Yesterday’s feast of St. Gregory provided rich reflections from the great Doctor of the Church. And I supplemented my readings as well by looking over some of his homilies. Frankly, St. Gregory the Great was tough on himself and on preachers and he spoke of the office in lofty and demanding terms. For example he taught,
The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts … That is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call. Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows (Pope Gregory Pastoral Guide).
For yesterday’s Office he also says, Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming … must stand on a height for all his life to help the people by his foresight (Homily on Ezekiel, 1.11).
I was privileged for the past four days to be with the priests of Burlington, VT, and to be the presenter at their presbyteral days. Among the things we reflected on were these words from Gregory on his feast day.
Another teaching of Pope St. Gregory that struck me is his 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 then 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, though 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 seed of the Word; 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 also helps the preacher to avoid an exaggerated sense of responsibility. For it sometimes happens that a preacher may think too much rests on him, on his eloquence, and on finding just the right analogy or formulae. He may also lament his flaws. 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 to remember that he merely goes before the Lord, and that the Lord will follow after, with every good grace. The preacher must do his part in proclaiming the authentic word of God, but only the Lord can perfect the message in every soul. He must preserve knowledge and prepare the way for the Lord, who will judge the living and the dead, but who also comes in the meantime to the faithful and causes the seed to grow in their hearts.
This is freeing and reassuring. And most of us who preach realize this from time to time when someone 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 to bring forth the fruits that the preacher can only point to. The Lord causes His truth to shine forth in consolation for the faithful and in judgement for the wicked. The battle is the Lord’s. So is the victory and the harvest.