September 25, 2011 - Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

There is a story I know from a book that many of you read in school. The book is about hunting raccoons. The story says that if you want to trap a raccoon, all you need is something shiny. You put this shiny object in a place with a very small opening. The raccoon will reach in and grab it, but because its fist is now full, it cannot pull its paw back. It could just let go of the object and go away, but it will not do this. It will never let go. You will find it the next morning, still holding on.

While I cannot personally verify this method of trapping raccoons to be effective, I have seen the principle in action, not with raccoons but people. So many people want to go to heaven, but they cannot because they are holding on to something. So many people want to be holy and good, but they constantly make bad decisions because they are accounting for something that they would be better off forgetting.  

Every last one of us is holding on to something that is preventing us from being really happy. What we need to learn is kenosis. The beautiful poem from Philippians that makes up most of our second reading is showing the concept of kenosis. Kenosis means “emptiness” in Greek, and St. Paul is telling us about how Christ emptied himself. What does that mean? It means to not grasp onto anything.

Kenosis is the most courageous act possible. All courage is founded on kenosis. A person can only run into a burning building to save another person once they have let go of their own sense of safety. A person can only speak an unpopular truth once they have let go of their desire for popularity. A person can only serve the poor once they have let go of their desire to avoid the unpleasant.

If someone runs into a burning building to save their valuables, that is opposite of courage: they are too cowardly to watch their possessions burn. If one person fights another over an insult to their reputation, that is the opposite of courage: they are too cowardly to be despised. Kenosis cannot be practiced by someone who is afraid.

Kenosis does not mean losing everything. It means losing everything except those things that no one can take away. Consider Christ’s journey of kenosis. He is God, but he came down to earth. He went from being all-powerful and perfectly happy, to being poor and suffering the difficulties of this world. When all his disciples left him, he let them go. When his enemies tried to kill him, he did not stop them. He never grasped at anything. No one could ever threaten Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is God, and nothing anyone ever did to him could change that fact. He did not need to hold on tightly to his equality with the Father because he had complete confidence that this could not be taken away from him. Even when they killed him, he was still God. He did not have to fight to defend himself because he knew that nothing could change who he is.

He could have made a lot of money, but then someone could have stolen his money. He could have made himself king of Judea, but then someone could have conquered his kingdom. Instead, he emptied himself, just as we should empty ourselves, just as we should let go of whatever it is that we are holding on to.

Perhaps you will think, “Kenosis is all well and good for Jesus, since he was God and nothing could ever change that, but for me, what can I depend on?” The same thing: not that we are God but that there is a God. They might take your money, you safety, your health, even your life, but no one can take God away from you.

As St. Paul begins this meditation on kenosis, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy….” Here are things that no one can take away from you: Christ, love, the Holy Spirit, mercy, and compassion. So why do we hold on so tightly to our worthless baubles when true wealth is ours forever, guaranteed?

Perhaps an objection has arisen in your mind, that it is all well and good when a religious, a sister or a brother, someone like St. Francis or Blessed Theresa, lets go of this world, empties themself of every inferior desire and becomes like an alien just visiting this material universe, but what about people who have to live in this world?

First, I agree. This is why religious life is a higher calling. If there is anyone out there today who is called to religious life, do not grasp on to this world! Let go, so that you can stand before God with empty hands, waiting for him to fill them. I do not even say, “If there are any young people.” There is a long history in the Church of widows and widowers joining religious life. If there is anyone here, young or old, who is free to let go of the world, anyone who is attracted to this idea of kenosis, anyone who wants to be like Jesus, go, live that life; be not afraid!

However, those of us who are tied to this world to varying degrees by responsibilities do not simply put aside kenosis. As St. Paul exhorts us today, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” We live in a selfish age. Constant advertisements are everywhere, often promoting nothing more than selfishness. We have every reason to believe that we are the most important person in the world, at least the most important person in our world. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone humbly regarded others as more important than themselves! But we cannot control everyone, so I have to live this principle in my life and you have to live this principle in your life.

This begins at home with your spouse and your children. It continues at work, from the head of the company down to the janitor. It is a rule to live by every day. By following this simple rule, humbly regarding others as more important than ourselves, we can practice kenosis in the world around us. There are so many opportunities to be humble. If you cannot let go of the whole world, at least let go of pride.