I

God the Son descended,
descended
down,
down into our dark.

And in emptying Himself
did He lose the same?
Self-divest the Name?
For what can God
give
except Himself?

In soft tones we ask the question,
demand in pleading voices
that God still be God
and hide us from our misery.

How can this be so?
How can this be so when
in shades of dusk
and dusty village air
He came down,
united with our gloom?

God has vanished behind a human face
and in finding us He
looms with greater distance
beneath the impenetrable glass of colored irises.

God the Son descended,
descended
down into our dark.
And we ask in troubled voices
why the darkness does not comprehend.

II

God is light
and light is so only if it shines,
spends and spills itself in shimmering radiance.
God burns and burns and burns
in eternal bright.
Descends without descending
and rises without rising
in self-emptying tri-unity.

And we ask
as God the Son descended
we ask if light has faded,
and He answers, I AM.
For God is
the eternal wealth
of poverty.

He emptied Himself
un-grasped
and in emptying
was and is as He always was.
In emptying
down,
down into our dark
in His mortal obedience
He bends us that way,
like light that carves everything in its shape.

He is the treasure who
in losing finds.
In dying we live—
in descending,
ascend.

We can only have Him if
we give everything away,
can only possess in
the manner that God Himself possesses.

And so
in blushing dawn He tells us,
Noli me tangere.

——–

“Kenotic Hymn” is the first poem I ever wrote. Created in a fury in Fall 2008, I suddenly became a poet. I had never been one before, and after this moment I never looked back. Whatever I was then, and whatever I am now, an irrevocable change shifted the landscape of my imagination.

The poem’s style is an obvious echo of T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: note the use of repetition, the deliberate cadence, the blunt (even mournful) tone, the division into numerical sections. I had “Ash Wednesday” strong in my mind at the time of my own writing, and I quite deliberately set out to imitate Eliot. His was the genius upon whom I relied to voice any of my thoughts at all, and I remember feeling immensely aware of my own inadequacies as a writer.

Technically speaking, the poem’s reliance on “Ash Wednesday” is what helps to make it proficient. The breakthrough was thunderous to me, though the poem as it now stands seems perhaps deceptively simple. With this poem, I had finally figured out (1) how to write in verse at all, (2) how to use repetition to my advantage, (3) how to employ enjambment (a thought that continues across more than one line). These were no small feats, and I think in many ways this shining moment of creativity outstrips even my subsequent work. It is my first child; I shall never outdistance it.

Itself written in the space of perhaps a week or two, “Kenotic Hymn” was the stunned outcry of a bewildered young graduate student. I sat in Dr. Stephen Long’s class on the Incarnation, and learned to my horror of “kenoticists” who read Philippians 2:5-11 and argued that the Son had emptied himself even of divinity in the Incarnation. It is difficult to describe how horrendous the mere concept is to an orthodox Christian. Dr. Long thus opened the question to the class: when the Son “empties himself,” what does that mean? What does that really mean? I became obsessed with answering the question, and my fury rose as long days passed without an adequate response. Then the bare outline of the poem struck me, and I wrote it down, revised small sections, and here is “Kenotic Hymn” as it still stands.

The title and the language of the poem frequently recall their inspiration, drawing heavily from phrases and concepts in the famous Philippians hymn. “Emptying” and “grasping” and “obedience” form the conceptual undercurrent of the work, driving it like a drumbeat. “Descent,” a Johannine turn of phrase, echoes the Philippian sentiment – concerned as it is with the same question – working this sentiment toward a deeper chasm between God and the world into which he descends. The Johannine language is really the strongest, with numerous allusions to the Gospel throughout (light, dark, comprehension, etc.).

Other phrases from the Synoptic Gospels appear on occasion in the work. Luke’s Annunciation account receives a colorful allusion – “in shades of dusk/ and dusty village air/ He came down” – and so, too, the Synoptic parable of the treasure for which we must give everything to own (Mt 13). This parable has been blurred with New Testament statements about “losing life to find it” (Mt 10:39), the parable of the pearl (Mt 13), commands to “sell everything” (Lk 18:22), and other like phrases.

Much of the final half of the poem is spent in a theological move profoundly influenced by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the logic of the piece follows him without straying. It is essentially a modified version of the Cappadocian Trinity, presented in poetic form, and kenosis is here stressed in sharp alignment with Balthasar.

So the poem ends by insisting that we possess only by not possessing, and this is argued with the famous Latin lines of Jesus’ response to Mary Magdeline in John 19: Noli me tangere, “Do not touch me.”

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