Today I read through, for the fourth time, St Gregory’s Oration 40. As already noted, it is a very long homily, which makes it difficult to blog on.
On this reading I found myself appreciating, perhaps for the first time, the rhetorical power of this homily. I felt myself being drawn into the urgency of St Gregory’s summons to baptism. The homily is long because he is seeking to persuade every catechumen before him to embrace Christ in the decisive act of sacramental conversion and be reborn in the Holy Spirit. He addresses every conceivable objection that might, and no doubt were, raised. When I first read this oration I found it somewhat tedious. But on Tuesday I suddenly realized that St Gregory was standing before his congregation, standing before me, as a divinely appointed bishop of the Church, filled with prophetic power, proclaiming the Kingdom now present in that liturgical moment.
I was immediately reminded of the eschatological preaching of our Lord. The prophets of the old covenant proclaimed the coming Day of the Lord; but it was always as future event. “Repent,” the prophet would declare, “the Kingdom of God is at hand. Maybe later today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Maybe next year. But soon, very soon. So change your lives now. Get your house in order. The day of judgment is coming.” Between the prophetic announcement and the establishment of God’s reign, there is always a temporal space, a space that allows the hearers to either change their behavior and bring it into alignment with the divine law or to postpone doing so. Thus St John the Baptist, the greatest of Israel’s prophets declared: “Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9). Some repented; many did not. So it had always been through the history of Israel.
At first glance the teaching of Jesus does not seem much different. St Mark the Evangelist tells us that when our Lord began his public ministry, he preached in the same prophetic mode: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15). And yet there was also something different about it. The words may have sounded the same, but they were voiced in a different key. Even John noticed the difference and had to send messengers to Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:19). Jesus does not answer the Forerunner directly. He points, rather, to the manifestations of the Spirit in his ministry: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). The Kingdom is no longer a future event to be awaited. It is present now in the person, teaching, and miracles of Christ himself. The bridegroom has arrived. The wedding party has begun. The Eschaton has broken broken into history. The temporal space of the old prophetic preaching that allowed either frantic preparation of “works of the Law” or delay, evasion, dithering, and disregard is no longer available. Robert W. Jenson explains this crucial point in one of his first books, Story and Promise:
Jesus so spoke of the Kingdom at the existence of his hearers as to short-circuit both responses [repentance and non-repentance], as to take away the space of time between the moment of their hearing him and the future he promised. He left them no time to get ready; instead he made the Kingdom the decisive reality for the decisions and hopes and fears which were the then-and-there of their lives. When men heard Jesus’ call to the Kingdom, they either were thereby called into its citizenship, or found they had already rejected it. They either found that all their other values defined themselves by the hope of the Kingdom (“they left all and followed him”), or that they had already chosen to prefer other things (“and he went sadly away, for he had many possessions”). (p. 37)
In the preaching of the Messiah the summons to conversion takes on a different, deeper meaning. Jesus is not just a prophet proclaiming the imminence of the Kingdom; he is the personal embodiment of the Kingdom. The Forerunner expected fiery judgment, yet Christ reaches out to the poor, the oppressed, the sick and outcast. He eats with publicans. He associates with harlots. His mercy and forgiveness knows no bounds. Whether rich or poor, respectable or unrespectable, righteous or unrighteous, to be brought into his fellowship and to sup at his table is to share in the Kingdom that has come but is not yet. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). There is only the immediacy of ultimate decision, of either eschatological celebration or final rejection of the God who is unconditional Love (Matt 22:1-14).
I hear this eschatological urgency in St Gregory’s call to baptism. Yes, he patiently examines all the objection that his catechumens might still be entertaining; but ultimately what is at stake for Gregory is nothing less than the Kingdom now inaugurated in the mystery of the Church. There is no longer time to delay our response to the gospel. There is now only this decisive confrontation with the Future incarnate in Jesus Christ.
How absurd it is to grasp at riches but throw away health, and to cleanse the body first but skimp on the cleansing of the soul, and to seek freedom from the slavery here below and not aim for the freedom above, and put all one’s zeal into how to be housed or clothed magnificently while not caring how oneself could be of the greatest value, and be eager to do good to others but now want the same for oneself. And if the good had been on sale to you, you would have spared no expense, yet if the lovingkindness lies before you, you despise the beneficence already available. Every moment is right for your washing, since any time could bring your death. With Paul, that great voice, I cry out to you, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation.” “Now” specifies not one time but every time. (40.13)
The urgency of St Gregory’s preaching is partially driven by the uncertainty of death. He invokes this uncertainty at various points in his homily. Death could come to us at any time. “What is easier,” Gregory asks, “than for a human being to die, though you are proud of the divine image?” (40.14). But I suggest that it is not mortality alone that drives St Gregory’s call to conversion. The Church baptizes to and into the Eucharist. The catechumens whom St Gregory addresses have not yet been introduced to the Eucharistic mysteries; they have not yet experienced the presence and joy of communing with the risen Lord in his Body and Blood. They have not yet partaken of the Supper of the Lamb. Yet it is precisely this entry into the Kingdom that awaits them. St Gregory concludes his homily with these words:
But I announce this good news to you. The position in which you will stand immediately after baptism before the great sanctuary is a foreshadowing of the future glory. The psalmody with which you will be received is a prelude of the hymnody there. The lamps that you will kindle are a symbol of the procession of lights there, with which you will go to meet the Bridegroom with bright and virgin souls, with lamps bright with faith. Let us not lie down in laziness, lest we miss the unexpected presence of the Expected One. Let us not lack food and oil and good works, lest we be thrown out of the bridal chamber. For I see how pitiful the suffering is. He will be present when the cry demands the meeting, and of those who come to meet him, some who are wise will have lamps alight and abundant fuel for them, while others are troubled seeking oil at the wrong time from those who have it. He will enter swiftly, and the first will enter with him, but the others will be shut out, having spent the time for entry on preparations; and afterwards they will weep much, learning too late the damage caused by laziness, when the bridal chamber is no longer accessible to them despite their many pleadings, since they wickedly closed it for themselves. They will have imitated in another way those who miss the wedding feast that the good Father gives for the good Bridegroom, one because of the wife he has has newly married, another because of the field he has newly bought, and another because of the yoke of oxen he has unfortunately acquired, since for the sake of smaller things they lose greater things. For not one is there of the disdainful or the lazy or those dressed in filthy rags and not in wedding attire, even if here he considers himself worthy of the bright attire there and secretly inserts himself, thoroughly deceiving himself by empty hopes. What then? When we come inside, the the Bridegroom knows what he will teach and he he will be joined with the souls that have come in with him. He will be joined with them, in my view, in teaching them things most perfect and most pure. May we also participate in that who are teaching these things and learning them, in the same Christ our Lord, to whom be glory unto the ages. Amen. (40.46)
One of the great challenges of contemporary preaching is to re-capture the eschatological moment and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom that has arrived but is not yet. How easy it is to fall into Old Testament preaching. How easy it is to forget that the Eucharist, and thus the Church herself, “is the sacrament of the beginning and the end, of the world and its fulfilment as the kingdom of God” (Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, p. 36). When this is forgotten, the gospel is reduced to Spirit-less exhortation, whether moralistic or ascetical. The preacher must and will exhort, of course. But above all, he must proclaim good news and incorporate his hearers into the Kingdom now present as Holy Eucharist.