Christian Kenosis


An accurate theology of Christian kenosis is perhaps the most important truth to understand in one’s journey toward an ever deepening union with God, and for loving service in the world.  It is the most fundamental ground for Christian spirituality.  Thus, this calling of a Christian is explored here.  First, the underpinning theologies of Christian kenosis, Trinitarian, Christological, anthropological, will be examined and related to Christian kenosis.  Then, Christian kenosis is explored as a calling to a disposition:  a disposition for all Christian life and ministry; a disposition which includes self-abnegation; and a disposition for service and mission.  Last, Christian kenosis is explored as a calling to conformity to the image of Christ:  involving a whole life of growing willingness; involving a willingness to be drawn by divine grace; involving being drawn toward conformity in Christ.


Kenosis as Holy Intimacy

Kenosis at the heart of the Trinity is an ongoing eternal event of loving self-gift within the life of the Triune God.  It is into this holy intimacy that Christians are called and graciously invited.[1]  The self-gifting love of the Trinity overflows as creation, for creation, and into creation inviting others to kenotic participation in the trinitarian life through Christ by the Spirit.  Perhaps the climactic expression of kenosis is the incarnation of the divine Son, which continues to be expressed in his death, descent, resurrection, the sending of the Spirit, the Church, and the Eucharist.  Christ perfectly expresses kenotic humanity and reveals what it means to be truly human and truly divine – although Christian kenosis is merely analogical to that of Christ.  Kenosis is “the common characteristic of what is most truly divine and what is most truly human,”[2] writes Gill Goulding.  And thus the way to approach becoming fully human is shown to humanity as a communion of reciprocal love between self-gifting divine life and self-surrendering human life; where the initiative is always with the divine life, as self-giving love and grace, and the loving response of human life (drawn by grace) is seen chiefly as self-surrender and obedience.

Now in order to ground Christian kenosis in theology, the following touches on a few key points of trinitarian kenosis, the love of God, the Incarnation, Christological kenosis, and theological anthropology.

  1. Trinitarian Kenosis: The Kenotic Event

In the foremost sense, Trinitarian kenosis is an eternal event of selfless love.  The kenotic event of the Trinity is the eternal relations of three persons in loving, selfless communion.  John Saward writes, “This, then, is the Trinitarian kenosis:  God in himself is a consubstantial communion of selfless, self-emptied persons.  In a word, God is love, Triune love.  He does not lose anything in the dance of dispossession: only thus is he God.  In the Trinity having and giving away are one.”[3]  This loving, selfless communion is that which constitutes God, and in this sense God is being-as-communion.  Anne Hunt writes, “The triune God is constituted by a kenotic self-giving and receiving between the persons.”[4]  Hans Urs von Balthasar asserts that God’s being is a gifted event of communion.  As Aristotle Papanikolaou points out, “Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology claims that being itself is a gifted event, even the being of the divine persons themselves.  God’s being is an event of communion of persons.  This communion is freely constituted in relations that are kenotic, i.e., mutually self-giving and receptive.”[5]  Characteristics of this communion indicate the equality and mutuality of the persons of the Trinity, and of their love, freedom, selflessness, self-gift, giving and receiving, and self-surrender.  It is important to affirm the equality of the persons.  There is no hierarchy of power[6]:  “the inner life of the Blessed Trinity is coequal love, not domination and subservience,”[7] writes Saward.  This truth speaks of mutuality and freedom within the Trinity.  The selflessness of the holy persons is indicated by their eternal giving away in the kenotic event.  Von Balthasar agrees with the basic idea of Bulgakov’s:  “The ultimate presupposition of the Kenosis is the ‘selflessness’ of the Persons (when considered as pure relationships) in the inner-Trinitarian life of love.”[8]

As the ground of Christian kenosis, it is to be noted again from above that “being itself is a gifted event.”  Thus it is in participation in the communion of kenosis that a human being is truly constituted.  It is God’s being and self-gift which makes this communion possible and human ‘being’ possible.  Mark McIntosh writes, “So von Balthasar wants to suggest that God is an eternal life of mutual self-surrender.  It is this divine self-positing as ‘other’ which makes possible a created other, and indeed the possibility that the creature may share in divine union without losing its otherness.”[9]  The dignity and freedom of the human person remains; and these are key aspects of one’s otherness.  Catherine Mowry LaCugna sums up these thoughts well.  She writes, “Trinitarian theology is par excellence a theology of relationship:  God to us, we to God, we to each other.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that the ‘essence’ of God is relational, other-ward, that God exists as diverse persons united in a communion of freedom, love, and knowledge.”[10]

  1. As Expression of God’s Unconditional Love

The possibility of Christian kenosis is an expression of the unconditional love of God.  In Heart of the World, von Balthasar describes the love of God in Christ as complete self-gift and self emptying which pours into the hearts of Christians, brings life to them, and is to be expressed through them:  “This Heart’s love loved even to annihilation, and since it had become invisible in itself, it now emerged in the hearts of the redeemed.”[11]  When it is expressed back to God in self-surrender, this expression of love is Christian kenosis made possible by God’s love.  In fact, all of creation is an expression of God’s unconditional love.  In Saward’s words, “Creation is, therefore, an act of breathtakingly disinterested love.  It is, we might add, an act of ‘unclinging’, kenotic love.”[12]

