The Kenosis of the Missionary. Some Thoughts on Religious Vows and Mission

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Edward Luc Mees, MJ

Edward Luc MEES, MJ, served for 22 years in Guatemala as a missionary among the Q’eqchi-Maya Indians.  He was a professor of phenomenology of religion at the Universidad Rafael Landivar and the Instituto Centroamericano de Ciencias Religiosas (La Salle) in Guatemala City.  He has taught at Maryhill School of Theology and at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Quezon City.  He is a faculty member of the graduate school of the EAPI.


The experience of weakness, of powerlessness, and of the cross is inherent in mission. Depending on time and circumstance, it will present itself in varying degrees of intensity. Should not "kenosis unto the cross" be characteristic of missionary praxis?1

Religious Life and Mission

As a radical option and alternative way of life pointing to the Kingdom, religious life has a prophetic dimension (O’Murchu 1991). The religious are called to be at the peripheries of human reality, to be countercultural and creatively prospective (Amaladoss 1993:213). In this context, the religious vows are to be understood and lived primarily as a style of commitment in imitation of Jesus and as signs of hope in an increasingly difficult and complex world.

What the world needs now, respects now, demands now, understands now, is not poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is generous justice, reckless love, and limitless listening … a religious life that vows to be what the world needs most: a reckless lover, a voice for the poor, a pursuer of truth. For only such things as this, for this kind of poverty, chastity, and obedience only, does the present battered, exploited, and poverty-stricken world wait and grieve and crave. (Chittister 1995:102-103.)

This approach to religious life and particularly to the vows does not, of course, exhaust their meaning, but may help us to value and live them better in connection with the missionary charism.

Over the years of renewal there have been many redefinitions of the vows, and innumerable attempts to explain what they are and what they are not. A new approach to the vows is needed, one that will go beyond redefining words. It is too soon to say what the new vows will be, but already there are some hints of areas where they may emerge. The vows, to be life-giving, must capture the essence of what committed life is and the mission it is working toward. (Harmer 1995:82, emphasis added.)

If this is true, then religious missionary institutes should dare to have a closer look at how religious life and the evangelical counsels could inspire their missionary commitment, and how missionary reality should enrich their religious commitment. While the religious are supposed to be the cutting edge of the Church’s mission to the world, religious missionaries could render a particular service to religious life. Being the first ones who are called to keep the fire of missionary dynamism kindled in the Church, they should—from the challenges of the field and from their commitment at the frontiers of faith and society—remind consecrated people of what is at stake in mission today (Azevedo 1995:23).

One of the points of contact between religious life and mission is prophecy. It is, simply put, at the heart of religious life. Likewise, modern theology of mission underlines that mission is at heart prophecy: it reminds people of God’s saving will and faithfulness, calls them to conversion, and summons them to a new way of being and relating with God and neighbors (cf. Amaladoss 1991:359-97, esp. 390-96; 1994:64-72).

Since both religious life and mission have to be rooted in the prophetic vision and praxis of Jesus, let us have a closer look at the wellspring and inspiration of what Jesus was, said, and did.

The Kenosis of Jesus

A key notion that helps us to read the Gospels well and to understand the spirituality and ministry of Jesus is kenosis, a word forged by theologians from the Greek verb kenoun ("to empty") in Phil 2:6-7:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, appearing in human likeness.

The adjective kenos refers to something that is vain (Acts 4:25; 1 Cor 15:58; 2 Cor 6:1; Gal 2:2; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 2:1; 3:5; Jm 4:5), sterile (1 Cor 15:10), without meaning or purpose (1 Cor 15:14; Eph 5:6; Col 2:8), or hollow (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 2:16; Jm 2:20). The verb kenoô [kenoun] indicates the act of emptying, of making meaningless or hollow (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17, 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3). The form of the verb in Phil 2:7—ekenôsen—is variously translated as "emptied himself," "made himself nothing," or "gave up all he had" (Mathews 1991:2).

The meaning of the expression depends:

First, on the interpretation given to the next word in the text, morphè(n) ("form"). Does the "form" (of a slave) refer to Jesus’ "nature," or only to his "appearance"?

Second, on the interpretation of the subject of the sentence: who is "he"? Is the one who emptied himself the eternalLogos or the historical Christ? If he is the Logos, the text would mean that he divested himself of his divine nature. The consensus of scholars is that the text refers to Christ. It does not speak of an abandonment of the divine nature by the Logos, but only describes the stages of Jesus’ self-emptying during his life.

According to Mathews, the kenosis of Christ included:

  • the suspension of the exercise of his divine prerogatives;
  • the need to study and learn as other mortals;
  • the refusal to rely on human strength to accomplish his mission;
  • the willingness to risk failure in winning disciples by self-effacing love; and
  • the necessity to maintain a relationship with his Father through prayer and obedience.

