School of Self-Emptying
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23).
In the 18th century, Russia underwent a spiritual revival called Kenotism. A wave of fervor swept through the Orthodox world as men and women aspired after ‘kenosis,’ in Greek – a word used by St. Paul to describe Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 27). He – “kenóō” – poured himself out for us. In the same way, anyone who wants God must also empty oneself. This is our salvation and this is the spirit of Lent.
During this Russian movement, a fellow named St. Tikhon of Zadonsk was held up as their hero. This monk gloried in Jesus’s sufferings. Such a strange statement to make, to glory in suffering…and the world does not understand it. Yet, for us, in Christ, it is the sweetest wonder. St. Tikhon meditated on Christ’s self-emptying, his kenosis, with the most profound zeal and joy. A story tells of a day when Bishop Tikhon heard about a squire that beat his serfs cruelly. The bishop went to the estate to rebuke the squire, gently but firmly. The squire was hot-blooded and became infuriated with the bishop. He grew angrier and angrier, and then struck Tikhon’s cheek. The bishop left, but along the road he was convicted and turned around. Returning to the squire, the bishop fell down on his face and begged for forgiveness for having given the squire a cause to fall into temptation. The nobleman was so moved that he fell on his face too, imploring the saint’s forgiveness, and from that day always treated his serfs in kindness. There is power in self-emptying.
Why does humility matter so much? God is humility, so Life is humility too. Do you want a life that has any meaning at all? The world has all kinds of things to say about that. Yet, in the end, it is a humble heart that God loves. Without humility, we are not even human. We are more like smoke or ghosts. God revealed his humility when the Son of God came into the world as a poor, dejected baby. At the Jordan River, he allowed a mortal to baptize him. Along every road, he suffered mocking and jeers from men beneath him. Finally, he epitomized humility by dying on the cross. God, in all his actions and show of humility, demonstrated to us the path.
Here is the gospel reading our Church brings us today:
“Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again’.” (Lk. 18:31-43).
God could not have saved humanity if His son did not go down this road. As hard as it is to understand, the jeers, the lash, the nails and pain on the cross were all necessary to conquer evil. He had to be emptied in order to be filled up. So it is with us.
In dying on the cross, our God showed us our path for redemption. St. Paul explains: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). This path of crucifixion has to be daily: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23). Why? There are so many tugs in our hearts. Part of heart is beautiful, so beautiful, more profound and noble than we could ever imagine. Each of us has gifts and talents planted in our souls by God himself. Some have the gift of charity, some compassion, others prayer, and others love. Humility is not dejection of who you are. Humility is the process of killing the other parts of the heart: anger, hate, judgment, and egoism. We do not want to take these into eternity. They need to die.
Lent comes at this time of the year to help us in this work. It is the school of self-emptying. If we look at Lent as a burden we miss the entire point. It should be the sweetest joy. It is our time for lightening the soul. In C. S. Lewis’ story, Voyage of the Dawn Treador, a boy was transformed into a dragon because of his selfishness. At last, Aslan [Jesus] came to him and tore off all the false, slimy scales with his lion’s claws.
"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone.”
The claws were painful at first, but at the end, no longer a dragon but a noble boy, the pain lead to the sweetest pleasure. It was a death that lead to life. So is every struggle in our Christian walk.
This week, I emailed the parish a guideline for a “Personal Lenten Plan.” I have printed copies in the back, and I want to encourage everyone to take time to work through it. We put a lot of effort in budgeting our finances or to scrutinizing over our schedules. Can we put the same effort in our walk with Christ? The gravest mistake a Christian can make is assume his relationship with God is spiritual. It is no more spiritual than making a budget. Our love for God is as concrete as our daily habits. We are saved by our actions, our willingness to be deliberate. The guideline gives advice on what Lent is for and what is expected of us. It does not ask for much, but simply that we be deliberate.
How can we become humble? The Church will teach you in Lent, if you submit to it. Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Confession, far from being optional, these are the basic foundations for becoming truly human. Call it Kenotism, or call it life. Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Confession are the sweet medicines that empty the heart so that it can be filled up to the brim with God.
St. Isaac calls humility the crown of all virtues. Humility, he says, “makes man god on earth.” How do we achieve humility? We have to be deliberate about each and every day, habit after habit, learning to self-empty. Finally, St. Isaac reminds us, we have to pray for humility.
“Instead of making your prayer on the topic of this thing or another, or concerning that matter or another,” St. Isaac urges, “abandon all these and rely on a single prayer, saying, ‘O God, grant me humility…so that with humility I may draw near even to those delights of the mind of which I am unaware…before I acquire this humility.’ And God will then give you the gift of his Spirit, a gift whose greatness you are not capable of speaking about or conceiving.”
There is nothing so sweet and healing as humility. May God give us strength through the Lenten Season to build habits that open our heart to humility.