Hunt sees in von Balthasar that God’s love revealed in the gift of his Son and his self-gift reforms Platonic notions of perfection:  God is perfect in love.  She writes, “The distinctly kenotic character of divine love emerges in von Balthasar’s theology.  …  The God revealed in the kenosis of the cross and descent is not to be understood in terms of Greek philosophical notions of immutability and impassibility.  The divine perfections are instead refashioned in terms of the perfections of self-giving, self-yielding, kenotic love.”[13]

  1. Incarnation as Revelatory of the Trinity

God’s gift of his Son reveals some of the mystery of the Trinity.  As David Power states, “It is in the kenosis of the Son that the mystery of the Trinity is made manifest.”[14]  The fact that the Incarnation is possible, being the gift of God’s self, reveals the self-gift of distinct persons within the Trinity.  Von Balthasar articulates this precisely, “The exteriorisation of God (in the Incarnation) has its ontic condition of possibility in the eternal exteriorisation of God – that is, in his tripersonal self-gift.”[15]

Christ’s human obedience is revelatory of loving obedience within the Trinity.  Saward quotes Balthasar, “Christ’s obedience is ‘the revelation in human form of the eternal love of the divine Son for his eternal Father, who has eternally begotten him out of love’.”[16]  Thus the Christian, as a follower of Christ, is to find the source of his/her obedience in God within kenosis.  In Saward’s words, “According to Balthasar, Christ’s obedience discloses the Trinity’s life of love and provides the model and source for the obedience of … the Church.”[17]

  1. Christological Kenosis

The kenosis of Christ is found in the Christological Hymn in Philippians.  Paraphrasing Phil 2.6-8 in Heart of the World, von Balthasar writes of the mind of Christ as “the resolve of the one who did not hold on to his form of God convulsively and clutchingly, but who broke it and emptied it out so that it began to flow as the courage to serve and as lowliness, became obedient even unto death on the Cross.”[18]  Christ’s obedience is given freely in love, as it eternally is and was also.  In Mysterium Paschale von Balthasar writes, “By letting go of the ‘form of God’ that was his (and so his divine power of self-disposal) he willed to become the One who, in a remarkable and unique manner, is obedient to the Father … where his obedience presents the kenotic translation of the eternal love of the Son for the ‘ever-greater’ Father.”[19]  This obedience is a response of love, as McIntosh states, “Jesus’ obedience is always a free response to the costly and prior self-giving of his Father.”[20]

  1. Theological Anthropology

Perhaps the most important point anthropologically is that Christian kenosis is the theological ground for the way one moves and is moved toward becoming truly human.  Von Balthasar speaks of personhood as a gifted event only possible in a relationship characterized as kenosis between the person and God.  “In Balthasar’s trinitarian theological anthropology, personhood is not defined in terms of a quality possessed, but as a gifted event.  One is person only in kenotic relations of freedom as love,”[21] writes Papanikolaou.  It is their given nature for human beings to become fully person only within loving communion with God.  Graham Ward writes that a person “is dialogical, created to love, and therefore always coming into an identity, that is, a form (Gestalt), as the mission continues and unfolds.  …  Becoming a person is a continual process and a participation in the eternal life of God.”[22]  One is always moving toward true personhood as one’s identity and mission unfolds in their lives in accordance with one’s loving self-surrender and obedience to God in Christ.  In the following, Papanikolaou makes clear the imperative of a person’s openness to God’s love and response of obedience and self-surrender in freedom in order for one to become a true person.

Humans become ‘persons’ in and through an obedient response to God’s call or mission.  …  One becomes a true human person, for Balthasar, when one is able to relate to the Father in the way the incarnate Son relates to the Father, and that relation takes the form of obedient response to the Father’s call to a unique, personal mission.  This obedient response images Trinitarian personhood in so far as it is a kenotic act, a self-surrender of all that one has and a making available to receive the love of God.  It is also ecstatic in that it is a free movement toward the ultimate other, who is God, and a transcending of human limits through participation in the infinite freedom of God.[23]

Thus Christian kenosis is the way in which one is being-as-communion.  Also important is the necessity of freedom.  Without freedom, true being is not possible.  LaCugna writes, “True being comes only from the free person, from the person who loves freely – that is, who freely affirms his being, his identity, by means of an event of communion with other persons.  Being, existence, is thus the event of persons in communion.”[24]


A Calling to a Disposition

Christian kenosis is a calling involving a disposition for all life and ministry.  It includes a disposition of self-surrender and indifference for loving service and mission, through obedience in the disposition of freedom, which may well include suffering.

