The Mystery and Power of the Word of God in Life and Mission

Note: The following article is adapted from the thesis, Raniero Cantalamessa and the New Evangelization: Proclaiming the Kerygma in the Power of the Holy Spirit, which was submitted to the School of Theology of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, Michigan USA, December 2014. 


This chapter examines the power and efficacy of the word of God and the nature and content of the kerygma. To proclaim the kerygma is to proclaim the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus. The content of the kerygma is the gospel message, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” The kerygma is confrontational, authoritative, and transformative; it leads to a personal encounter with Christ that invites and evokes a response. Central to the proclamation of the kerygma is the proclamation that God is a God of love and that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Mystery and the Power of the Word

God reveals himself in many different ways; this is reflected in the various uses and understandings of the terminology used to describe God’s word.  In his 2010 post-synodal apostolic exhortation On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Verbum Domini, Benedict XVI wrote that the Church Fathers recognized that “human language operates analogically in speaking of the word of God” (VD 7).  The Logos is the “eternal Word, the only Son, begotten of the Father before all ages and consubstantial with him” (VD 7).  Jesus is the Word made flesh, God’s supreme revelation of his love to his people.  Used in this sense the word of God refers to the person of Jesus.  The word of God may refer to other aspects of divine revelation.  God reveals himself through creation and salvation history; he anoints his prophets with his word.  God has spoken through the apostles and in the words of Sacred Scripture.  He continues to speak today in the heart of every believer.  

The Bible proclaims from beginning to end that the word of God is creative, powerful, and transformative. The word of God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8) and it cannot be revoked (Isa 45:23; Psalm 89:35; Romans 11:29). God’s word is active and infallible (Joshua 21:45; Isaiah 55:11). God spoke and the world came into existence (Genesis 1). God worked through his prophets as they proclaimed his word and performed signs and wonders.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor writes: “The mission of the prophet was to destroy and to ruin, to build up and to plant (Jeremiah 1:9-10). His power to carry it out lay simply in the charism given him to utter the prophetic word whose intrinsic dynamism brought into existence the reality it signified (Jer 25:13; 26:12; 51:60).”  The Gospel of John declares that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14).  Jesus, the eternal Word, became flesh without relinquishing his divinity. Jesus, the Word, spoke and the lame walked (Mk 2:2-12), demons fled at his command (Mk 1:21-26), and tempests were calmed by his word (Lk 8:19-25).

The Word of God is living and effective

On Pentecost, Peter preached the words that God gave him and thousands were converted to Christ (Acts 2:14-42).  Cantalamessa writes: “God made the word his favorite means of consoling, of illuminating, of giving life to the world and of revealing his love. Indeed, what is the Bible if not God’s good word for us?” 

Cantalamessa explores the power of God’s word in his book The Mystery of God’s Word.  He points out that an adjective often used in the Bible to describe the word of God is energes. This word means “efficacious”; it describes someone or something that works and produces results. The First Letter to the Thessalonians refers to “the word of God which is at work [energeitai] in those who believe” (2:13). The word of God is “living and effective [energes]” (Hebrews 4:12). Cantalamessa recalls the words of the prophet: “In Isaiah, God declares that the word issuing from his mouth will never return to him ‘without effect,’ without having achieved the end for which he sent it out (Isaiah 55:11).”  

God spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden; he spoke to Abraham; he spoke to Mary and Joseph through angels and dreams; he spoke the word that surpasses all other words in the incarnation; he spoke to the early Church through the apostles.

God is still speaking today. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of relationship, a God who reveals himself to his people. According to Murphy-O’Connor, “Yahweh’s word is always the function of a conscious, moral personality, and nothing permits its being understood either as a force of nature or as a divine emanation.” 

This very real and personal God reveals himself through nature and through revelation. God speaks through the Sacred Scriptures; God speaks through Jesus the Logos, the Word made flesh; God puts words in the mouths of those he calls to proclaim the good news. God uses human beings to speak his word and his word has power when it is proclaimed with faith and humility. God speaks in different ways to and through his people.

Cantalamessa writes about a small movement in the heart, a small light in the mind, a word from the Bible that begins to stir within a person. God’s word may come in a very subtle manner or its coming may be more dramatic; it may be communicated quietly or shouted out with enthusiasm. That word touches hearts because it is God’s word. 

God uses imperfect human beings as conduits of his word

Pope Francis wrote about the manner in which God uses the words of human beings to reveal his power and his love to others in Evangelii Gaudium. He conveys words of encouragement to preachers and evangelizers: 

Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words. Saint Paul speaks forcefully about the need to preach, since the Lord desires to reach other people by means of our word.