The history of the Church and of theology shows that it is easier to discuss the meaning of kenosis than to practice it. However, "the self-emptying of Christ is meant to be a model for imitation rather than a proposition for theological debate … The phrase ‘to empty himself’ is … a metaphor that holds up a compelling example ... From the manger to the cross the life of Jesus was consistently a life of service" (Mathews 1991:2) and of surrender to the will of the Father. His birth, life, and death are all evidence of self-emptying. The kenosis of Jesus is not limited to a couple of New Testament texts. "It is a thread that runs throughout the fabric of his life" (Mathews 1991:3). Self-emptying, therefore, is the essence of the incarnation and, in a way, indicates the true nature of Jesus.

When Paul, or an ancient hymn quoted by him, summarized the mystery of Christ Jesus by the Greek verbekenôsen—literally—"he emptied himself," he had in mind the cross that showed this attitude of Jesus brought to its height: "even to death, death on a cross." But the cross only revealed the ultimate reality of the mystery of Christ and the kenosis of the cross can be found at the heart of all that Jesus was, did and said … A reflection on kenosis and mission should take into account this kenosis which is constitutive of Jesus’ mission and can be found in all forms of his activity.2

The Kenosis of the Missionary-Religious

Religious life as a special way of discipleship (sequela Christi) "for the sake of the Kingdom" (Mt 19:12) and mission as the continuation of the prophetic mission of Jesus are the two components of the charism of missionary congregations. The way we live this charism and our religious vows should reflect as much as possible the commitment of Jesus the missionary. At the same time it should be nurtured by a spirituality that is modeled on that of Jesus "the faithful witness" (Rev 1:5).

Jesus sends out his disciples with the same mission: "As the Father has sent me, so do I send you" (Jn 20:21; 17:18). The Father’s sending of the Son serves both as the model and reason for the sending of the disciples.

What we need today is not so much the hellenized "high" Christology of patristic times that explains what Jesus is, but rather a Christology that explains what Jesus said and did, the "low" Christology of the gospels. To be "witness" is not so much a question of accepting truths and proclaiming one’s faith, but foremost a question of following Jesus. The Kingdom became visible in what Jesus said and did. The Kingdom is realized when his disciples follow his lifestyle, words, and deeds. "This is your calling: remember Christ who suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you may follow in his steps" (1 Pet 2:21).

If Jesus is the model of the missionary, and if kenosis is constitutive of Jesus’ life and mission, our lives should follow, to the extent possible, this kenosis. This has profound implications for the life, ministry, spirituality, and basic attitude of the missionary. It will transform the aims, the priorities, the structures, and the methods for doing mission.

In the past, missionaries have generally attached little importance to their role as servants. They did not adopt "the form of slaves or servants," but rather that of masters and patrons. Missionaries often went as supervisors, not as partners.

If the idea of kenosis would have guided missionary activity throughout history, we would not be facing today the consequences and difficulties of an exclusively western and often unattractive type of Christianity that has been exported and imposed all over the world, in connivance with imperial conquests and colonial interests.

A Triple Kenosis

When we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, we can distinguish three moments or dimensions of his kenosis: the kenosis of incarnation (identification and solidarity with human reality), the kenosis of the road (being on the move, reaching out to all people, especially the most abandoned), and the kenosis of the cross (faithfulness in assuming the ultimate consequences of his mission). In the life of Jesus’ disciples, these three dimensions are not to be considered chronologically but simultaneously, aspects of one and the same lifelong process. As such, they may also help us in our understanding of the religious vows.3

The Kenosis of Incarnation—The Call to Love

This is the kenosis of entering human reality deeply, of going to the very depths of human existence, of becoming and being totally and truly human (Phil 2:6-7; Lk 2:1-20; Jn 1:14a) through participation in what is weak, oppressed, and poor. This kenosis brings us closer to people, and especially to share in the life of those for whom Jesus opted (Lk 4:18; Mt 5:3-12). It calls us to solidarity and "insertion" into the reality of people in need of light and liberation.

Incarnation means that we should "become flesh at the underside of history," and opt for the places where people are suffering or hurt in their dignity. For missionaries, it also implies a respectful entering into the riches of other cultures and into the mysterious depth of different God-experiences. This is further expressed in an ongoing readiness and capacity to listen to people’s voices, questions, answers, and mysteries. This will demand of the missionary a willingness to give up preconceived ideas, privileges, pretensions, and hidden agenda. For a religious missionary, thiskenosis requires the sacrifice of certain forms of human love and of building a family, in order to have greater freedom for the specific demands of mission. But the call to missionary incarnation is, above all, the call to encompassing life-giving love of others without necessarily being loved in return (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12-13).

