“Brood of vipers!” with those words John the Baptist is often introduced in the movies and the minds of believers as a loud, nearly violent prophet of the desert. That Charlton Heston played him in one of those movies was almost type-casting, at least with regard to the popular imagination. And yet, St. John is an example of meekness.
When confronted by the religious leaders of Israel he has little to say for himself. He is far more clear about who and what he is not than about who and what he is. When he encounters Christ he declares himself unworthy to untie his sandals, much less Baptize the one whom he calls, “The Lamb of God.” When confronted by the growing success of Christ’s disciples (to the dismay of his own) he says, “He must increase and I must decrease.”
St. John’s role is to prepare and to point out. The attention of his life and ministry are not towards himself, but towards Christ.
We can see the same thing in the Mother of God. Her response to Gabriel’s word is simply, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.” Even at the Wedding in Cana, where we imagine her to be importuning Christ, her only words to her Son are, “They have no wine.” The outcome of her simple observation is merely, “Do whatever he asks.”
This self-emptying deprecation is, oddly, the very character of God Himself, as revealed in the pages of the gospels:
- “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. (Jn. 3:35)
- Then Jesus answered and said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.” (Jn. 5:19)
- “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” (Jn. 16:13)
This mutual self-emptying reveals God at His very depths. Christ reveals God most completely in His suffering, death and resurrection. This is not merely something that “happens” to Him. It is the fullness of the revelation of God. St. Paul highlights this when he speaks of Christ “emptying himself” (kenosis) on the Cross and becoming “obedient unto death.”
In these statements, we see that God’s mutual self-emptying is more than an occasional action: it is a way of being. And, it is the very manner of existence that St. Paul urges on us as well. When he describes Christ’s self-emptying on the Cross it is in order to say to us, “Have this mind within you…” (Phil. 2:5).
This “kenotic” mode of existence runs completely contrary to our most common patterns. Our modern life is thought to be a collection of autonomous wills, each vying with others to gain and hold a position of power. Our lives are emotional and psychological negotiations in which the presence of others serve as threats, signaling the possibility that we may need to accept less than what we want. This is a formula for anxiety and depression. We are anxious in that our power over others is limited and ineffective. It becomes depressing in that we are constantly frustrated and unable to have what we want.
It is ironic that we imagine the life of a god as a life of power in which every desire is fulfilled. It is, in fact, the life of a demon, though a demon’s torment lies in the fact that its desires remain unfulfilled. Lucifer’s desire to be “like God” made him into a near opposite.
American Christians have become increasingly politicized over the past few decades (both on the Left and the Right). They have fallen prey to the lure of a better world through the exercise of power. Regardless of who is “up” at any given election cycle, there are no winners and there can be no peace. For with every “victory,” the opposition remains. Continual warfare becomes a necessity. We are anxious, depressed and angry. The path of theosis has been traded for the life of demons.
Christ’s aphorism, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it, while he who loses his life will save it,” becomes quite clear in its meaning when all of this is considered. God Himself lives a life of self-emptying love. He “lost” creation in His love for it. He “lost” Himself in His love for creation that He might gain it again. We frequently want God to join us in our demonic path of anxiety and control. We see the things that trouble us and say, “Why doesn’t God do something?” We have Jesus but we want Zeus.
That the notion of mutual self-emptying is so difficult for us to fathom is difficult for us, in part, for the fact that we have been exalted to positions of relative power within the cultures of the world. Even the least voter can imagine themselves to be the shaper of history. Christians in the First World have become “managers.” The least among us often practice a form of self-emptying because they have no options. Aspects of the gospel are easier for them. Those who find themselves with power (or imagine that they do) discover that self-emptying is an “eye of the needle,” and that salvation is nearly impossible. That such statements seem odd is a testament to how deeply Christianity has been perverted in our time and become but one more position of power among the many.
John the Baptist ended his days in Herod’s prison, his head delivered to the tyrant on a platter, at the whim of a dancing girl. The Theotokos stood by the Cross in silence as a sword of sorrow pierced her soul. Their examples have been mirrored countless times through the centuries by God-loving martyrs and the yet more obscure men and women who have faithfully repeated, “He must increase and I must decrease; be it unto me according to His word.”
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones. (Wis. 3:2-9)