  1. A Disposition for All Christian Life and Ministry

The Christian’s call to kenotic participation in the trinitarian life involves a disposition for all Christian life and ministry.  It is a way of life more than an activity, an integration of the internal and external life.  William Spohn describes dispositions as the places where identity, or calling, is discovered and developed.  This applies to Christian kenosis.  He writes, “The dispositions of the Christian … are the places where the identity of being a true disciple is being worked out.  From them come a wisdom and an inclination to follow the way of service and justice that Jesus took, even at the cost that he paid for such fidelity.”[25]  There is a sense that this is a disposition to dispossession where one is actually in full possession of oneself, the freedom for an orientation toward others.

At the end of Heart of the World, von Balthasar makes an inspired reversal of Augustine:  “Your Heart is restless until it rests in me.  Your Heart is restless until we rest in you.”[26]  Here in a nutshell, is another facet of the kenotic disposition for life and ministry:  divine initiative and gift of self comfortably abiding in the Christian, and the Christian’s response of finding rest in self-surrender to Him even while engaged in active ministry.  Thus there may be a kenotic way of ministering out of charisms and grace given (cf. Col 1.29) that could be characterized as “rest” without precluding the concurrent possibility of great effort or suffering.

  1. A Disposition Which Includes Self-Abnegation

Christian kenosis involves a disposition of self-sacrifice, self-surrender, self-emptying.  As Powers exhorts, “the Church, his Body, must live by this divine self-emptying.”[27]  Jesus expresses this in Luke 9.23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (ESV).  The phrase “deny (avrne,omai) self” means to refuse consent to self.[28]  The Christian’s calling to follow Christ involves daily self-abnegation and daily suffering.  The continual activity of this disposition is expressed as “daily”, but this verse may also apply to the beginning of the journey to follow Jesus.  Similarly, according to Jean Marc Laporte,

The hymn to Christ Jesus in Philippians evokes one kenosis but … we really need to surrender twice.  The first surrender is that of justification:  we consent to the divine power as it permeates the very roots of our being and transforms us.  Then we are called to the surrender of sanctification, of obedience to the God who unceasingly operates from without … and who finally calls us to the ultimate kenosis of death.[29]

In Heart of the World, von Balthasar understands self-surrender as both a response to grace and a work of grace – grace which was sought for out of the wounds of sin.  It is a full surrender of a “most-loved possession,” a heart of stone:

But since you are so wounded and the open torment of your heart has opened up to the abyss of your very self, put out your hand to me and, with it, feel the pulse of another Heart:  Through this new experience your soul will surrender and heave up the dark gall which it has long collected.  I must overpower you.  I cannot spare exacting from you your melancholy – your most-loved possession.  Give it to me, even if it costs you your soul and your inner self thinks it must die.  Give me this idol, this cold stony clot in your breast, and in its place I will give you a new heart of flesh that will beat to the pulse of my own Heart.  Give me this self of yours, which lives on its not being able to live, which is sick because it cannot die.  Let it perish, and you will finally begin to live.[30]

In dying we live.  “Every death which is willingly died is a source of life,”[31] states von Balthasar.  As in Matt 10.39, in losing our life we find it.  It is not an annihilation of our human nature, but a kind of fulfillment.  Yet it is not self-fulfillment, but the fulfillment of our true self.  As a result of “the Fall” and the inclination to sin, human beings “develop a false self, a counterfeit of the deeply buried image of God (or Christ-form).  …  From one point of view, the false self is always a kind of pride that keeps us preoccupied with self.”[32]  It is the false self that is formed by one’s sinful refusal to surrender to God’s love.

In Heart of the World, von Balthasar wonderfully articulates the true self, the innermost being, as the most fundamental imperative of one’s being, a gift to be lived on, which is simultaneously gift (God’s grace) and true self.  He writes, “If you were once to follow wholeheartedly the law and imperative of your very being, if you were once fully yourself, you would live solely on this gift that flows out to you (this gift which you yourself are), and you would do this by giving it away in turn, in holiness without having defiled it through possessiveness.”[33]  Living on the gift of true self is to be fully oneself – the fullness of God and self at once – and fully turned from self in dispossessiveness.  “Paradoxically the path to the fullness of God is one of ‘ascetic self-emptying’ and ‘self-naughting’ and not at all a path of self-affirmation, of self-fulfillment or of ‘perfect attainment’,”[34] writes Goulding.

St. Paul’s admonition to put off the old self (Eph 4.22) refers to the old person, that is, one’s old way of life.  It is not a rejection of self or some part of human constitution; rather, we are called to put off sin and sinful passions.  The way to “put off” sinful passions is in the kenotic re-ordering of disordered desires – let go of, surrendered, and reordered by grace.  (This will always feel something like death because of the persistent inclination to sin.)[35]  Thus in a Christian life of ongoing kenosis, true God-given desire and the true self is liberated and expressed as intended.  In this sense, self-surrender is very self-affirming.  Papanikolaou writes, “Kenosis is not primarily self-sacrifice, but a state of being which liberates eros, the desire to be in relation with the other.  It is a precondition for relations of love and freedom, the only context in which the self is truly given.”[36]