Could not the kenosis of incarnation be the missionary way to understand and live the vow of chastity?

The Kenosis of the Road—

The Call to Justice and Solidarity

This is the kenosis of mobility, availability, and provisionality, the kenosis of walking with people, of setting out with people, and of a common search for truth, light, and hope. This kenosis will lead us to solidarity with people’s movements and struggles and with people who are lost or on the run. It will enable us to reach out to all, especially to those to whom the Lord urges us to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom. It is the kenosis of missionary restlessness and daring, the kenosis of the ongoing search of the "lost sheep," and of the unconditional option for the poor. It is thekenosis of going "very far," to the outer boundaries of faith and hope. This necessarily demands a simple lifestyle and the sacrifice of all impediments to this commitment. Like Jesus, a missionary has to give up all ambitions, plans, and securities, and rid him/herself of any feeling of superiority. This is the kenosis of not-having, of renouncing extra luggage, powerful means, and even one’s family (cf. Mt 10:9-10; 19:27.29), and of refusing to settle down, to look back, or to compromise (cf. Lk 9:23-25,59-62; 14:26-27). It is the kenosis of non-installation (cf. Mt 8:20), be it in works, occupations, commodities, or ideas.

Since we do not know whereto the Lord will lead us or how long the road is, this kenosis requires trust, patience, and the acceptance of weakness and vulnerability. It is also the kenosis of our willingness to share what we have and what we are (time, talents, skills, energy), and of our constant readiness to "move," to respond to more difficult or challenging calls, to "follow the Lord to Galilee" (cf. Mt 28:7.10.16), that is, to the periphery. Only through this self-emptying will missionaries acquire the inner freedom and the prophetic frankness they need for their task, especially in demanding situations (cf. Mt 10:17-20; Lk 21:12-19).

Could not the kenosis of the road be the missionary way to understand and live the vow of poverty?

The Kenosis of the Cross—The Call to Risky Choices

This is the kenosis of faithfulness to God and to people till the end, the kenosis of radicalism in going all the way like Jesus did (Phil 2:8; Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34), refusing to run away from threats, conflicts, or difficulties. This is the kenosisof going "too far," the kenosis of solidarity with the crucified people of today, shown in our commitment to help carry the crosses of the wretched of the earth, and in our protest against the crucifixion and massacre of the innocent. It is also the kenosis of giving up our freedom in order to set others free.

For missionaries, the kenosis of the cross is very often the kenosis of not seeing the fruits of their efforts (cf. the missionary parable of the Sower), the kenosis of having to endure the hardships of mission, even persecution. For some, it may be the kenosis of failure, loneliness, bitterness, or doubt. For many others, like for Jesus, the kenosis of the cross implies the experience of fear (Mt 26:37-38 // Mk 14:33-34; Jn 12:27), solitude, and abandonment (Mk 15:34). Jesus showed us how to assume all these in total obedience to the will of the Father (Mt 26:39 // Mk 14:36 // Lk 22:42). His final commitment culminated in a kenosis of total surrender in naked poverty as a sign of his love without limits (Lk 23:46).

The kenosis of the cross is that of the sacrifice of our life: we are called to give up our life so that others may live. Yet we know that the cross, suffering, and death are not God’s last words: kenosis is the way to the resurrection, to the fullness of life (Phil 2:9).

Could not the kenosis of the cross be the missionary way to understand and live the vow of obedience?

Missionary Praxis in the Manner of Jesus

Mission has its origin and foundation in the Missio Dei, in the salvific presence and action of God in history. Mission originates from God’s boundless love for God’s creation and for the human beings created in God’s image. The goal of the Missio Dei is the Kingdom of God (cf. Bosch 1991:389-93; Kirk 1999:25-30). Kenosis is the means by which one becomes part of the mission of God. The kingdom that Jesus announced and inaugurated is one that is founded on and maintained by a self-emptying love for all. No one is compelled to be part of it, but all are invited. Unlike in human societies, the first to belong to it are the poor, the victims, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the abandoned.

If kenosis is constitutive of Jesus’ mission, it follows that missionary praxis always has to be carried out in the incarnational way of kenosis. In spite of difficulties and distortions in diverse historical circumstances, there has been a deep-rooted conviction throughout the history of Christianity that following the way of Jesus is an integral aspect of mission, proof of its authenticity, and the test of missionary faithfulness (cf. Kirk 1991:39, 69). Hence, an understanding of the self-emptying of Christ can lead to a fuller comprehension of his ministry (Mathews 1991:4) and, consequently, of our own missionary commitments.

The criterion of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ permits us to identify him today. This criterion leads us not only to discover who he is (the Lord and Savior of the oppressed), but where he is to be found today (among the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed), and what he is doing (healing their wounds, breaking their chains of oppression, demanding justice and peace, giving life, and imparting hope). (Costas 1982:15-16.)