(Romans 10:14-17). (EG, 136)

God, who is perfect, uses imperfect human beings as conduits of his word. Both Pope Francis and Cantalamessa caution that the words of human beings are effective in bringing about conversion only insofar as they are truly God’s words. In contrast to the efficacious word of God, the words of humans are often ineffectual. Cantalamessa points out the importance of speaking with God’s words and not allowing an excess of human words to cloud God’s message.  

One of the many challenging sayings of Jesus relates to human words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Cantalamessa advances the argument that Jesus was not referring to every idle word that any person ever spoke, but rather he was referring to those who were called to preach God’s word and instead spoke empty words that produced no results.

A common English translation of the Greek word argos that is used in this passage of Matthew is “careless.” According to Cantalamessa a more precise meaning of argos is “ineffective” – “a word that ‘founds’ nothing, produces nothing, hence which is empty, sterile.” He points out that the Vulgate translation verbum otiosum (otiose word) was closer in meaning to the Greek.   Cantalamessa contends that “The useless word, which human beings will have to account for on Judgment Day, is not, therefore, any old useless word; it is the useless, empty word uttered by people who ought instead to be uttering the ‘energetic’ words of God and at the time when they ought to be uttering them.” 

Temptation to water down God’s word

Cantalamessa is particularly concerned with the surplus of human words that tends to obscure the simplicity and urgency of the proclamation of the kerygma. He includes himself among the “false prophets” who fall into the temptation to water down God’s word: 

The false prophets are those who do not present the Word of God in its purity but dilute it and weaken it in the thousands of human words issuing from their own hearts. The false prophet, alas! is me every time (and it happens often) I do not rely on the “weakness,” “foolishness,” poverty, and nakedness of the Word but try to dress it up and attach more importance to the dress than to the Word, spending more time on the dressing than in standing in prayer before the Word itself, in worshipping it and in getting it to start living in me. At Cana in Galilee, Jesus turned the water into wine, that is to say the dead letter into the life-giving Spirit (for such was the spiritual interpretation that the Fathers put on his action); the false prophets are those who do the very opposite, who turn the pure wine of the Word of God into water which cannot inebriate anyone, that is, into dead letter and idle chatter. Deep down, they are ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1:16) and the words of Jesus as being too hard for the world, or too poor and naked for the learned, and so they try to spice them up with what Jeremiah called “visions of their own fancy.”  

Paul writes in the first letter to the Corinthians: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul was not ashamed to proclaim the kerygma; he preached “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1: 23).

Those who proclaim need to trust in the power of the gospel message

Those who proclaim the gospel need to trust in the power of the gospel message; they need to guard against adding too many of their own embellishments to the word that God wishes to communicate. Describing the growth of the early church, Luke writes: “So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily” (Acts 19:20). According to Murphy-O’Connor, “the meaning intended in 19:20 is that the word is a power capable of producing a real effect on those who hear it, and that this efficacy is the explanation of the extensive growth.” 

Cantalamessa makes reference to the proclamation of God’s word being like a seed that holds within it future life: “The word of Jesus acts of its own, with an intrinsic force – as St. Paul says, by virtue of just being heard (Romans 10:17).  

One of the primary activities of Jesus’ ministry was that of preaching. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins to preach after his baptism and the imprisonment of John the Baptist. The Gospel of Mark states: “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’” (1:14). The Gospel of Matthew is more succinct: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

Cantalamessa writes about this time in the life of Jesus: “It is the start of a special time, a new kairos, of salvation, lasting for some two and a half years (from the autumn of A.D. 27 to the spring of A.D. 30), until the time of Jesus’ death. It is the time of the preaching of the kingdom.”  Jesus’ preaching reveals the mystery of who he is and helps to explain his incarnation and his passion. Cantalamessa writes that “without the words of Jesus, these events would be mute.”   Jesus taught by the example of his life, but his words were an important expression of his ministry as well.  He used words to preach, exhort, and to reach out in love to those in need of salvation.  He proclaimed the good news of salvation wherever he went to crowds and to individuals. 

It is not enough to give testimony with deeds; as Christians we are called to model ourselves on Jesus and to speak about the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him.

The Old Testament prophets prefaced their prophetic utterances with the words, “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus spoke with a different authority: “Amen, I say to you. . .” (Mark 3:2). Cantalamessa states that “Revelation and revealer, in Jesus, are the same thing; he who speaks is also he of whom he speaks and this is so because ‘the Word was God’ (John 1:1).”  He explains that after Pentecost there was a change: “A transition has occurred from ‘Jesus preaching’ to ‘Jesus preached’; this coincides with the transition from the age of Jesus to the age of the Church.”  This paper is primarily concerned with the age of the Church past and present. In this day there is a need for proclamation of the same message preached by the first disciples: the good news, the gospel, the kerygma.  