Maurice Zundel too speaks of an event through which “our innermost self becomes a universal good.”[37]  This kenotic event is the communion with God’s presence which draws one away from self-love into a discourse of love.  It is “the encounter, within ourselves, with the presence that makes us go from a narcissistic monologue to the dialogue of love, through the transmutation of our possessive ego into a self-sacrificing one.”[38]  Later he reiterates the opposite of these two dispositions, echoing Rom 6.15f:  “The self-sacrificing self is opposed to the possessive ego as freedom is to enslavement.”[39]

An aspect of this disposition is an intentional yielding in communion with God, in freedom and love toward life-giving transformation.  Von Balthasar puts surrender in terms of making space:  “We must relinquish things that are ours because they take up space which God’s word claims in us.”[40]  Sarah Coakley proposes that contemplative prayer, a transformative practice and gentle way of making space for God, involves a “special ‘self-effacement’” in the sense of one “yielding to divine power … that it marks one’s willed engagement in the pattern of cross and resurrection, one’s deeper rooting and grafting into the ‘body of Christ’.”[41]  She goes on to clarify that “this special ‘self-emptying’ is not a negation of self, but the place of the self’s transformation and expansion into God.”[42]

Authentic selfhood is a consequence of kenosis.  In von Balthasar’s view, according to McIntosh, since all true selfhood is hidden with Christ in God, he interprets self-surrender as being accomplished in communion with God and “that the self is the consequent result of the creature’s communion with God.”[43]  And Christian kenosis involves a loving communion analogous to that of the triune relationship within the Trinity.  McIntosh writes, “The process of self-abandon is an act of personal love or communion, echoing the trinitarian perichoresis (and instantiating it in the case of Christ) in which one person comes to ever greater consummation in giving self over to the other, only to receive an ever greater return of love.”[44]  McIntosh here also seems to describe in more depth Jesus’ words in Jn 15.4-5 of the branch abiding in the vine, “Abide in me, and I in you;” a communion in which Life is given in loving self-gift and received in self-surrender evidenced by genuine, harvest-worthy fruit.  Furthermore, the Christian’s self-surrender is both called forth and constituted by God’s self-gift in Christ by the Spirit.  And this communion is both the goal of self-surrender or indifference and also constitutes the person.  As McIntosh concisely explains it:

A believer’s act of self-surrender is in effect called forth and constituted by the descending reciprocal divine act of self-surrender.  And just as this trinitarian kenotic momentum constitutes the divine persons precisely as persons for each other, so being drawn into this momentum at the human level brings about the constitution of the human individual.  The aim of indifference is … participation in the person-constituting, self-giving activity of God.[45]

  1. A Disposition for Service and Mission

Christian kenosis involves a disposition for service and mission, translated into actuality through obedience in the disposition of freedom.  “The most fundamental prerequisite, in von Balthasar’s mind, for participation in the Christian life, is willingness to renounce personal calculations and make oneself available for the mission in life that God intends one to enjoy,”[46] writes McIntosh.  This disposition of availability is a response to God’s self-gift of love, whereby that very love becomes the Christian’s loving action.[47]  McIntosh describes this disposition as readiness, “Christian love is always a response to the drawing near of God in Christ and is marked chiefly by a readiness for service.”[48]  Thus Christian loving service at its root springs from a response to God’s self-gift.  And so Goulding explains that “as we are drawn more deeply into sharing the divine life, we are impelled with more urgency into the loving service of God’s people and God’s world.”[49]

The bridge, so to speak, between the disposition for service and the actual service is obedience.  McIntosh suggests that Christian obedience “is the translation of self-surrender and availability into an active pursuit of mission;”[50] where mission is an “aspect of Christ’s mission which each individual is created to share.”[51]  And note that Christ’s own mission today involves similar acts of living, dying, and rising that his mission involved while on earth.  Thus God’s self-gift includes an invitation to participate in Christ’s own mission.  And obedience is not subservience, like that of a slave, because one always remains free in love to freely choose.  McIntosh writes on von Balthasar that “obedience always includes a divine gift of interior freedom and energy, and it is always a response of love.”[52]  Indeed, obedience is the Christian’s loving response in freedom.  McIntosh writes, “Von Balthasar is clear enough:  by speaking of love as the inner commitment and drive which bind someone to obedience, he intends to interpret obedience as that which does not diminish human selfhood but is the strongest expression of its own ability to choose freely, to love.”[53]  And thus to freely obey God is to most strongly affirm selfhood; “inherent in the freedom of obedience there lies a recognition of one’s truest self.”[54]  We are beginning to see how necessary Christian kenosis is toward becoming truly human.  McIntosh concludes, “Actual obedient participation in Christ’s own living, dying, and rising is of course, for von Balthasar, the crucible in which believers’ true selves come to fruition.”[55]


A Calling to Conformity in Christ

Christian kenosis is a calling involving growth throughout one’s whole life.  It includes a growing willingness to be drawn by God’s grace toward deeper and deeper conformity to the image of Christ.