In the words of Anthony Gittins (1993:150-51): Jesus "journeyed along the borders between countries and people, letting himself be sidetracked and put upon (Lk 17:11ff) … He engaged and encountered a variety of people, sinners and outcasts, and he entrusted himself to people whom he did not intentionally seek" (Mk 7:24ff; Jn 12:1ff). The many examples thereof reflect a whole attitude and a whole way of being: Jesus’ entire life was directed toward engagement with people and with negotiating and transcending their boundaries but also, gradually, his own.

And so it must be with each one of us. But we have to be committed to the call to mission, to the lure and the demands of the boundaries or margins. Unless we seek the margins and the people who live there, a dimension of our Christian lives will remain unexplored and a whole vista of mission will remain unseen, out of sight. (Gittins 1993:151.)

Since mission is the heart and nature of the Church, it is true what Lucien Richard (1997:194) wrote: we need akenotic, self-emptying church, a countercultural and counter-societal church, an apophatic church (emphasizing thevia negativa), not in the contemplative sense, but in the sense of a church which always offers an alternative vision; a church always—with the Lord—on the way to Jerusalem.

A biblical image that powerfully renders this idea is Heb 13:12-13: "Therefore Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured."

To go "outside the camp" means that we have to go and encounter Christ where he is to be found, where he gave his life for our salvation: outside the visible civil and religious compound, outside the security and comfort of the redeemed community (Costas 1982:190). We have to look for him and find him among the crucified people of today, among the destitute, the persecuted, the rejected, and those who suffer. If the disciples want to encounter Jesus and follow him, they have to go and see where he lives, "outside the gate," in the wilderness, at the peripheries of society, amidst the outsiders and outcasts of the world. And once we have found the master there, we are summoned to commit ourselves to those with whom he suffered and for whom he gave his life: the excluded, the poor, the desperate, and the voiceless (cf. Gittins 1993:158-61; also 2002:107-118 and 2002a).

This is the only way to "transform mission" and to discover the true meaning of Missio Dei in a time of crisis:

For this … indicates an action, which does not point indiscriminately to all kinds of happenings in the world, but only to one incomprehensible event, namely that God, the creator of all things, submerged himself in his own world as a stranger, as a displaced person, an outcast, in solidarity with other outcasts and strangers, who in this world pursues a very special, hidden road in order to liberate it. (Rosin 1972:34, quoted in Jongeneel and van Engelen 1995:447-48.)

This means that God is hidden in history and especially in Jesus Christ. And Jesus and the Spirit are "hidden" (present, active) in the Church; hence, in all disciples. The mission of the disciples, the mission of the Church, is to continue this mission of God by prolonging the logic of Jesus’ mission in a creative, courageous, and credible way (cf. Bosch 1991:34).


Kenosis is not a strategy or a method, but an essential dimension of the mystery of Christ and his mission.

In Jesus’ ministry, it anticipated, and in the mission of his disciples, it continues, the mystery of a crucified Messiah, "a scandal to the Jews and a foolishness to the nations, but to those who have been called, … a Christ who is both the power of God and wisdom of God. For God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor 1:23-25). Kenosis is this foolishness and this weakness of God who draws all people to himself (Jn 12:32) by the power of a Love without limits.4

Religious missionaries will benefit from frequent meditation on the mystery of Christ’s kenosis and its implications for missionary commitment and religious life. Following the way of kenosis is surely no easy task, but one that will be life-giving both for others and ourselves. It will call for a greater intimacy and identification with the Lord, which is the goal of all discipleship. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master" (Mt 10:24-25). 



1. See the introduction to Spiritus,No. 142 (March 1996), p. 2 [translation mine].

2. Legrand 1996:40-41 [translation mine, emphasis added].

3. Cf. also the reflections on the vows and kenosis by Paoli 1982: 52-56, 74-78, 83-86.

4. Legrand 1996:49 [translation mine].


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Azevedo, M.

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 Chittister, J.

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Costas, O. E.

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2002a Ministry at the Margins: Strategy and Spirituality for Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis).

1993 Bread for the Journey: the Mission of Transformation and the Transformation of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis).

Harmer, Catherine M.

1995 Religious Life in the 21st Century: A Contemporary Journey into Canaan (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications).

Kirk, J. A.

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Jongeneel, J. A. B. and J. M. van Engelen

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Legrand, L.

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Mathews, E.

1991 "Christ and Kenosis: A Model for Mission," Journal for Applied Missiology 2 (1991) 1. Article made available at http://bible.acu. edu/missions/page.asp?ID=415. Accessed 3 October 2005.

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Richard, L.

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