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Jesus Christ emptied Himself

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on Jesus Christ
General Audience, Wednesday 17 February 1988 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. "Behold the man!" (Jn 19:5). In last week's reflection we recalled these words of Pilate when he presented Jesus to the high priests and guards, after having had him scourged and before pronouncing the definitive sentence of death on a cross. Jesus is the symbol of suffering humanity, covered with wounds, crowned with thorns, clothed in purple, mocked and smitten by the soldiers and already close to death.

"Behold the man!" This expression contains in a certain sense the whole truth about Christ, true man; about him who "is like us in all things but sin"; about him who "has united himself in some fashion with every man" (cf. GS 22). They called him the "friend of tax collectors and sinners." Precisely as a victim for sin, Jesus entered into solidarity with all humanity including "sinners," even to death on a cross. Precisely in this condition of victim to which Jesus was reduced, a final aspect of his humanity stands out. This aspect must be accepted and profoundly meditated on in the light of the mystery of his self-emptying (kenosis). According to St. Paul, "though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).

2. The Pauline text from the Letter to the Philippians introduces us into the mystery of Christ's kenosis. To express this mystery the apostle uses first of all the words "emptied himself," which refers especially to the reality of the Incarnation. "The Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14). God the Son assumed human nature, humanity, and became true man, while remaining God! The truth about Christ as man must always be considered in relation to God the Son. This permanent reference itself is indicated by St. Paul's text. "He emptied himself" does not in any way mean that he ceased to be God; that would be absurd! It means rather, as the apostle perceptively expressed it, that "he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped," but "though he was in the form of God" (in forma Dei), as the true Son of God, he assumed a human nature deprived of glory, subject to suffering and death, in which he could live in obedience to the Father, even to the ultimate sacrifice.

3. In this context, his becoming like man involved a voluntary renunciation, which extended even to the privileges he could have enjoyed as man. He assumed "the form of a slave." He did not wish to belong to the powerful; he wished to be as one who serves. "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve" (Mk 10:45).

4. We see in the Gospels that Christ's earthly life was marked by poverty from the very beginning. This was clearly set out in the account of his birth, when the evangelist Luke observed that "there was no room for them [Mary and Joseph] in the inn," and that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger (cf. Lk 2:7). From Matthew we learn that already in the first months of Jesus' life, he experienced the lot of a refugee (cf. Mt 2:13-15). His hidden life at Nazareth was lived in extremely modest conditions; the head of the family was a carpenter (cf. Mt 13:55) and Jesus himself worked with his putative father (Mk 6:3). When he began his teaching, his situation continued to be one of extreme poverty, as he himself bore witness to in a certain way by referring to the precarious conditions of life imposed by his ministry of evangelization. "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Lk 9:58).

5. From its beginning, Jesus' messianic mission encountered opposition and misunderstanding, despite the signs which he worked. He was observed and persecuted by those who had power and influence over the people. Finally, he was accused, condemned and put to death on a cross, the most infamous of all forms of capital punishment. It was applied only for crimes of extreme gravity, especially to those people who were not Roman citizens, and to slaves. For this reason also it can be said with the Apostle that Christ literally took "the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7).

6. In this stripping of his very self which profoundly characterizes the truth about Christ true man, we can say that it re-establishes it and restores it. When we read that the Son "did not regard equality with God something to be grasped," we cannot but see in these words an allusion to the first and original temptation to which Adam and Eve yielded in the beginning: "You will become (that is, you will be) like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5). They yielded to the temptation to be like God, even though they were only creatures. He who is God the Son "did not regard equality with God something to be grasped." In becoming man, "he emptied himself" and by that choice he restored all human beings, however poor and deprived, to their original dignity.

7. But to express this mystery of Christ's kenosis St. Paul also used another phrase: "He humbled himself." He used this expression in the context of the reality of the redemption. He wrote that Jesus Christ "humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). Here Christ's kenosis is described in its definitive dimension. From the human point of view it is the dimension of the self-emptying by means of his passion and cruel death. From the divine point of view, it is the redemption effected by the merciful love of the Father through the Son, who freely obeyed out of love for the Father and to save humanity. In that moment there was a new beginning of God's glory in human history, the glory of Christ, his Son made man. The Pauline text says, "Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9).

8. Commenting on this text of the Letter to the Philippians, St. Athanasius says, "This expression, 'has exalted him,' does not imply that the nature of the Word was exalted. The latter has been and always will be equal to God. It indicates, however, the exaltation of human nature. These words, therefore, were uttered only after the Incarnation of the Word, so that it would be clear that terms such as humbled and exalted refer solely to the human dimension. In fact, only what is humble can be exalted" (Athanasius, Adversus Arianos Oratio I, 41). Here we shall add merely that the whole of human nature, all humanity, humiliated in the painful condition to which it has been reduced by sin, finds the source of its new glory in the exaltation of Christ the man.

9. We cannot conclude without a final remark about the fact that Jesus generally referred to himself as "Son of Man" (e.g., Mk 2:10, 28; 14:62; Mt 8:20; 16:27; Lk 9:22; 11:30; Jn 1:51; 8:28; 13:31; etc.). According to the meaning of the common language of the time, this expression could also indicate that he is true man just like all other human beings, and undoubtedly it refers to his real humanity.

