“Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
I remember these words well –words of the bishop, just after ordaining me a deacon, and now entrusting the Book of the Gospels into my hands.
I was eager to proclaim the Gospel, even if I was daunted by mandate to live it out. Just like the chosen disciples in the Gospel stories, I both understood and did not understand what I was getting myself into as I made that commitment in the presence of God and his people. I imagine that many of the deacons or priests reading this blog feel the same way!
For one thing, I both understood and did not understand what it means to be a “herald.” I guess I got the metaphor. I had vague images of a trumpet-blaring royal messenger. Jesus had heralded the Kingdom of God, and now I was to be his herald. I was committed to be clear and complete in teaching and explaining the contents of the faith he had left behind. If only they understood it with greater clarity…was a frequent fantasy that fueled my preaching and teaching. Now I have hundreds of former students and parishioners who heard and understood what I taught with clarity, and are not close followers of Jesus.
I was only partially a follower of Jesus myself. I both understood and did not understand what it meant to practice the Gospel of Christ. I was largely taking the Gospel as a call to moral perfection, and seeing myself as falling short of its fullness, needing to shape up. I tended to be puffed up with grandiosity when I was a “good” witness and deflated when I was “bad.” In that all-or-nothing thinking, I was less focused on following Jesus in an abiding relationship – in good times and in bad. I kept forgetting to see it as a relationship in which I would need (again and again) to receive from him in my poverty, and keep depending radically on him.
Like so many Christians, I eagerly joined the culture war. There was that felt sense of fighting hard to keep things from collapsing and to proclaim “the truth” with clarity. There was a felt urgency and pressure in that fighting, and sometimes a sense of “us versus them.” I didn’t approach each day with a conviction that Jesus had already won the victory, and that he was bound to show up at various moments in surprising and playful ways.
Where did that urge for clarity and that fear of losing come from? I can see now that it wasn’t the “Good News” of the Gospel. It was a trauma response and survival strategy. I had much shame and fear in the recesses of my heart – an intensely felt sense of relationships being fragile and my deeper self being unlovable. I could avoid feeling the pain of it if I could stay driven to be “faithful” (i.e., morally perfect). That meant keeping many messy and painful places of my heart effectively compartmentalized – the cluttered closets and junk drawers I hoped that no one would notice. It was especially these places of my heart that needed to hear the Gospel. It was not until I started allowing the first streaks of Day to shine into those places that I would begin to be a more effective herald. I needed the Good News heralded to me – many times.
These are my “kerygma” moments – moments of receiving the Gospel in a liberating and joyful way that transforms me. I can look back and see many of them – both before and after ordination. I just had another one two weeks ago. In each case, I was humble and vulnerable enough to allow someone else close to the places in me that feel dark and toxic. They saw God’s light streaking in, and heralded it. I received the truth that God’s Kingdom is indeed breaking in – and that he desires even this part of me to be an honored guest at the wedding feast. That recognition often brings tears or sobs. Each of my own kerygma moments better equips me to go into dark places with others, to notice how God’s light is showing up, and to invite them to receive it.
Gregory the Great (540-604) describes the Church as “the dawn” – a paradoxical mixture of light and darkness.
The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … Dawn indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.
Abiding in the dawn means not always experiencing clarity. You and I will find ourselves still in the middle of the story – like Joseph or Mary or the Magi. We will need to depend upon others for help, to be curious, and to be open to surprises. Sometimes the darkness will feel dark indeed. We may feel stuck. But we can abide and trust in the victory that is already won, the Day that is truly at hand. Then comes an incredible joy that floods our heart when we allow ourselves to notice what God is doing and be led by him – even still not knowing the full journey or how all will be well.
Jesus reminds us that our present experience of the Kingdom will be one of weeds and wheat growing up together. All will be sorted out and our full story told and vindicated on the Day of Judgment. In the meantime, Gregory the Great reminds us to expect a mixture of light and darkness:
As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus, when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.
This status of “the dawn” and the clash of flesh and spirit applies both to the whole Church as well as to each of us individually. We can expect a struggle. We can expect our good God to show up and keep saving us amidst the struggle.
In my earlier years of ordained ministry, my message was not always “The Day is at hand!” but rather “We have to fight to stop night from falling!” In that fear, I was sometimes shaming others and was certainly shaming myself. I was not always a herald of Hope. I was ignoring how dark our civic or church institutions had already become, and was not eagerly expecting to see the first beams of Day breaking through. I had not internalized the goodness of the Incarnation or the victory of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. I had not been willing to plunge into those dark places, to abide in Hope, and to be surprised by the Resurrection.
Even still, I catch myself wanting to “arrive,” to be done healing, or to have it all figured out. Even when the Magi find the newborn King, the real story is only beginning to unfold! There are many struggles and adventures yet to come – and some of them are likely to feel dark or difficult. But in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well and all manner of thing will be well.” The darkness will never turn back into night. The Day is at hand, and I get to be its herald.