Palm Sunday. One of the most joyful days of the Christian year—although it is short lived. It’s a day that involves a king and a colt, plus crowds and cloaks and palm branches.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as a king. He’s riding on a colt. And crowds are laying their cloaks and palm branches on the ground before him as he enters the Holy city of Jerusalem, all the while shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” all because the people are tired of oppressive Rome and they want Jesus to be their king.
We know this story well, and it’s easy for us to grasp the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt while crowds praise him and roll out the red carpet by spreading cloaks and palm branches on the road. Everyone is shouting, jumping and jostling to get a better view. The king, the son of David, is coming!
The crowds go wild, and so do we. We wave our palm branches. We want Jesus to be our king and to rule our world. But the Palm Sunday story is not just about a king and a colt, a crowd, cloaks and palm branches. It’s also about a Greek word—one that is translated, but is actually untranslatable. It comes to us in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and it’s much harder to understand than the meaning of the words king, colt, crowd, cloak, and palm branches.
This word is “Kenosis.” A difficult and captivating word at the very heart of the Christian faith.
In the magazine Scientific American, Tim Lomas writes about the wonder and magic of untranslatable words. He started by listing 216 of these words, but found the list kept growing. It now stands at 601. “Kenosis” is one of these words. It’s translated “emptiness,” but has deeper significance in that it communicates the “self-emptying” that Christ voluntarily gave at his in incarnation, which led, ultimately, to his crucifixion.
And so this concept—“kenosis”—self emptying— raises a number of important questions for us as we enter Holy Week. What was accomplished by “kenosis”, by this self-emptying? How did this self-emptying result in fullness? And how can we self-empty ourselves so that God will fill us with healing and wholeness?
Palm Sunday is one of the most joyful days of the Christian year, and though the joy is short lived, if we will venture to empty ourselves of its trappings, and fill ourselves with its deeper significance and sacrifice, then what is to come will be healing, wholeness, and of course new life.
Lent, and especially Holy Week, forces us to confront “kenosis”— this emptiness and self-emptying—a concept difficult to grasp, yet full of significance for anyone seeking to follow Jesus Christ.
So a good starting point is to ask: What was accomplished by kenosis?
Paul tells us that Jesus was in the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. In the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, The Message, Jesus “didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.”
Instead, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
This is where we run into kenosis in the original Greek, where its meaning is “emptied out.” Christ Jesus “emptied himself,” taking the form of a slave, looking like an ordinary, common, nondescript, perhaps even marginalized human being!
And what is accomplished by this? The text tells us that God “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…”
Palm Sunday would be easy to understand if it contained only the familiar: kings, colts, crowds, cloaks, and palm branches. With just those, King Jesus would ride into town and confront the Roman Empire, and the one with the biggest crowd would win.
But kenosis turns our expectations upside down. Precisely because Jesus emptied, humbled, lowered and abased himself—the exact opposite of what everyone thought and even wanted. But in doing so God exalted him and made him king of all creation—and savior of the world.
Initially “kenosis” seems it would lead only to emptiness, embarrassment and powerlessness, but in reality the opposite of what you would expect comes. The accomplishment of “kenosis” is fullness and peace, healing and wholeness. But it does come in an unexpected way.
So the next question becomes, exactly how does this self-emptying result in fullness and peace, healing and wholeness?
For Jesus, kenosis—emptying oneself— leads to glory and fulfillment because it’s based on humility, obedience, and love. Again, Jesus “didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of [divine] status no matter what.” He was in the form of God, but chose to accept the form of a slave. That’s humility. Meaning he found fullness and peace, healing and wholeness acting and living in counter cultural ways.
Our world says power and might is the way to glory. Our world says looking out for yourself is what leads to supremacy. Our world says accumulation leads to fulfillment.
Christianity though, works on principles opposite to those of the world around us. To be blessed, then, is to be a blessing to others. To receive love, give love. To be honored, first be humble. To truly live, die to yourself. To gain the unseen, let go of the seen. To receive, first give. To save your life, lose it. To lead, be a servant. To be first, be last. This is Paul’s premise in Philippians 2, explaining that the way up is down, the way to greatness is to be humble.
Examples of this would be heroes of the past, such as political leader Nelson Mandela, religious leader Gandhi, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and humanitarian figure Mother Teresa.
Or if you want a more modern day hero look at Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who was piloting Flight 1549 when he had to land his jetliner in the Hudson River, saving more than 150 passengers in the process. Afterwards Captain Sully exemplified a humility few could or would. Beyond modest about his acts of courage, he attributed his poise to his training, saying, ‘I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.’” The event became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” and was made into a 2016 movie starring Tom Hanks.
Glory and recognition came to all of these people, though none of them sought it, nor did they think it important. And the glory came in a counterintuitive way to how many people often seek it for themselves.
So how can we empty ourselves so that God can fill us with fullness and peace, healing and wholeness? Well, most of us are not going to be asked to follow Jesus to the point of death on a cross, but we are certainly challenged to show humility and obedience as we walk the path of Christ in the world.
We would do well to empty ourselves by developing a welcoming attitude toward others—no matter who they might be—no matter if they are like us or not. It was Jesus, after all who said, “…love your neighbor as yourself.”
We would do well to empty ourselves by being a servant to others. Jesus said to his followers in Matthew 20, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Jesus wants us to empty ourselves, and serve each other, just as he “came not to be served but to serve…”
We would do well to empty ourselves by being… generous with material things. Thinking the best of others, forgiving them when they don’t know what they’re doing. We would do well to empty ourselves by praying for our “enemies,” and those who “persecute” us.…by being a peacemaker.…by denying ourselves and carrying a cross for a while. We would do well to empty ourselves by being imitators of Christ Jesus, who was quick to love and forgive, and slow to anger.
Kenosis—self emptying—does not lead to embarrassment and powerlessness. Rather, it leads to great-fullness. And great-fullness leads us, and others, to healing and wholeness.
The kenosis of Jesus, the self-emptying of Jesus, was based on humility, obedience, and love. Paul tells us that “Jesus was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead of remaining in the safety and security of his divine existence, Jesus entered human life as a baby, a child and eventually a man.
C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity helps us to grasp this act, saying, “If you want to get the hang of it, think of how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”
Jesus said “Yes” to emptying himself and entering human life, and he did this out of humble obedience to God and love for all creation—“For God so loved the world….”
For Jesus, kenosis—emptying oneself—was the way of life that lead to life. Life that could endure pain and struggle, life that would be abundant and joyful, life that would be full and complete.
Palm Sunday is one of the most joyful days of the Christian year, but the joy is short lived because of this untranslatable word kenosis that calls for the emptying of oneself, which turns our expectations upside down. This self-emptying of Jesus—grounded in humility, obedience, and love—is the unexpected key to his heavenly fullness and our fullness of healing and wholeness.
So may we venture to empty ourselves of all the Palm Sunday trappings, and fill ourselves with the deeper sacrifice and significance of Jesus’ emptying of himself as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion.
For when we do, what will come and fill us will be healing, wholeness, and new life—for us and for others. Amen.