The Paradox of Divine Love: A Treatise on the Kenosis of Christ and Creation

The following essay is for my Dogma 520 Class on Creation and Christology.

The Paradox of Divine Love: A Treatise on the Kenosis of Christ and Creation

Richard Conlin

Dogma 520

November 14, 2016

Fr. Abbot John

In his latest encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis states: “From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy” (99). This statement from the Holy Father, if properly unpacked, becomes an important reference point to one of the deepest questions plaguing the human heart: Why is God hidden, while His children cry out for help? This challenging question is ultimately bound up with the mystery of Christ. In this essay, we will explore the mystery of Christ’s hidden work in the natural world and man’s autonomy over creation by focusing on three phases: Christ’s creation, Christ’s Incarnation, and Christ’s reconciliation. A key word that will guide this treatise is “kenosis”: a greek noun derived from the verb “he emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7). Kenosis is way of divine love: the Father gives away His Word to create the world and the Word empties Himself to bring the world back to the Father. In the paradox of divine love, Christ’s hidden work in the world is revealed as the most powerful way to achieve the ultimate purpose of all creation: “that God “who is the creator of all things may at last become ‘all in all,’ thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude” (CCC 294).

1st Phase: Christ’s Creation

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).

These opening words to John’s Gospel, considered to be “the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account” (Ratzinger 25), reveals Christ’s intimate involvement in creation as the Creative Word through Whom the Father spoke everything into existence: “All things came into being through Him” (John 1:3). The Father experiences His first “kenosis” in this utterly unique act of creation as He “gives away” His Word to bring all things into being (Corbon 32-3). This Word, the pre-incarnate Christ, Who was with the Father from the beginning, reveals the Father as a Person Who gives Himself completely to all that exists through “his beloved Son” (CCC 291, 295). This dynamism between the Father giving away His Son and the Son in turn revealing the Father shows forth Trinitarian love as “the fundamental moving force in all created things” (LS 77). Since love by nature is diffusive of self, the Father and the Son exemplify this theological virtue by holding nothing back in their complete acts of self-giving for the glory of the Other.

Although the Father has no need of creation, in His benevolence, He shows forth and communicates His glory in manifesting the created universe for a specific purpose: “The world was made for the glory of God” (CCC 293). This glorious act of creation is utterly unique. The Hebrew word bara, which means to create, sheds light on this distinct act. Bara is a word attributed only to God in the Hebrew scriptures because only God can literally create (Kreeft YCUB 7, CC 318). God’s act of creating “the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), in spanning the “infinite gap between nothing and something” (Kreeft YCUB 7), reveals that God is infinitely powerful and free (CCC 295). God has intentionally chosen and willed to bring creation into being out of nothing. As a result, creation is something inherently good: “And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:12, 18, 21, 25).

Yet this first act of creation is hidden. The Father’s kenosis in creation lacks a response: “The Father gives himself, but who receives him? His Word is given, but who answers?” (Corbon 32). In the mystery of creation, Trinitarian love aches for a creature who “is able to know and love his creator” (CCC 356).

In their desire for a response, man becomes a unique proposition from the heart of the Trinity. Rather than being “thrust into being” (Corbon 33) like the rest of creation, man is “essentially proposed” (ibid) into being: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). As the crowning glory of the creation account, man becomes the greatest treasure of Trinitarian love.

Although God, as first cause, is absolutely sovereign in guiding man “toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained” (CCC 302), in His benevolence and love, He freely allows man, as secondary cause, to collaborate with Him “in perfecting the visible creation” (378, 308). By refraining from “impinging on the autonomy of his creature” (LS 80), the Father bestows a unique dignity on man as a rational being: the “rightful autonomy of earthly affairs” (ibid). Man, as the only creature who carries God’s image in creation, is given rule and dominion over creation so that he may “serve and love God and offer all creation back to him” (CCC 358) and in doing so, “come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him” (GS 17). 

In creating man with free will, the “living God’s most far reaching kenosis” (Corbon 33) left Him open to rejection. God’s desire for man to share in His love by giving him autonomy over earthly matters contained a serious risk: Will man play his role and offer everything back to God?

Unfortunately, our first parents abused their rightful autonomy. Through sin, Adam and Eve damaged their “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with [their] neighbour, and with the earth itself” (LS 66). Rather than being able to freely offer all creation back to God to perfect their vocations, Adam and Eve found themselves in conflict with nature (cf. Gen. 3:17-19). Man’s autonomy over creation would never be the same. Fortunately, the Father, who is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), took the most drastic measures to complete the good work which He began in Christ.

2nd Phase: Christ’s Incarnation

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

The Incarnation is the Son’s imitation of the Father’s kenosis: He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (my italics Phil. 2:7). The paradox of divine love is exemplified here when the Creator asks for permission from His creature, “without thereby impinging on [Mary’s] autonomy” (LS 99). Finally, in the humble consent of a teenage virgin, the kenosis of the living God culminates in a person whose entire being is open to the Gift: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The heavens rejoice, yet the earth is silent. God’s love takes on flesh, yet the Mystery remains hidden.

