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Keep it Simple with the Kerygma

'Nino" Eugene La Pia CC
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The basic teaching that Jesus is the Messiah, was crucified and rose again should be the starting point for all seekers

In past blog posts I made use of the term, Kerygma, and a number of people asked me to expand on the meaning of this term. To some extent, it is an example of one of those “Church words” which is rich in meaning to those who know, and have perhaps had been to seminary or studied advanced theology, but is largely unknown to many others. So let’s take a look at this term since it seems to be coming more central as we look to evangelizing a culture, almost from scratch.

The term κήρυγμα, (Kerugma) is a Greek word meaning “proclamation”. The Greek word κηρύσσω, (kerusso) means “herald,” or one who proclaims. And thus the Kerygma is what is proclaimed.

As the apostles began the work of preaching and proclaiming Christ, they proclaimed a message that was rather basic and simple. More extended teaching or instruction (Διδαχή, (didache), in Greek) would come later, after baptism. But the initial proclamation of Christ was simple, and to the point.

This does not mean that later development was both necessary and good. It simply means that the initial proclamation sought to get right to the point. In effect, this kerygmatic approach was seen more as a proclamation addressed directly to the hearer, and is a call to conversion, rather than as an extended appeal to the reason or to motives of credibility.

The basic curricula of the kerygma emphasizes that Jesus is the chosen Messiah of God, the one who was promised. And though he was crucified, He rose gloriously from the dead, appearing to his disciples, and having been exulted at the right hand of the Father through his ascension, now summons all to him, through the ministry of the Church. This proclamation (kerygma) requires a response from us, that we should repent of our sins accept baptism and live in the new life which Christ is offering. This alone will prepare us for the coming judgment that is to come upon all humanity. There is an urgent need to conform ourselves to Christ and be prepared by him for the coming judgment.

This was the basic Kerygma. The Apostles would surely go on to develop more, for example, the theology of grace, extended moral treatises, Christology, Ecclesiology, Trinitarian theology, and so forth. But the deeper things and concepts wait until the soul has first been cleansed of sin, and the darkness of mind that sin brings. Once initiated into the mysteries through baptism, the soul is now able to go on to maturity in Christ.

But step one is the announcement of the kerygma, and the acceptance of it by the believer, so as to enter into the deeper mysteries.

Thus, it would seem that the early Church, and the Apostles tended to preach the basics, and then to draw those who would accept and believe, into the deeper mysteries.

Our tendency today is to unload the entire bale of hay, to instruct converts in the whole counsel of Christ, before they are even initiated, and ask that they ascent to all of it, before they are baptized, or received into the Church.

This is not wrong per se, but there are some today who argue that we should get back to the original plan of proclaiming the basic kerygma, repentance, baptism, and the faith that that implies, and then continue instruction in the deeper things after the enlightenment that baptism brings.

It is too easy today for people to get lost in the weeds, and to miss the essential point. Often for example, people rush to the demands fo the moral norms with little understanding or experience of the grace that life in Christ provides. Within days of entering a catechumenate, the students are being asked to ponder sophisticated notions of sanctifying versus actual grace, transubstantiation, Trinitarian mysteries, and so forth.

It would seem that the earliest days of the church reserved a good deal of this for a time of μυσταγωγia (mystagogia), a kind of ongoing instruction into the mysteries to which one has already been initiated. In fact, the early church often kept the deeper things hidden until after baptism. There was a kind of a discipline of the secret (disciplina arcanis). And those who were unbaptized could not experience the liturgy, or expect that deeper things should be revealed to them until after they had been enlightened by Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.

Today, this sort of notion is generally set aside in favor of the laying out the whole doctrine of Christ to the uninitiated, insistence on their assent to it all, and only after this, an offer a baptism is extended. Again, this modern approach is not per se wrong, but it is different from the approach of the earliest days.

And thus, one approach of the new evangelization today is the proposal to return to a more kerygmatic approach. This is especially the case when we are in effect, starting from scratch with many people today.

In some sense, the current times are not unlike the pagan world in which the apostles first proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is true, that the West is more an “angry divorcee,” and the ancient Gentile world which was more like a virgin awaiting her groom. But there are still some parallels, and our presumption that most people heard the basics of Scripture, and the gospel is generally a poor presumption today. Most have not heard Christ, or the Scriptures authentically proclaimed. And to the degree that they have, it has been proclaimed to them with hostility and cynicism by a world and a culture that scoffs at the claims of Christ, his Church, the Christian tradition.

In this current climate and context, there are some who argue for a return to basic apostolic preaching as a fundamental schema in speaking to an unbelieving world. Deeper doctrines can and should be enunciated later but the initial proclamation should stick to basics:

That we are lost in our sins, that those deep drives are destroying us, and that God has sent the Savior, Jesus Christ, who died to set us free and offer us whole new life. It is he who calls to you now, who is drawing you to himself, that he might save you and give to you a whole new life. He died to give you this life, and having been raised from the dead, he ascended to the Father, where he is drawing you to himself even now, calling you by name, and offering you deliverance from every sinful and destructive drive, establishing you in a new, more glorious, and hopeful life. Come to him now, the repent of your sins, and let him begin the good work in you.

This is the basic Kerygma. It is the starting point, the initial proclamation, the summons, the invitation: the conviction of sins, but the announcement of loving hope.

Msgr. Charles Pope  is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, DC. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and holds Masters degrees in Divinity and in Moral Theology.  He was ordained in 1989 and named a Monsignor in 2005. He has conducted a weekly Bible Study in Congress and in the White House, for two and four years, respectively.       

Reprinted with the permission of Msgr. Pope. Originally published on his blog on the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

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