  1. A Whole Life of Growing Willingness

There is a gift of God that makes us human, a place of inviolability deep within, “the right and duty for a person to be the source and origin of his [or her] actions.”[56]  God does not trespass that human right, but rather invites us to respond with “an ongoing free creative consent to the divine imperative.”[57]  Thus self-surrender does not entail a loss of freedom, a capitulation, but a way toward utmost freedom.  It is the freedom to use freedom for a free act of consent to divine will.  Merton states, “The highest freedom is found in obedience to God;”[58] and “perfect spiritual freedom is a total inability to make any evil choice.”[59]  There is no hint of coercion or control from the living flame of love living within; there is grace to be truly free.  As Goulding states clearly,

God’s will is not an external force that presses down upon human beings.  Rather, it is a deep drawing from within the ontological core of human freedom – made free in the image of God.  Human freedom contains in itself an imperative for infinite freedom, which can be met only by union with the freedom of God.  Such freedom may come to full maturity only in that openness that encompasses both God and other human beings.[60]

Thus Christian kenosis includes a growing openness and participation in the freedom of God in response to God’s self-giving love by the Spirit living within.  Merton clarifies this participation as a gift of God that grows toward union of wills:  “All true freedom comes to us as a supernatural gift of God, as a participation in His own essential Freedom by the Love He infuses into our souls, uniting them with Him first in perfect consent, then in a transforming union of wills.”[61]

Therefore, the Christian’s approach to growth in willingness is not to suppress and subdue human will or disordered desires; rather, the transformation of disordered desire is possible.  What is needed is openness.  In the context of using (or abusing) authority, Goulding discusses the need for this “ongoing purification of spirit and indeed desire.  What provokes this radical openness to the Spirit of God is the Spirit of God.”[62]  Thus openness to the Spirit is a graced response to the a priori self-gifting love of the Spirit.  Openness can be thought of as permission given, allowing Another into the “place of inviolability” whereby one’s consent to a discourse of receiving and giving love creates a space of freedom.  There is required a certain willed commitment in this response of openness that could be described as ascetical.  For example, Coakley presents contemplative prayer as a way of practicing Christian kenosis as a spiritual discipline with the goal of internalizing this “ascetical commitment”.  She writes, “The ‘spiritual’ extension of Christic kenosis, then … involves an ascetical commitment of some subtlety, a regular and willed practice of ceding and responding to the divine.”[63]

Also important is an awareness of the love of God and of God’s attentiveness.  Goulding speaks of the attentiveness of God as “an ongoing invitation to conversion and a growth in holiness.”[64]  Conversion is “a way of growing in holiness”[65] and “an unfolding process that involves the totality of our whole person.  …  It is a refocusing of spirit, heart, emotions and psyche.”[66]  And Christian kenosis is a key aspect of conversion.

  1. Willingness to be Drawn by Divine Grace

As we have been saying, this willingness is an openness and freedom to respond positively to grace.  The grace we are specifically referring to here is divine grace that draws.  This drawing does not forcefully work against human freedom, but invites a free response from a person.  It is grace that needs to be cooperated with.  As human beings we have an active role either responding positively to gifts of grace in openness, or negatively in ignoring them.  These gifts of grace are “only potentially transformative.  It is the operative grace – God’s action on us – that yet requires cooperative grace,”[67] writes Cynthia Crysdale.

Laporte distinguishes between “actual grace”, which is “God’s operation from without,” experienced “in distinct momentary events”; and “habitual grace”, which is “God’s operation from within.”  Habitual grace “is the implicit and relatively permanent undertow of our lives.  Habitual grace is the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.”[68]  It is this implicit grace operative from within to which we are referring.  Bernard Lonergan also makes a similar distinction, that of operative and cooperative grace.

Operative grace is the replacement of the heart of stone by a heart of flesh, a replacement beyond the horizon of the heart of stone.  Cooperative grace is the heart of flesh becoming effective in good works through human freedom.  Operative grace is religious conversion.  Cooperative grace is the effectiveness of conversion, the gradual movement towards a full and complete transformation of the whole of one’s living and feeling, one’s thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions.[69]

Note that in being drawn by grace, there is movement towards transformation and conformity to Christ’s image as grace is cooperated with.  In the working out of conversion, grace is concretely manifested in one’s whole life.

Grace draws a person who responds in self-surrender into an ekstasis:  a state oriented toward God and others rather than self-orientation.  Goulding writes, “As divine action works upon human nature there is a gradual freedom from selfishness and self-serving motivation.”[70]  This orientation involves eros love or desire toward God.  Crysdale notes that in one sense, “grace comes as the new ordering of our desires toward authentic love.”[71]  Thus we are not talking about a grace operative within that one grasps to feed a self-absorbed self-love.  For there is always such a possibility: “being caught up in the sweep of God’s love, no matter how it transforms one’s desires, can degenerate into myopic pietism and self-centered, irrational devotion.”[72]  But this grace, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is not considered as something to be grasped – it is something to respond to with self-surrender.  This grace draws a person into ecstatic love, “the realization and liberation of the self.”[73]  As McIntosh writes, “So for von Balthasar the ecstasy of the human person toward God is understood as a discovery and unfolding of the true depths of the human being.”[74]

In Heart of the World, von Balthasar compares the ecstatic drawing of a Christian to a flying insect attracted to the light of a candle.  Movement toward the light, being drawn by grace and desire, results in a cycle of purgation and illumination, purification of love and transformation – deepening union with God.  This flame of love, the Holy Spirit, lives on in the Christian as love and life.  It is the Life on which to base all living that it may be no longer I but Christ who lives in me.