Called to Proclaim the Lordship of Jesus and the Love of God 

In Life in Christ: A Spiritual Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Cantalamessa describes the Letter to the Romans as an excellent model for evangelization. He points out that the Apostle Paul begins the letter by speaking first of the love of God for his people. After he has established the truth of God’s infinite and unconditional love, Paul goes on to talk about the response that men and women should have to that love.

The Letter to the Romans is divided into two parts. The first part presents the kerygma – the work that God has done for his people. The second part contains an exhortation (parenesis) that deals with the response – that which is to be done on the part of men and women in cooperation with the gift and grace of God. 

Only after a person has heard and believed the good news is that person ready to learn how to live and walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Cantalamessa points out that the basics of the kerygma are not simply “theological ideas”; the Letter to the Romans was not written so that future generations could enter into theological debates over its contents.  Paul wrote the epistle “to all God’s beloved in Rome” (Romans 1:7) in order to help them to grow in faith and encourage one another in the faith.

Throughout his academic career and his years as a preacher, Cantalamessa has placed a high priority on sharing the love of God with others through the proclamation of the kerygma. His writings and sermons provide excellent examples of creative ways to proclaim the kerygma. He writes and speaks frequently about the importance of keeping Jesus at the center of one’s life and one’s message:

This is the first model of evangelization and if we want to re-evangelize our secularized, modern world, this is how we must start: Jesus Christ in the center, Jesus Christ as Lord. This is, I repeat, the model of any evangelization. We must start by presenting to modern man the person of Jesus, or better still, by helping modern mankind to come into a personal relationship with Jesus. This is not a slogan taken from our Evangelical, Pentecostal brothers and sisters. This is a proof, a great reality. 

The Bible is a story of love

The proclamation of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is at the heart of the proclamation of the kerygma. Cantalamessa insists that it is not enough to say that God is love just once; this message must be repeated often. Men and women need to spend time on a regular basis meditating on the love of God and allowing the truth of his love to permeate their beings.

The Bible is a story of love; it repeats again and again the message of God’s love for his people. Scripture reveals a divine order, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  The proclamation of the “the simple and overwhelming” message of God’s love should be proclaimed before the teaching of his commandments.

Cantalamessa sees himself as a messenger who must communicate the most important news of the love of God, so that it will ring out “loud and clear” and resonate throughout the entire spiritual journey. The truth of God’s love is a “precomprehension” that should permeate all that a person reads or hears about God and his Church.  

God’s love is real; it is transformative. A personal encounter with Christ and the active response to God’s invitation to walk with him in love helps a person to enter more fully into an experience of the grace of their baptism. Cantalamessa emphasizes this personal and very real love of God: 

What is this love that was poured into our hearts at baptism? Is it just a feeling God has for us? Is it just a benevolent disposition towards us? That is, something purely intentional? It is much more than all this, it is something real. It is literally the love “of” God, that is, the love that is in God, the very flame that burns in the Trinity and which we partake of in the form of indwelling. “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him”.  

John 14:23

Encounter with God is transformative because God is real, his love is real. The proclamation of the kerygma leads to encounter with God because it recounts the truth about God who loves the human race so much that he took on human flesh. He came to walk in our midst to show us his love. He died on a cross to restore us to that love. He wants us to live forever with him in the fullness of the love of the Blessed Trinity. He has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to help us to love him. These are not words without substance; these are words of truth about God who is real and active in the world today. 

As individuals come to know the love of God, they begin to cooperate intentionally with the power and the grace of their baptism; they begin to tap into the spiritual power that they need to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

In his first encyclical Lumen Fidei, promulgated in June 2013, Pope Francis speaks about the effect of a personal encounter with the living God who transforms hearts with his love:

Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time.

(LF, 4)

Task of the new evangelization

The task of the new evangelization is to help men and women, the baptized and the unbaptized, churchgoers and non-churchgoers, to come to know the love of God and what God has done for them in Christ.

Those who preach and teach must proclaim the kerygma in a way that helps individuals to grasp and respond to the reality of the salvation that is being offered to them personally, so that they can grow in faith, and learn how to share their faith with others. Cantalamessa points out that while there is more truth to be preached and taught than that which is contained in the kerygma, an effective proclamation of the kerygma is an essential element of evangelization which should not be glossed over or forgotten. The events of the life of Christ should not be trivialized, distorted or obscured in an excess of superfluous words and activities.