However, the strictly biblical meaning, even in this case, must be established by bearing in mind the historical context deriving from the tradition of Israel. This was expressed and influenced by Daniel's prophecy which gave rise to the formulation of a messianic concept (cf. Dan 7:13-14). In this context, "Son of Man" did not signify merely a common man belonging to the human race. Rather, it refers to a personage who would receive from God a universal dominion, transcending history, in the eschatological era.

On the lips of Jesus and in the Gospel texts, the expression is fraught with a full meaning that embraces the divine and human, heaven and earth, history and eschatology. Jesus himself gave us to understand this when, testifying before Caiaphas that he is the Son of God, he emphatically predicted, "From now on you will see 'the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power' and 'coming on the clouds of heaven'" (Mt 26:64). The power and glory of God is therefore immanent in the Son of Man. We are once again face to face with the unique Man-God, true man and true God. This reflection brings us back continually to him so that we may believe, and that believing, we may pray and adore.


After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai visitatori di lingua francese

J’adresse un salut cordial à tous les visiteurs de langue française. En ce mercredi des cendres, l’Eglise nous invite à commencer notre marche vers Pâques par une période d’exercices spirituels: c’est le sens du carême, qui débute aujourd’hui. Je souhaite que vous entriez avec ferveur dans cette saison liturgique marquée par une prière plus intense et une discipline de vie plus rigoureuse, afin que, renouvelés dans la foi, l’espérance et l’amour, vous puissiez célébrer avec joie la Résurrection du Christ.

Je suis heureux de saluer spécialement les pèlerins du diocèse de Nîmes, les membres du “Chœur d’Hommes de Paris”, et les nombreux groupes de jeunes présents à cette audience.

De grand cœur, je prie le Seigneur de vous bénir.

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I want to welcome in a special way the members of the Saint Agnes Cathedral Choir from New York. I extend warm greetings to the Catholic pilgrims from the Parish in Aarhus, Denmark, and from the Parish of Kungälv in Sweden. And I greet most cordially all the English-speaking visitors present at this audience, in particular those coming from England, Sweden, Denmark and the United States.

I pray that the season of Lent which begins today will be for all of you a time of renewed conversion of mind and heart. May the Lord bless you with his grace and peace.

Ai fedeli di espressione linguistica tedesca

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

Dieses beispiel Jesu Christi von seiner demütigen Selbstentäußerung um unseres Heiles willen soll uns, liebe Brüder und Schwestern, in die nun beginnende österliche Bußzeit begleiten. Von Herzen begrüße ich euch alle zur heutigen Audienz; unter den genannten Gruppen namentlich die Ordensschwestern verschiedener Kongregationen, die an einem theologischen Kurs am Päpstlichen Institut ” Regina Mundi “ hier in Rom teilnehmen, sowie die Gruppe Steylerschwestern, die in einem Erneuerungskurs in Nemi ihren apostolischen Einsatz in den Missionen betend und betrachtend vertiefen. Euch allen sei Christus Vorbild, der gekommen ist, nicht um sich bedienen zu lassen, sondern um zu dienen, um sich selbst für das Heil der Menschen ganz zu verschenken. Er schenke euch und allen anwesenden Pilgern seine reiche Gnade mit meinem besonderen Apostolischen Segen!

Ai numerosi gruppi provenienti dall’America Latina e dalla Spagna

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Deseo ahora saludar cordialmente a todos los peregrinos y visitantes procedentes de los diversos Países de América Latina y de España.

En modo particular, saludo al grupo de Religiosas del Instituto Pureza de María, provenientes de Nicaragua, junto con sus familiares. Igualmente, a las Hermanas Franciscanas de la Inmaculada Concepción y a los componentes de la peregrinación de Colombia.

Con mi afecto imparto a todos la Bendición Apostólica.

Al gruppo del Cuore Immacolato di Maria di Fatima

Saúdo em particular o grupo vindo de Portugal, que se propõe expandir a devoção ao Coração Imaculado de Maria, divulgando a mensagem de Nossa Senhora de Fátima, que coincide com a do dia litúrgico de hoje, pois é convite à penitência e à conversão.

Grato por vos acolher, exortovos, e a quantos interpelardes, a obedecer à chamada do Amor eterno, aceitando o conselho vindo do Coração Imaculado da Mãe do Redentor: fazer o que o mesmo Jesus continua a dizer à Igreja e ao mundo: “Convertei-vos e acreditai no Evangelho!”. Com a minha Bênção.

Ai fedeli polacchi

Pozdrawiam wszystkich pielgrzymów z Polski, zarówno z kraiu, jak z emigracji, pośród nich również uczestników grup turystycznych Orbisu i PKS-u.