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (my italics John 1:10).

Although Jesus kept His divine nature in His Incarnation, Jesus’ kenosis concealed His glory – the world did not know him (John 1:10). The mystery of the God-man sparked a new wonder from those He encountered: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27 qtd in LS 98). Jesus, Who lived “in full harmony with creation” (LS 98), re-entered creation back “into dialogue with God through man” (Schmaus 112). This dialogue echoed back to God’s original plan for all creation: “From the beginning, God has envisaged the glory of the new creation in Christ” (CCC 280). This “new creation in Christ” (ibid) was not an addition to God’s original plan for creation, but rather “it was the core of the divine plan from the very beginning” (Schmaus 74).

Man, as the “summit of the Creator’s work” (CCC 343), finally finds an answer in the person of Christ to two of the deepest questions in his heart: Who am I? What is my purpose? First, by His Incarnation, Christ “fully reveals man to man himself” (GS 22) by showing man that he is actually created in Christ’s image, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Christ, the Son of God by nature, reveals to man that he is a son of God by grace: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5). Second, by His Incarnation, Christ “makes [man’s] supreme calling clear” (GS 22) by showing man that he is called to “live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12). Christ, Who made a complete gift of himself to become incarnate, reveals to man that he is also called to share in Christ’s kenosis by making a “sincere gift of himself” (GS 24) to glorify God.

In the mystery of the living God’s kenosis, Christ “does not hold graspingly to his autonomy… [but] He does the contrary: he becomes completely dependent, he becomes a slave” (Ratzinger 93). As a slave, Christ freely gave away his rightful autonomy over creation and began his “work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole” (LS 99) in an entirely new way.

3rd Phase: Christ’s Reconciliation

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

In the paradox of divine love, Christ’s death means our life. Through Christ’s kenosis that led to the cross, an instrument of death becomes a “tree of life… for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Hung upon the cross, our Blessed Lord recapitulates all things in Himself, “things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10) and sets free “the whole creation [that had] been groaning in labour pains until now” (Rom. 8:21). The Father’s love for His creation is boldly affirmed “in a new and more wonderful way” (RH 8) in this daring act of divine redemption: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). In His death on the cross as the Son of Man, the Son of God plunged into the depths of the human tragedy and conquered death by His own death.

In order to effect the reconciliation He won for us until the end of time, our Blessed Lord instituted the Eucharist, in which bread and wine, “fruit of the work of human hands” (CCC 1333), are changed into His very own Body and Blood. As “the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation” (LS 236), the Eucharist “joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation” (ibid). By making present His one perfect sacrifice on the cross, the Eucharist becomes an “abiding tree of life, which is ever in our midst and ever invites us to take the fruit of true life” (Ratzinger 94). The paradox of the hidden God’s work in the natural world is profound in this great kenosis of love for man. By freely exercising our autonomy and receiving the Eucharist into our human bodies, Christ is able to continue through us His hidden work in the world. St. Paul understood this beautiful paradox when he said: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The Eucharist, veiled in a mystery of divine love, becomes the most intense way, in this life, to bring about the ultimate purpose of creation: God’s glory and our beatitude (CCC 294). In affirming the goodness of creation in the most sublime way possible, our daily celebration of the Eucharist also becomes a clear eschatological sign of our “great hope in the new heavens and new earth” (CCC 1405).

At the end of time, everything, both “humanity and the world… will be perfectly re-established in Christ” (CCC 1043-2). As we await for this mysterious renewal in Christ, God’s present creation – paradoxically – becomes more important, not less. Although we do not know the time nor the means by which “the universe will be transformed” (GS 39), we do know “its consequences” (Kreeft CC 145). Just as a pregnant woman becomes “more precious, not less, because another is to be born from her” (Kreeft CC 145), so God’s creation becomes more valuable, not less, because a “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13) will emerge from her. As a result, our autonomy over creation must be eschatologically-oriented in taking care of “our common home” (LS 1) in order to build up “the body of a new human family” (GS 39). This new family is centred on Christ, Who, as “the principle of [a] new spiritual creation” (Jaki 67), is mysteriously “at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole” (LS 99), directing creation towards its final fulfillment in Him.

As the pilgrim Church travels towards Her Home, we must still face one of the most challenging questions of our times: Why is God hidden, while His children cry out for help? Although this question remains a mystery regardless of the profundity of theological insight, this mystery is not a puzzle to be solved, but rather an invitation to be embraced. If we accept the central truth that “Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy” (LS 99), then Christ’s light begins to slowly shine on our darkness. Christ’s creation becomes a light that turns the world from a cosmic mistake to be used into a common home to be cared for. Christ’s Incarnation becomes a light that turns the human body from a machine to be manipulated into a temple to be glorified. Christ’s reconciliation becomes a light that turns death from a terrible end into a triumphant beginning. In this mysterious light of faith, we see that the God has revealed Himself just enough that those who seek Him will find Him and He has hidden Himself just enough that those who do not seek Him will not find Him. As we seek the hidden God, His light guides us along the paradoxical path of Christ’s kenosis to a new beginning in which we cry out: “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).


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