Thus does the creature die unto God and rise up unto God.  We rush into the light and are drawn on in ecstasy; but the fire which no one may approach holds us in its spell.  We plunge into the flames, are burnt through and through, but the flame does not kill:  it transforms us into light and burns on in us as love.  This is love that knows the depths.  It lives in us, establishes itself within us as a center; we live from it; it fills and nourishes us; it draws us into its spell, clothing itself with us as with a mantle and using our soul as its organ.  This is no longer ourselves:  in a most immediate, hardly distinguishable proximity, this is the Lord in us.[75]

The Spirit of God is the flame of the candle that both draws by love and transforms us into love by grace.

  1. Drawn Toward Conformity in Christ

In authentic spirituality, the Christian is ideally, on the whole, progressively becoming more truly human over time; and Jesus Christ is the example of what it is to be truly and fully human.  Goulding writes, “A unique element in this process of conversion involves a gradual conformity to the kenosis of Christ.”[76]  Therefore, Christian kenosis involves being drawn into the kenotic way that Jesus was truly human.  Yet not only is Jesus to be imitated in this way, he himself also is the provision that makes such imitation possible for the Christian.  Papanikolaou puts this in terms of Christ being the fulfillment of the image of God.  “As the God-man, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the imago dei, and as such, exists not simply as the model, but the condition for the possibility of human personhood.  Insofar as Jesus Christ as God-man is the image of God’s trinitarian existence, human personhood as imago dei must be an imitatione Christi.”[77]

In Heart of the World von Balthasar makes clear what it means to follow Christ in terms of receiving, by way of surrender to grace, the same mind by which Christ lived in a continual state of kenosis.  He writes in Christ’s voice, “You want to follow me?  You want to be called my disciples?  Then let that mind be yours which animated me:  being God in my very substance, I did not cling to my equality with God, but rather emptied and annulled myself.”[78]  It is an imperative.  The Christian is called to follow Christ’s kenotic way of being, by allowing (in growing willingness) the same mind to be formed in one’s mind by grace.  The word for “mind” used in Phil 2:5 is frone,w (not nou/j), a verb in imperative form which means “to develop an attitude based on careful thought, be minded/disposed.[79]  Thus the Christian is called to develop Christ’s disposition.  “Jesus’ gift of self becomes the model for our imitation.”[80]  However, the Christian’s kenosis is in an analogical sense compared with Christ’s.  Our act of kenosis is our loving response of self-surrender to God’s love of self-gift:  “our letting go is the imitation, made possible by God’s grace, of the self-emptying of Christ.”[81]  Christians imitate Christ’s kenotic act by their self-surrender and obedience as they are drawn by grace into participation with Christ in his obedience.  Goulding sums it up wonderfully:

Confronted by this reality of self-giving love at the heart of the Trinity, Christians are drawn into this holy intimacy by the person of Christ; indeed, this is how Christians realize their own person and reality, by being drawn into the obedient response of Christ to the Father.  Such an obedient response imitates the action of the Son and is therefore a kenotic act, since it is a self-surrender of the human person and openness to the loving purposes of God.[82]

Robert Doran articulates conformity in Christ as incarnating a pattern or intelligibility.  The Christian is invited to participate in the “catalytic agency” of Christ’s ministry “by allowing there to become incarnate in his or her own persons, as ministers of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus, the very pattern or immanent intelligibility of Jesus’ own redemptive self-offering.”[83]  Incarnating the same mind and kenotic way of life of Christ, also means for the Christian to become an agent of Jesus advancing His mission and furthering the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.  Doran continues, “Whenever one assents to that invitation … one is in fact exercising the catalytic agency of Jesus’ own ministry in the world, doing in some way as Jesus did, mediating the transition from a situation under sin to a closer approximation to the rule of God under grace.”[84]

Participation in the catalytic agency of Christ’s ministry is not without a call to suffering.  Christ’s obedience and self-emptying included incomparable suffering in, for example, the Passion and hiatus of Holy Saturday.  Christ’s mission continues to include suffering today.  Thus, the Christian will unavoidably participate in suffering in the course of authentically participating in Christ’s mission as a catalytic agent.  And by way of participating in suffering and new life (just as Christ was raised from the dead) the Christian is increasingly conformed to the image of His Son.  In Goulding’s words,

Christian living inevitably involves experiences of suffering that may be seen as a living out of the paschal mystery in our own lives.  In this way, we participate in the reality of Christ’s cross and resurrection in diverse ways, in different times and places.  It is in this process that we are gradually conformed to the image of Christ by the working of the Spirit of God.[85]

This disposition of willingness to suffer requires the meekness and humility found also in Christ.  Referring to humility Bernard Haring writes, “The entire drama of Redemption is the victorious path of high-spirited lowliness that invites and empowers us to imitate Christ.”[86]



Christian kenosis is made possible and gifted by the kenotic event of the Trinity, the eternal relations of three co-equal distinct persons in loving, self-gifting communion.  Christian kenosis is also made possible by God’s love.  God’s being is an event of communion and is a gifted event.  Thus Christian kenosis constitutes being, which is actually being-as-communion; thus kenosis is the way in which one is being-as-communion.

