The Fullness of Emptiness: A Lenten Reflection

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By Jamie Arpin-Ricci

For many of the people who share life together as part of our inner city church, Little Flowers Community, church culture is new. Even for those of us who grow up in the church, many of us were never introduced to the Christian calendar. Sure, we the Christmas season and Easter, but we were never really introduced to Advent of the season of Lent. As we began to explore Lent, describing the common practices of fasting or obtaining from certain foods or activities for a season, people began to understand and be interested in participating.

However, there remained an unspoken assumption that Lenten fasting was all about denying ourselves things we like, and that by doing so- by choosing the "suffer"- we gain spiritual favor with God and become more "holy." While there is merit to disciplines of self-control and mastering our desires, we far too often miss the positive intent of these practices in our focus on the negative expressions they take. In other words, we focus more on what we are giving up than what we are gaining.

I was reminded of this recently by Patheos blogger, John Halstead, who writes at "The Allergic Pagan"[1] on the Pagan channel. It might seem an unlikely place for a Christian pastor to find inspiration, but as John reflected on Lent and the accompanying disciplines (clearly rejecting the emphasis on "idea of abstinence or self-mortification"), he saw it less about giving something up'", instead seeing it as a way of 'making space':

"I've been gorging on chocolate for the last few months. But rather than giving it up because I think it's unhealthy, I'm going to think about this fast as a way of making space to enjoy other foods. Similarly, my wife might think about giving up swearing as a way of making space for words of kindness. There are other things in my life which I don't think are inherently bad, but that I suspect of taking up a lot of space in my life. And I wonder what might come into my life if I made some more space. And so I have decided to create some space in my life by removing both chocolate and maybe something else more personal and meaningful to me."[2]

Yet, making that space is easier said than done. Lent offers an ideal opportunity to experiment, given that it is for a limited time- generally 40 days or so- but the difficult can serve to remind us how hard it is to let go and make that space. I believe Jesus modeled the kind of intentional self-emptying that we are called to as well, we find in Philippians 2:5–7:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness."

The word "emptied" comes from the Greek verb form of the word kenosis. This idea of kenosis clearly marks the path that Christ has taken and called us to follow—a path of singular devotion to loving God and others, where we lay aside anything that divides that focus. It's not some form of purifying punishment, but rather a healing cleanse, promising that something far greater will fill us.

Neither is it some sort of self-improvement. In fact, it is the emptying of self that is the focus of kenosis, exactly what is meant in Matthew 16:24–25 when Jesus said:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

This is what Richard Beck calls developing an "eccentric identity."[3] He is not referring to an unconventional or strange personality, but rather "an identity grounded outside the boundary of the self."[4] With this emphasis on love, Beck continues:

"Following the example of Jesus, we become 'nothing.' In a sense, we 'die'—and thus we no longer have to fear dispossession, loss, diminishment, or expenditure in the face of death. Not that we seek out such losses. But we form our identities in such a way that we are freed from the anxiety of self-preservation, which makes different choices and modes of being human open and available to us. The creation of a secure heart makes love a possibility. It enables us to do something that biological creatures worried about self-preservation don't naturally do: place the interests of others before our own."[5]

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