The other day in the Divine Office I read a passage from St Gregory the Great on preachers and preaching. It is interesting that I have been reading the Breviary every day for 27 years now, and this passage never struck me before. More proof I suppose that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
There is also a Latin expression that captures how we often see things we missed before even in familiar texts. The expression is Non nova, sed nove, meaning that, though the text is not a new thing, it is experienced in a new way, or newly.
At any rate, what struck me about this teaching is St. Gregory’s assertion that the preacher goes ahead of the Lord, announcing him as it were, and the Lord comes behind to close the deal. It is an important insight that can also help the preacher avoid both pride and also an exaggerated sense of responsibility. I’ll say more of this in a moment but for now listen to St. Gregory:
Beloved brothers, our Lord and Savior….sends his disciples out to preach two by two…
Rightly is it said that he sent them ahead of him into every city and place where he himself was to go. For the Lord follows after the preachers, because preaching goes ahead to prepare the way, and then when the words of exhortation have gone ahead and established truth in our minds, the Lord comes to live within us. To those who preach Isaiah says: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. And the psalmist tells them: Make a way for him who rises above the sunset…. Therefore, we make a way for him who rises above the sunset when we preach his glory to you, so that when he himself follows after us, he may illumine you with his love.
Think over, my beloved brothers, think over his words: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may be able to labor worthily on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, that after we have taken up the office of preaching our silence may not bring us condemnation from the just judge.
From a homily on the gospels by Saint Gregory the Great, pope
(Hom 17, 1-3: PL 76, 1139 )
It is a powerful and helpful insight that the preacher goes before the Lord, who follows after to quicken the Word that is planted.
And here is a remedy first of all for pride. For the preacher is not the Lord. And, even if it is the Lord’s own word he preaches, mere human eloquence cannot completely express what God alone, who is love, can effect in the human heart. The preacher can but sow the Word, but only God can bring forth the harvest. As St. Paul wrote,
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:6-7).
The preacher can propose, but the Lord must come after to “close the deal.” The Samaritan woman was rather abruptly but truthfully told this by the townsfolk:
We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (Jn 4:42)
And every preacher should delight to hear this. It is a valuable lesson for the preacher to remember his place. He goes before to announce the presence of the one who alone can heal and bring in the truest harvest by his grace.
The preacher is like the best man in an ancient Jewish wedding, to whom St. John the Baptist equated himself:
He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3:29-30).
St. Gregory’s insight is also helpful to preacher so that the preacher can avoid an exaggerated sense of responsibility. For it sometimes happens that a preacher may think too much rests on him, on his eloquence, and finding just the right analogy or formulae. And while it is true that every preacher must work to hone his skills, it also remains true that Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps 127:1).
Thus the preacher can help lay a foundation, but it is the Lord who must build the house. It is freeing and helpful for the preacher remember that he merely goes before the Lord, and that the Lord will follow after, with every good grace. For what preacher can possibly know everything that every individual soul needs to find Christ. He must do his part in proclaiming the authentic word of God but only the Lord can perfect the message in every soul.
This is freeing and reassuring. And most of us who preach realize this from time to time when some one tells us something we have said, but recounts it in a way that surprises us. And this shows how the Lord helps them to hear what our feeble words only suggested.
In the end every preacher must trust the Lord who comes after him to complete what is lacking and bring forth the fruits that the preacher can only point to.