Cantalamessa observes that Jesus spoke God’s words: “He simply offered ‘the words of God’, and with these few and unadorned words he changed the face of the earth.”  Jesus’ message was simple and unembellished.  He preached the kerygma: the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe. 

A concern that Cantalamessa writes and speaks about is that the rich tradition of the Church can at times add to the challenge of the preaching of the kerygma. There is a tendency to skip over the initial proclamation of Gospel message in the attempt to pass on the entire deposit of faith all at once. Often those who are evangelizing provide too much information, too soon. The person they are trying to bring to Christ is overwhelmed. Cantalamessa emphasizes the importance of proclaiming the events of Christ’s life and the good news of his resurrection from the dead before launching into a detailed theological account of the teachings of the Church.

The proclamation of the kerygma of the New Testament consists of the proclamation of a series of events: Jesus the Son of God died a public, gruesome death; God the Father raised the crucified Jesus from the dead; Jesus died so that we might have forgiveness for our sins and find new life in him. The kerygma is to be proclaimed in simplicity and with conviction. At the heart of the message is the proclamation that Jesus is the Lord, the victorious Son of God. 

In his book Dal Kerygma al Dogma: Studi sulla cristologia dei Padri Cantalamessa examines the content of the kerygma of the New Testament and early Church Fathers with its emphasis on the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the proclamation of Jesus as Lord:

The attempts to go back to the oldest and most elementary form of the Christological belief of the New Testament now seem to converge without exception towards those formulas of acclamation in which faith in Christ is expressed through use of the titles of Lord and Son of God. These are titles that express in reality an event, the resurrection, by which Christ was constituted Lord and Son of God. “If you confess with your mouth: Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved”.

Romans 10.9

Proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ

Cantalamessa notes that while the earliest creeds focused on the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the later Church Fathers shifted their focus from the recounting of the events of salvation history to defending the faith from heresies and defining important dogmas of the faith.  He describes the distinction between the “Christ of the New Testament” and the “Christ of dogma,” pointing out that the Fathers speak of one Christ but with a different focus.  He recognizes the importance of the dogmatic articulations of Christ’s humanity and of his divinity for furthering the understanding of the Christian faith, and for responding to heretical propositions; at the same time he emphasizes the importance of not losing sight of the significance of the events of salvation history and the saving actions of Jesus Christ that are contained in the kerygma. 

In an analogy that he refers to frequently, Cantalamessa says that the rich heritage of the dogmas of the Church is comparable to the ornate vestments of a priest. The vestments are beautiful and they have their place, but they are not appropriate for a child. One should be careful not to overburden a person with all of the history and theological development of two thousand years before sharing the simple good news as it was proclaimed in the early days of the Church.  

There is a right time and place for passing on the rich heritage of teaching and tradition of the Church; the difficulty lies in the tendency to skip over the first step of evangelization that involves bringing a person to a deep, heartfelt response to the truths of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The presentation of the kerygma, the basic gospel message of the New Testament, is essential for conversion. Without a personal encounter with Jesus that leads to a conscious, intentional decision to live as his disciple, it is very difficult for an individual to appreciate, absorb, and put into practice all of the teaching that flows out of the theological development and the liturgical expression of the kerygmatic truths. 

The “germinative character” of the kerygma

Cantalamessa writes that the kerygma “has a germinative character”  and it is more analogous to a seed that bursts into new life than the ripe fruit that grows on a mature tree. The rich Tradition of the Church is the outgrowth of the proclamation of the kerygma. Along the same lines Cantalamessa uses an analogy that he borrows from Charles Péguy that compares the development of the message of the Church to the wake of a ship which starts out as a small point and then continues to grow as the ship moves through the sea.  The kerygma is likened to the starting point of that great wake. Those who proclaim God’s word need to use discretion and discernment when presenting the gospel. It is important to know the audience or the individual being evangelized:

At this point, if we want to re-evangelize the post-Christian world, we must make a choice. Where should we begin—at any point along the wake, or from its beginning? The immense abundance of doctrine and institutions can become a handicap if we try to present this to the person who has lost all contact with the Church and no longer knows who Jesus is. . . . Instead, we must help these people establish a relationship with Jesus. We need to do with them what Peter did on the day of Pentecost with the three thousand people present: speak to them about this crucified Jesus whom God raised up. We should take them to the point at which they, too, cut to the heart, shall ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” Then, we shall respond with the words of Peter, “Repent, and be baptized” (Acts 2:37), if you are not yet baptized, or confess, if you already have been.  

