“Jesus said: Whoever has found the world and become rich should renounce the world . . . . The world is not worthy of one who finds himself.” — From The Gospel of Thomas
THE GIFT IS LOVE
Continuing with Cynthia Bourgeault’s insight into Jesus’s chosen kenotic path, I will forgo any introductory comments so as not to clutter the space with thoughts other than those presented in this excerpt from her book THE WISDOM JESUS:
A Pointless Sacrifice?
To flesh out a bit further what this path actually looks like, forgive me if I make a sudden leap into the world of modern literature. Kenosis does not lend itself easily to spiritual theorizing. By far its most powerful and moving enactments have come in the form of story and drama.
One of the most precise descriptions of this path, believe it or not, is the familiar and well-loved story “The Gift of the Magi” by the American author O. Henry. You probably remember the tale. Della and James are newlyweds; they’re madly in love with each other. They are also poor as church mice, and their first Christmas together finds them without sufficient funds to buy each other gifts. But each of these lovers does have one prize possession. James owns a gold watch given to him by his grandfather; Della has stunning auburn hair falling all the way to her waist. Unbeknownst to Della, James pawns his gold watch in order to buy her beautiful silver combs for her hair. Unbeknownst to James, Della cuts and sells her hair in order to buy him a gold watch chain. On Christmas eve the two of them stare bewilderedly at their completely useless gifts. It has been a pointless sacrifice—pointless, that is, unless love itself is “the gift of the magi.”
And of course, this is exactly what O. Henry is getting at. In the voluntary relinquishing of their most cherished possessions, they make manifest what love really looks like; they give tangible shape to the bond that holds them together. That’s what kenosis is all about.
Another profoundly kenotic parable of our times is the tale that forms the 1987 movie Babette’s Feast, adapted from a short story by Isak Dinesen. As the drama unfolds we discover that its heroine, Babette, had until recently been one of the most celebrated chefs in Paris, but during the political riots of 1871 she loses everything—restaurant, livelihood, and family. She flees for her life to rural Denmark and is taken in by two aging sisters who have given their lives to religious work, trying to hold together the spiritual community that their father founded. When Babette arrives, the remaining believers have grown old and weary, lost in petty bickering. Babette tries as best she can to lift their spirits, but nothing seems to be turning the situation around. Out of the blue a letter arrives informing her that she has won three million francs in a lottery back in Paris, and then and there she decides to treat these Danish peasants to a proper French dinner. She imports all the necessary ingredients: not only exotic gourmet delicacies for the seven-course meal itself (each with its appropriate wines, champagnes, and liqueurs) but the china dinnerware, silver cutlery, damask table cloths, and crystal glassware. The film zeroes in on the banquet table as the astonished Danish peasants are suddenly faced with this extravagant abundance. At first they are frightened and suspicious, but little by little the mood mellows as they slowly relax into gratitude and forgiveness. The last scene of that banquet night has them all stumbling, a bit drunk but very happy, out into the village square, where they form a circle around the fountain (a vivid image in its own right) and begin to sing and dance together. After all these years they have finally touched the wellspring, and their hearts are overflowing. Then someone says to Babette, “Well, I guess you’ll be leaving us soon, won’t you, now that you’re a rich woman?” She says, “Rich? I’m not rich. I spent every penny I had on that banquet, three million francs.”
Again we see the same leitmotif as in the O. Henry story. An extravagant sacrifice is in one sense wasted, because these poor peasants cannot really comprehend the magnitude of the gift, and by morning, when they’ve sobered up, they will probably have lost most of its beneficial effect. But no matter; the banquet table is set before them anyway. In her no-holds-barred generosity Babette offers these broken, dispirited souls a taste of reassurance that their long years of faithfulness have not been in vain. She mirrors to them what God is like, what love is like, what true humanness is like. And she does it precisely by throwing away her entire escape route in a single act of extravagant abundance, extravagant beyond the bounds of earth (and therefore invoking the presence of heaven). That’s the kenotic path.
Theologians have sometimes commented that if the goal of ascent mysticism is to bring about union through convergence at the point of origin, the effect of the kenotic path seems to be. self-disclosure and new manifestation. The act of self-giving brings new realms into being. It shows what God is like in new and different ways. Some of the most intuitive theologians of our times say that this is how the world was created in the first place—because, in the words of Karl Rahner, “God is the prodigal who squanders himself.” The act of self-giving is simultaneously an act of self-communication; it allows something that was coiled and latent to manifest outwardly. “Letting go” (as in non-clinging, or self-emptying) is but a hair’s breadth away from “letting be,” and our Judeo-Christian tradition remembers that it is through God’s original “Let there be . . . ” that our visible world tumbled into existence.
I love Cynthia’s authentic thinking and writing outside the box of conventional belief. She presents a theology that I, as a former Catholic seminary student, can easily accept and understand at a heart level. In my own published writings and blogging, I have ascribed to “ascent mysticism” as the path of ascension to the “point of origin” we think to be up in some Heaven, a point that Jesus himself taught is within. When he reportedly ascended into Heaven, did he go up or within?
There is a passage in my SACRED ANATOMY book where I contemplate this paradoxical dynamic. The word “up” can be both dimensional and non-dimensional, or vibrational, as in moving up to a higher frequency. The same is true of the word “down.” The biblical account of Jesus’s ascension indicates that he ascended into “the clouds of heaven.”
For example, I mentioned the “clouds of heaven.” Jesus was seen by his disciples as ascending into the clouds above their heads. These clouds may have been the conditions in their own (transforming) collective consciousness through which the Lord of Love was making his royal exit from the earthly planes back into the higher planes of being from which he had come, and from which we all come—the “kingdom of heaven” which he had told them more than once “is within you.” This could also be the inference made by the two men in white apparel whom they reportedly saw standing with him and whom they heard say to them: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” This may well be a classic case where the dimensional state simply did not comprehend the non-dimensional. The darkness did not comprehend the light. The lower planes simply cannot comprehend the higher. But the one who stands in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, the seven planes of being, in the fourth dimension has both physical and spiritual eyes and can see and comprehend the non-dimensional as clearly and easily as the dimensional.
I can appreciate Cynthia’s inference that Jesus descended down all the way—actually “into hell” according to the biblical text—in order to encompass and include all the dimensions of the vast spectrum of Creation in both heaven and earth, in the cycles of restoration, which he was very intentionally in the process of initiating. In so doing he opened the gates to the Garden of Paradise here on Earth. As Cynthia states so well in the next excerpt from this chapter, which I will publish in my next post:
It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Until my next post, be love, be loved and be blessed.