God is the source of the Christian’s obedience, which is a loving response to the prior costly self-gift of God.  Loving obedience in freedom is necessary to discover true identity.  A person’s identity and mission unfolds in one’s life in accordance with one’s loving self-surrender and obedience.  In this way one is always moving toward true personhood, and kenosis is the way toward becoming truly human.

Christian kenosis is a way of life which includes dispositions of self-surrender, self-denial, death to false-self, letting go of disordered desires, and an intentional yielding.  Such a willed yielding is found in contemplative prayer which involves a loving communion and can bring life-giving transformation.  In kenosis the Christian’s disposition of self-surrender is both called forth and constituted by God’s self-gift.  This kenosis is the way to authentic selfhood and true fulfillment, service and mission.  There is a disposition of willingness to make oneself available for the mission, a readiness for service.  Availability is transformed into mission through obedience, which is the Christian’s loving response in freedom.  Rather than any loss of dignity, obedience is the strongest expression of personhood.

Christian kenosis involves a whole lifetime of growing willingness to be drawn by divine grace toward conformity to the image of Christ.  God’s will draws rather than forces such that self-surrender and obedience is a way toward highest freedom.  Christian kenosis involves a growing loving response of graced openness and participation in God’s freedom.  This is an open willingness or consent, which well involves an ascetical commitment.  God’s ongoing invitation requires cooperative grace resulting in movement towards transformation and conformity to Christ.  Grace draws a person toward authentic love and transforms one into love.  Christian kenosis involves being drawn into the kenosis of Christ and the way that Jesus was truly human.  Thus the Christian is called to develop the same disposition of Jesus.  One is drawn into participation in the “catalytic agency” of Christ’s ministry.  In the course of this, there may be calling to participate in suffering.

Kenosis is the theology in which union with God is grounded.  As the eternal event at the heart of the life of the Trinity, kenosis belongs also at the heart of human life – a life continually being invited to participate by the Spirit through Christ in true Life, in that eternal event.  In this way is true humanity found and lived.  It is the way in which Christ may continue His mission.  Into this way Christians are called.



Bauer, W., Danker, F.W., Arndt, W.F., and Gingrich, F.W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. BibleWorks computer program.

Coakley, Sarah. “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writings.” In Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity, edited by Daphne Hampson, 82-111. London: SPCK, 1996.

Crysdale, Cynthia. Embracing Travail, Retrieving the Cross Today. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Doran, Robert. “The Community of the Servant of God.” In Theology and the Dialectics of History, 108-135.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Goulding, Gill IBVM.  Creative Perseverance:  Sustaining Life-Giving Ministry in Today’s Church.  Ottawa: Novalis, 2003.

___________.  On the Edge of Mystery:  Towards a Spiritual Hermeneutic of the Urban Margins.  Bern: Peter Lang, 2000.

Gratton, Carolyn.  The Art of Spiritual Guidance: a Contemporary Approach to Growing in the Spirit.  New York: Crossroad, 2005.

Haring, Bernard.  The Virtues of an Authentic Life:  A Celebration of Spiritual Maturity.  Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 1997.

Hunt, Anne.  The Trinity and the Paschal Mystery:  A Development in Recent Catholic Theology.  Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 1997.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry.  God for Us:  The Trinity and the Christian Life.  San Francisco: Harper, 1973.

Laporte, Jean Marc.  Patience and Power: Grace for the First World.  New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

Lonergan, Bernard J.F.  Method in Theology.  New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

McIntosh, Mark A.  Christology From Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

Merton, Thomas.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  New York:  New Directions, 1972.

Papanikolaou, Aristotle.  “Person, Kenosis and Abuse: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Feminist Theologies in Conversation,” btspapanikolaou.htm (accessed Nov 7, 2003).

Power, David Noel.  Love Without Calculation: a Reflection on Divine Kenosis.  New York: Crossroad, 2005.

Saward, John. The mysteries of March : Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter. London : Collins, 1990.

Spohn, William C. Go and Do Likewise : Jesus and Ethics. New York : Continuum, 1999.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs.  Heart of the World.  Translated by Erasmo S. Leiva.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979.

___________________.  Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter.  Translated by Aidan Nichols, O.P.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.

