis in order to speak the gospel. Then they appropriated the gospel of Christ’s kenosis for their ecclesial politics: “Only let your conversation (politeuesthai) be as it becometh the gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27).” With this ancient, physiological interpretation of kenosis, we have begun to retrieve the Pauline polity of God.

David E. Fredrickson

David E. Fredrickson is Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.