One of the struggles that many people have an understanding the good news the Church proclaims, is that many people have either not heard, or are not in touch with the bad news.
Imagine a man reading the headlines of the newspaper announcing a miraculous cure for a terrible and deadly disease. But imagine again that the man has never heard of the disease, let alone knows that he has it. Thus, the headline of the miraculous cure would likely have little impact on him, and he would think to himself “Ho hum, let’s see what else is in the paper.”
Only in knowing the bad news, does the good news really have impact on him. And, to the degree that the bad news has impacted him personally, or someone he knows, the good news will be an even greater joy for him.
Imagine now, that his experience of the disease has been clear for him, and thus, having read of the miraculous cure that is available, he will have a kind of evangelical glee and zeal. Barely will he have read the column, when he will be on the phone calling family and friends to rejoice with him and to spread the good news!
Yes, somehow there is a paradoxical truth that only experiencing the depths of the bad news, do the heights of the good news look wonderful. There is a “test” in every testimony, a trial in every witness’ smile.
One of the difficult balances for the Church, and every individual preacher or disciple to get right, is the balance between articulating the bad news, and celebrating the good news.
The balance is set forth in the very opening words of Jesus, in his public ministry,”Repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) As Jesus himself clearly demonstrates, both truths are necessary: the repentance that calls us to be sober and sorrowful about sin, and also the belief in the good news, which summons us to accept the glorious news that the Lord can utterly transform us to be a new creation in Christ.
Some have argued that the church of the 1950s was all about repentance, and the following the rules more out of fear, than because they made sense. Having been born in 1961 I cannot personally verify this, but many who I trust have told me this, and I will except their word. Somewhere in all that the good news was either lost or postponed to some far-off heaven.
But if that was the case then it would seem that we over-corrected through the late 1960s and into the 1980s where there seemed, almost, to be an embarrassment in speaking about sin in any specific sort of away. And to the degree that sin was mentioned at all, it tended to be social sin, and described more in abstractions and generalities.
In both eras, exceptions were to be found among the preachers and the faithful, but it would seem, that finding the proper balance between “repent, and believe the good news,” has been hard to come by, either in the severe “old” Church or the anxious “new” Church.
As has already been stated, balance is needed. Heresy, when confronted by tensions like “repent and “good news” chooses one thing and discards the other. Heresy means “choice,” but orthodoxy says “hold both.”
In our own time the heresy, or the extremism tends to be to emphasize the “Good news!” part of the kerygma and reject or strongly downplay the “repent” part. But the ancient Kerygma, (a term which refers to the first and fundamental apostolic preaching), in the early days just after the resurrection contained a balance. The early preaching of the apostles spoke of this as being the time fulfillment, the “latter days” which the prophets foretold. The Lord has by his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ushered in this new age and is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. He has sent the Holy Spirit on the Church as the sign of Christ’s present power and glory. And give all this, the time of decision is at hand: Choose the Lord! Repentance is needed with the offer of forgiveness, and with this repentance comes the Holy Spirit, and ultimate salvation. The Kerygma also incited urgency for the Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ who will judge the nations and the secret intentions of hearts.
So there is good news, but there is also the need to repent and the urgency that we do so.
But again let us state, without a deep knowledge, a clear experience of the “bad news” of our sinfulness, the good news of the Savior, who was born suffered and died for us, and rose gloriously, is but ancient, trite, and sentimental story from the ancient world that has little relevance in our life.
It is no wonder that, as many in the Church who preach and teach stopped speaking in clear ways about sin, our churches began to empty, and people began to question the relevance of the Church, the need for sermons or sacraments, for prayer or scripture.
Who goes to the doctor? Only those who know they are sick, or those who, being aware what illness can do, seek to avoid it by regular check ups. But unless one is deeply imbued with a sense of how bad sickness can be, it is unlikely they will be motivated to go regularly to any doctor.
And so it is today with any number of Catholics who either make light of sin, deny they are sinful, or that sin has any real and negative effects in their life. What possible relevance can going to Church and receiving her healing sacraments, or being ministered to by her sacred liturgy have for them? At best, they are left with a vague sense of fellowship as a motive for what is good about going to church. And while fellowship is good, one might just as well join a bowling league if this is the only value.
And thus we see a reaction to the severity of the 1950s, that was extreme and overthrew the fundamental call of the kerygma to repentance.
Imagine doctors getting together as a group and largely saying to the American people, “Sickness and disease are not really a problem to be anxious about. In fact, most of you are in good health don’t worry if you’re overweight, don’t worry about things like sugar and cholesterol everything is really just fine….No matter what we’re all going to live to be a ripe old age!”
We might not be surprised to find that, after a steady diet of this sort of pronouncement from the medical community, that doctor’s offices would largely empty of patients. And to the degree that anyone found their way to doctor’s offices, it would only be after their illnesses were fairly advanced and there would be little the medical community could do. Thus, after creating the impression that regular medical attention was irrelevant and unnecessary, the medical community with then suffer the notion about itself that it was also ineffective and further eroding its credibility.
If this scenario seems strange and non-credible to you, it is quite clearly what many priests catechists have done in the Catholic Church for many years now. In effect, our pulpits have grown silent about sin. And to one degree or another, the message was often and merely some version of “I’m okay you’re okay,” that sin is somehow no big deal, that basically everyone is going to heaven no matter what, and that somehow everyone is basically good, and means well.
Of course it should not surprise us that many would come to the conclusion that the Churches is unnecessary and irrelevant. Who needs to pray or receive sacraments? What’s the point of God’s Word or a sermon? If it isn’t really necessary, and everybody goes to heaven whether or not they undertake these things or not, why bother?
And thus we see how without the bad news, the good news seems pointless, irrelevant and uninspiring.
I do not argue here that priests and catechists, or parents are intentionally and consciously said “Sin is no big deal,” but that does seem to be the general message that was received. More often than not it was the silence of the pulpits the created this message, rather then the explicit formulation of this view. But silence can be very subtle, pernicious, and cumulative it its effects.
When there is no reference to the bad news, the good news fades into insignificance.
This reflection should not amount to swing to the other extreme where in the Church, or individual preacher merely shouts “repent.” Today’s common lack of balance should not be replaced tomorrow by another lack of balance.
Therefore, good preaching, it would seem, should not hesitate to vigorously set forth the need for grace, salvation, the sacraments, and the ministry of the Church, but it should also announce with joy the wonder-working power of God’s saving grace through these remedies offered in the Church. And every preacher, should witness constantly the magnificence of the good news, having established the foundation for it.
The Greek word for repentance, is metanoia which does not simply speak of conversion, but of a change of mind. It also implies a new heart. And the new mind and the new heart, while knowing well the reality of sin, are also able to authentically and powerfully rejoice in the good news of God’s saving love.
In the end, we ought to seek for the balance that orthodoxy requires. Good news without a context and the well-established antithesis of the bad news, does not stand forth as good news. Light, with no reference to darkness, is hard to define or distinguish.
Yet, also, the bad news, with no reference to the good news tends only to incite fear, and fear incites anger and avoidance. And even if one were to argue that fear motivates, the motivation is not usually long-lasting, and then, anger and/or avoidance are most sure to follow.
Ultimately, it is the ancient kerygma which sets forth the proper balance: Repent and believe the good news. Peter also says, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:38-39)
Yes, balance. An articulation of sin and the need for repentance that has clarity and charity. And also a proclamation of the Good News of God’s grace and help in attaining the promises that are now operative for all who will joyfully embrace them.
Here is a new Catechetical program that has become available. I have not seen the series but have ordered one. It emphasizes the original and fundamental kerygma (hence it’s name “alpha”).