___________________.  Prayer.  Translated by Graham Harrison.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986.

Ward, Graham. “Kenosis:  Death, Discourse and Resurrection.” In Balthasar at the End of Modernity, edited by Lucy Gardner et al., 15-68. Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark, 1999.

Zundel, Maurice.  The Inner Person: [Quel homme et quel Dieu].  Quebec: Mediaspaul, 1996.


[1] A point of clarification would assert that all are invited, and the Christian is specifically called to continue and deepen the participation already having begun in Christ.

[2] Gill Goulding, IBVM, Creative Perseverance:  Sustaining Life-Giving Ministry in Today’s Church  (Ottawa: Novalis, 2003), 74.

[3] John Saward, The Mysteries of March: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter (London : Collins, 1990), 29-30.

[4] Anne Hunt, The Trinity and the Paschal Mystery:  A Development in Recent Catholic Theology (Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 1997), 79.

[5] Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Person, Kenosis and Abuse: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Feminist Theologies in Conversation,” (accessed Nov 7, 2003), 4-5 of 13.

[6] It is worth noting here that God’s power is power in vulnerability: “God is not, in the first place, ‘absolute power’, but ‘absolute love’, and his sovereignty manifests itself not in holding on to what is its own but in its abandonment.”  Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols, O.P. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 28.  It is God’s vulnerability which makes possible the Christian’s vulnerability in Christian kenosis.

[7] Saward, 22.

[8] Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 35.

[9] Mark A. McIntosh, Christology From Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 74.

[10] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us:  The Trinity and the Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1973), 243.

[11] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979), 72.

[12] Saward, 31.

[13] Hunt, 79.

[14] David Noel Power, Love Without Calculation: a Reflection on Divine Kenosis (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 83.

[15] Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 28.

[16] Saward, 23.

[17] Saward, 22.

[18] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 80-1.

[19] Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 91.

[20] McIntosh, 84.

[21] Papanikolaou, 7 of 13.

[22] Graham Ward, “Kenosis:  Death, Discourse and Resurrection,” in Balthasar at the End of Modernity, ed. Lucy Gardner et al., (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999), 50.

[23] Papanikolaou, 5 of 13.

[24] LaCugna, 249.

[25] William C. Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 1999), 162.

[26] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 219.  The context of this quotation does not implicate the meaning intended here; however it effectively communicates a point for this paper.

[27] Power, 83.

[28] Bauer, W., Danker, F.W., Arndt, W.F., and Gingrich, F.W. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), BibleWorks computer program, avrne,omai, 1.

[29] Jean Marc Laporte, Patience and Power: Grace for the First World (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 268.

[30] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 164-5.

[31] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 27. Italics mine.

[32] Carolyn Gratton, The Art of Spiritual Guidance: a Contemporary Approach to Growing in the Spirit (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 67.

[33] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 28-9.

[34] Gill Goulding, On the Edge of Mystery:  Towards a Spiritual Hermeneutic of the Urban Margins (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), 228.

[35] This is not the author’s original thought, but the source no longer known.

[36] Papanikolaou, 9 of 13.

[37] Maurice Zundel, The Inner Person: [Quel homme et quel Dieu] (Quebec: Mediaspaul, 1996), 63.

[38] ibid.

[39] Zundel, 316.

[40] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 25.

[41] Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writings,” in Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity, ed. Daphne Hampson (London: SPCK, 1996), 108.

[42] Coakley, 108.

[43] McIntosh, 60.

[44] McIntosh, 61.

[45] McIntosh, 64.

[46] McIntosh, 59.

[47] McIntosh, 116.

[48] McIntosh, 115.

[49] Goulding, Creative, 105.

[50] McIntosh, 75.

[51] McIntosh, 118.

[52] McIntosh, 76.

[53] McIntosh, 78.

[54] McIntosh, 78.

[55] McIntosh, 80.

[56] Zundel, 41.

[57] Goulding, On the Edge of Mystery, 239.

[58] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York:  New Directions, 1972), 196.

[59] Merton, 199.

[60] Goulding, Creative, 121.

[61] Merton, 200.

[62] Goulding, Creative, 65.

[63] Coakley, 107.

[64] Goulding, Creative, 76.

[65] Goulding, Creative, 106.

[66] Goulding, Creative, 106-7.

[67] Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail, Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum, 2001), 133.

[68] Laporte, 263.

[69] Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 241.

[70] Goulding, Creative, 127.

[71] Crysdale, 132.

[72] Crysdale, 132-3.

[73] McIntosh, 118.

[74] McIntosh, 118.

[75] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 33.

[76] Goulding, Creative, 109.

[77] Papanikolaou, 5 of 13.

[78] Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, 178.

[79] BDAG, frone,w, 3.

[80] Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 111.

[81] Bernard Haring, The Virtues of an Authentic Life:  A Celebration of Spiritual Maturity (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 1997), 138.

[82] Goulding, Creative, 112.

[83] Robert Doran,“The Community of the Servant of God,” in Theology and the Dialectics of History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 122.

[84] Doran, 122.

[85] Goulding, Creative, 73.

[86] Haring, 134.

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