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Christmas Kenosis

A sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash.]

I had not planned to preach a sermon today. I had discussed with the Worship & Music team instead offering some extemporaneous thoughts on the star words that you all just drew.

(And for anyone who is interested, I’d love to chat about your star words during fellowship hour after worship).

But during this week several unconnected conversations kept drawing my attention to our second reading from today: the early Christian Hymn known as the Kenosis Prayer.

It has long been one of my favorite scripture passages.

It has also long been one of my favorite reflections on the season of Christmas, although most people don’t think of it in this context.

Ten years ago, well before I was a pastor, I wrote a reflection on the ways that this passage speaks to the real meaning of Christmas.

I went back to read it again this week, and realized then why this reading kept being drawn to my attention this week: because that 10-year-old reflection is a message for today as well.

So, I want to share it with you all, with some minor edits.

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.

For many good and right reasons one hears a lot during this season about “the true meaning of Christmas.” “Christmas is about giving and not receiving.” “Christmas is about putting aside differences and appreciating our families.” “Christmas is about remembering those who are less fortunate.” “Christmas is about love, and joy, and togetherness.” And so on.

All of these sentiments are good, and important, and worthy of reflection and application not only at Christmas time but throughout the year.

It is a wonderful thing that this season encourages all of us to collectively focus attention on socially-equalizing and peace-loving values, and to do so in affirmative ways that are too often missing from our communal dialogue.

I must take issue with all of them, however, as characterizations of the true meaning of Christmas.

The word Christmas is the slightly abbreviated combination of two words: Christ and mass. Christ for Jesus. Mass for the full Christian service of worship.

So, if what we are truly wanting to understand is the sacred celebration of the person of God who came into the world, then the true meaning of Christmas must be an encounter with the incarnation.

While not the most traditional Christmas text, the most beautiful description of the incarnation, in my humble opinion, comes from the letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.

This is the real meaning of Christmas:

That God — who exists so far outside the human condition that to take on the form and likeness of humanity was to voluntarily enter into slavery — did just that.

And, that once this humiliation was embraced it was further eclipsed by the denigration of a criminal execution.

This biblical poem uses the term kenosis in the original language, which means emptying. Christ emptied himself on the very first Christmas night.

Now, emptiness is not a term that we often apply to Christmas. Christmas is much more associated with fullness.

Full stomachs as we gorge on feasts that take hours of loving labor and mountains of ingredients to prepare.

Full eyes and ears as our senses are washed over by tidal waves of sparkling lights, colorful decorations, radio jingles, and Christmas carols.

Full schedules as we struggle to participate in all the extra social activities of the season.

Full spaces as we wonder how to find places for all the new clothes, toys, and other gifts that add to our accumulation of possessions.

Full hearts as we look at the glowing faces of our children or grandchildren, or are transported into nostalgic memories of our own childhoods, or simply appreciate the precious moments to be with those we love.

The Christmas season fills us up in so many ways, and many of those ways are wonderful.

This is not an harangue against the blessed fullness that we, as modern, Western, 21st Century people receive from the celebration of Christmas.

What I hope it is, is a reminder that fullness is not the meaning of Christmas. Appreciation of all the gifts in our lives – those we opened last week, and those we see more clearly during the extended holiday season – is important.

It is something I have tried to teach my children about Christmas. When I asked my oldest when he was little about why we give gifts on Christmas he answered beautifully that it is to remind us that Jesus is God’s gift to us. That’s true.

But we need to also remember that this gift was and is kenosis, self-emptying.

In that birth in a stable, Jesus released the honor, and authority, and perfection, and privilege, and power that is imbued in being God.

There could not be a more complete or dramatic gift, and this selflessness is the real meaning of Christmas.

This is what I believe about Christmas.

But it’s really hard to live into, especially at Christmas!

Ten years ago, when I first wrote this reflection, I shared a story about getting my (then very young) children reading for Christmas Eve service. My trick back has a long history, and the story revolved around my back getting seriously aggravated in the course of preparations.

That would have been bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that the three-year-old was so wound up in anticipation of the first Christmas where he could understand the upcoming barrage of presents that he only napped for about 40 minutes (as opposed to his usual 2 hours).

As a result, he was also very aggravated, and he decided that it had to be Mommy who held him every time the congregation stood to sing a carol during the service, and when my back declared that holding a 37 lb. boy while standing was a physical impossibility, things got ugly!

I spent the majority of the service trying to shush him, and bribe him, and otherwise prevent a screaming tantrum, and the remainder taking him out to go to the bathroom and them experiencing the full force of the tantrum in the ladies room.

Needless to say, Christmas Eve service was not a terribly worshipful experience for me that year.

Nor was it an easy context in which I could put into practice my reflections about self-emptying.

I am unfortunately NOT one of those people who stoically copes with pain. Quite to the contrary, pain brings out every selfish and petulant inclination in my personality. My children’s whining, coincidentally, does the same.

And so, that particular Christmas offered me a stark contrast between Christ’s self-emptying, and the broken reality of just how full of myself I am.

Full of my needs; full of my expectations; full of my own plans for how things should go.

While I cannot even comprehend the power and perfection that Jesus voluntarily released, I am forced to confess that I grasp for such things. I try with all my effort to achieve them, and when circumstances, or back pain, or tired children interfere with these efforts I get annoyed or worse.

The contrast is all the more poignant to me because Jesus’ action of self-emptying subjected him to just the kinds of negative stimuli that make self-emptying so difficult to me.

The kenosis meant taking on a body that was subject to physical pain, just like mine.

The kenosis meant being in relationship with other people who would consider their own needs first, if not exclusively.

The kenosis meant encountering personally and directly all of the things that I use as excuses for why I cannot really follow Christ’s example.

And that’s why I have to take seriously the call from the Philippians text to have the same mind in myself that is in Christ Jesus.

It’s not that Jesus just doesn’t understand or isn’t subject to the stresses I face. Jesus volunteered to face those stresses – that’s the whole point of Christmas.

And so, this Christmas season – as much as the season 10 years ago when I first faced this contrast, I want to keep trying to empty myself.

I know that in the moments I do, I will be more full than I am at any other time. For, I will be full of Christ and full of the true meaning of Christmas.

Thanks be to God.


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