Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross

214. The Birth of the Kenotic Christ

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. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV]

  Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1581.

We need at least a modicum of historical consciousness to read the Gospels in depth, that is, beyond the spiritual and devotional reading. To do that, two contextual realities must be borne in mind.

First, the New Testament writers were first century Jewish Christians who read what we now call the Old Testament as their Scriptures. They were intimately familiar with the fact that, for the Jewish people, the last thing they were still living in was the great Exodus. Their escape from slavery in Egypt was by no means finished, even in the first century A.D., for their status of existence in captivity continued under the Greeks, followed by the Romans. The last, and failed, major campaign mounted against the foreign power was the Maccabean revolt lasting from 167 to 160 BC, led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. By the first century A.D., the Jews were still waiting for liberation. They felt done for. As God’s Chosen People, they suffered humiliation, for they were still living under foreign domination.

Second, the New Testament writings were post-resurrection writings. The writers’ visions were informed and influenced, and thus driven and coloured, by their experiences and by the various oral traditions prevalent in different communities on Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. In turn, their written narratives that over time became accepted as “the Four Gospels” were richly coloured by the perspectives of the Paschal Mystery. This pervasive influence of the Paschal Mystery is seen not only in regards to the accounts of post-Easter events but, remarkably, also on all the pre-Easter events in Jesus’ life, all the way back to the Nativity.

Attentive viewers of Tintoretto’s works know that Tintoretto understood the Gospels well. Jacopo Robusti, better known as Tintoretto the famous Venetian Renaissance painter, descended from a family of dyers (tintore). Evident in most of his works are steps and stairways, suggesting a lesson in discipleship and an invitation to the viewers to enter into the scene together with the characters in those works. His Adoration of the Shepherds is no exception, and perhaps a more accentuated illustration.

Canon Jeremy Davies, formerly of Salisbury Cathedral, England, throws light on this piece. In a brilliant analysis, his own words read:

  • The girl who welcomes the shepherds and points them to the entrance is beckoning us also.
  • There is a ladder at the back of the cowshed, indicating the path we have to follow to get to the first floor where Mary and Joseph and Jesus rest upon the straw.
  • Above them, the pitched roof is untiled, and we see a golden sky (and peering angels) through the roof timbers – timbers we can’t fail to notice that form three crosses over the nativity scene.
  • Below the holy family, at the back of the shed (rather incongruously with the cow and the hen), is a peacock – a symbol of resurrection. Tintoretto deliberately places his nativity in the context of the saga of redemption, and we with the shepherds are invited to enter it.
  • We may begin with the arduous climb up rickety stairs to find the child and his parents – and some in the picture have already made the ascent.
  • But on the left-hand side, by a trick of perspective, are two youths who, in their exuberance and enthusiasm to get there, offer up what look like fresh laid eggs (signs of the new life) and reach in a single movement from ground level to the first floor. They are like impetuous Peters whose generosity of heart gets closer to the truth than the rest of us who are more painstaking in our discipleship.

The point that captures our imagination concerns the wooden beams “that form three crosses over the nativity scene”. In a conspicuous way, Tintoretto does not highlight the Infant Jesus. Evidently knowing that all his viewers would look for the very subject of the Nativity, namely, the Christ Child, has Tintoretto not deliberately drawn attention to the following?

  • The “smallness” of the Child.
  • His lack of any apparent special qualities that would stand him out above other new born babies – such as a head aglow in brilliant light, for instance.
  • The utter humble circumstances of his birth.
  • And, as if all that is not enough, the Infant Jesus has to look up to see the crosses staring right back at him.

At his birth, Tintoretto quietly suggests, the Son of God is already facing the inevitable and all too imminent cross.

The inspired author of the Letter to the Philippians (traditionally ascribed to Saint Paul) has understood the same message so profoundly well that he has left us with an incredibly beautiful Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. In this, we have the famous portrait of a kenotic Christ. Kenosis means self-emptying. Representing the New Testament’s response to the Old Testament account of the Fall in Genesis 3, the kenosis of Christ beckons all who would follow Jesus the Christ to embrace his spirituality:

  • instead of grabbing, letting go;
  • instead of privilege, sacrifice;
  • instead of ascent, descent;
  • instead of pride, humility;
  • instead of status, service

We wish you all a season of joy and peace.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, 16 December 2018. All rights reserved.

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