Ad alcuni pellegrinaggi italiani e ad un gruppo di studentesse svedesi

Desidero ora porgere il mio saluto al gruppo dei nuovi consiglieri ecclesiastici della Confederazione Nazionale Coltivatori Diretti, convenuti a Roma per un corso di formazione. Cari sacerdoti! Dedicatevi con impegno alla vostra missione, contribuendo alla giusta promozione del mondo dei coltivatori della terra. Occorre che anche nella società tecnica sia favorita l’adeguata partecipazione del mondo rurale al progresso, ed è urgente operare affinché non vengano meno quei valori religiosi ed umani che hanno sempre fatto dell’ambiente agricolo un luogo ricco di solidarietà, di spirito fraterno, di cordiale amicizia e partecipazione. Che il Signore vi assista nella preziosa opera che vi accingete a compiere.

* * *

Saluto poi i sacerdoti della Società dell’apostolato Cattolico, i Padri Pallottini, responsabili della formazione nei Seminari maggiori della loro Società.

Vi auguro, carissimi, di saper mettere insieme le svariate esperienze delle vostre case diffuse in tutto il mondo, per confermare i principi fondamentali che devono guidare i candidati al sacerdozio verso il pieno e santo compimento della vocazione, nella luce dello specifico carisma del Fondatore.

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Il mio pensiero va poi al numeroso gruppo dei dipendenti e collaboratori di “Edenlandia”, il Parco dei divertimenti che opera attualmente a Fuorigrotta di Napoli. A tutti il mio cordiale benvenuto, unito all’augurio della costante protezione del Signore sulle vostre attività. Desidero esortarvi, altresì, a diffondere intorno a voi un clima di cordiale fraternità, mediante la proposta di un sano divertimento e di un intelligente svago.

* * *

Ed ora un saluto alle alunne di un Ginnasio della Svezia.

Maxima cum animi affectione volo nunc consalutare adstantes discipulas quae ex cathedrali schola Scarensi in Suecia huc advenerunt. Libentissime vos recipio vestrumque Latinitatis studium vehementer dilaudo. Vos autem singulas cohortor ut omnibus viribus in tam salutari frugiferoque disciplinarum optimarum curriculo diligenter perseveretis. In vos quidem vestrumque magistrum auxilium divinum devoco et benignissimum Dominum adprecor ut omnes amabiliter tueatur.

A tutti la mia Benedizione Apostolica.

* * *

Sono oggi presenti tra noi i Maestri di Cappella, venuti a Roma per un loro convegno. Nel rivolgere loro il mio cordiale saluto, desidero sottolineare l’importanza del servizio di animazione del canto liturgico, che essi svolgono durante i riti religiosi. Li esorto pertanto a perseverare con rinnovato entusiasmo in questo loro apprezzato ministero ecclesiale, nel ricordo della massima degli antichi Padri, secondo cui “chi bene canta prega due volte”.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

Ai giovani

Un pensiero ora per tutti i giovani qui presenti. Cari giovani! Oggi è il “mercoledì delle ceneri”, il giorno che, come sapete, ci introduce ad un tempo prezioso per il cammino della fede: la quaresima. Durante questo tempo liturgico siamo tutti invitati ad un impegno di interiore conversione in preparazione alla Pasqua. La Chiesa ogni giorno ci propone nella liturgia le tappe da percorrere in tale spirituale cammino. Tempo di luce, quindi, la quaresima, e tempo di gioiose scoperte; ma anche, e soprattutto, tempo di severo impegno e di ricerca. Io vi esorto a viverlo con il proposito costante di dedicare in esso opportuni momenti all’ascolto della Parola di Dio. Scegliete le ore della giornata particolarmente adatte per accostarvi a Dio in atteggiamento di preghiera e di raccoglimento, nel silenzio che vi consente di ritrovare voi stessi ed il Signore che vi parla. Potrete allora accorgervi come, giorno dopo giorno, Cristo guidi la vostra anima alla comprensione della verità e della missione che egli vi vorrà affidare per la vita.

Agli ammalati

Saluto anche i malati e li esorto a vivere la quaresima uniti a Cristo nella meditazione più attenta del mistero della Croce. Carissimi, chi soffre può comprendere in maniera più acuta, quando è sostenuto dalla fede, le sofferenze spirituali che gravano sul cuore delle persone lontane da Cristo. I malati intuiscono il tormento di coloro che non hanno speranza, avendo perduto il senso di Dio e la gioia di obbedirGli. Chiedo perciò a voi, sofferenti, di rivolgervi spesso a Cristo Crocifisso per implorare il ritorno di coloro che sono lontani da Dio, affinché in questo tempo di grazia possano ritrovare la gioia della fede e della riconciliazione.

Agli sposi novelli

Un pensiero, poi, alle coppie di giovani sposi. Cari sposi Anche per voi i giorni quaresimali sono preziosi e possono segnare un felice inizio della vita coniugale cristiana. “Chi medita la legge del Signore, porta frutto a suo tempo”. Così acclama spesso la Chiesa in quaresima. Introducete nella comunità familiare, fin d’ora, l’abitudine di meditare sulla parola di Dio, cercando insieme la sua volontà e sforzandovi di percorrere le vie che Gesù Cristo vi indica per costruire costantemente la vostra famiglia sulla roccia salda del suo Vangelo.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

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