Kerygma precedes catechesis

A common approach to preaching and teaching recognizes a division between evangelization and catechesis.  Evangelization is envisioned as the time for the proclamation of the kerygma. Catechesis (didache) is understood to be the teaching about doctrine and ethical norms that comes after conversion.   This model assumes that evangelization and conversion actually take place before catechesis begins.  It is difficult for a person who has not embraced the good news and encountered the love of Christ to appreciate the teaching of the Church on sacraments or to put into practice the moral norms of the Christian life.  One of the challenges of the new evangelization is that many Catholics have received the sacraments but never been evangelized and many begin to receive catechesis without having first hear the proclamation of the kerygma. 

In his apostolic exhortation Catechesis in our Time, Catechesi Tradendae promulgated in 1979, John Paul II points out that many children and adults who come to a parish for catechesis have not yet been evangelized and that others have hesitations and doubts about their faith (CT, 19).  He says that, “Since catechesis is a moment or aspect of evangelization, its content cannot be anything else but the content of evangelization as a whole (CT, 26). A rigid interpretation of the division between kerygma and didache is inadequate for the present-day situation of the Church. It is not enough to proclaim the kerygma once; it should not be assumed that because a person is baptized they have no need for conversion.  The proclamation of the kerygma should be an ongoing element in all catechetical endeavors. Pope Francis makes this point in Evangelii Gaudium:

On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.

(EG, 126)

Efforts should be made to help individuals receive and respond to the good news of salvation at every age and in every circumstance of life.  

The Nature and the Content of the Kerygma

The New Testament Greek word kerygma is translated as “preaching” or “message”; euaggelion is translated as “gospel” or “good news.” The words are often used interchangeably in the New Testament and early Church writings. The early Church adopted these terms to describe both the content of the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus and the act of the proclamation of that good news.

The word kerygma was associated with the custom of sending forth a messenger to make an official proclamation. The Greek word for a messenger or herald (keryx), the act of proclamation (kerysso), and the content of the proclamation (kerygma), all come from the same root.  The verb kerysso has various translations: to herald, to preach, to announce. A herald (keryx) was one who announced the kerygma (important news). A herald was at times commissioned to stand in the public square and shout out the message. The herald spoke with authority that had been delegated by the king or another person with authority; he was expected to relay the message verbatim.

The word euaggelion meant “good tidings” or “good news”; the verb euaggelizo means to bring glad tidings or to announce good news.  Barclay writes: “The euaggelion is ‘good news of salvation’ (Ephesians 1:13). It is news of that power which wins us forgiveness for past sin, liberation from present sin, strength for the future to conquer sin. It is good news of victory.”  

In the letter to the Romans (10:14) Paul writes: “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? How are they to hear without a preacher?” The literal meaning of “without a preacher” is “without someone who proclaims the kerygma (choris keryssontos).” 

Cantalamessa points out that the message that Jesus preached was “the kingdom of God has come upon you”; Jesus, the Word of God, the only begotten Son of God, walked in the midst of God’s people and proclaimed the coming of his kingdom. The content of the preaching of the Apostles was different. Jesus was the Word; the Apostles preached about the Word. They proclaimed the message about “the work of God in Jesus of Nazareth”; they proclaimed the good news that Jesus the Lord had risen from the dead.  The content of the kerygma is the essential gospel message. Ralph Martin summarizes the content of the kerygma: “We are sinners, saved by grace, through faith in Christ; saved from hell, for heaven, by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  

In his book Theology of the Kerygma: A Study in Primitive Preaching, Claude H. Thompson refers to a series of lectures by C. H. Dodd published in 1936 under the title The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments.  According to Thompson, this publication is a source-book for “the theology of the kerygma” and Dodd is to be given credit for bringing attention to this important terminology of the New Testament. Thompson summarizes Dodd’s study on the kerygma:

Since Dodd’s thesis has such widespread influence, it should be stated. He finds in the kerygma six elements: (a) “The age of fulfilment has dawned.” (b) “This has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” (c) “By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God, as Messianic head of the new Israel.” (d) “The Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory.” (e) “The Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ.” (f) “The kerygma always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of ‘salvation.’” 

According to Thompson the kerygma “denotes the proclamation, the declaration, the heralding of the news of the redemptive deed of Christ as the core of apostolic preaching.”   Thompson points out that what God has done in Christ gives authority to the proclamation of the kerygma.   The one who proclaims the kerygma acts as a herald of God and speaks with his authority.

Christ the power and wisdom of God

In The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus, Cantalamessa states that the original kerygmatic message of the early Church was different from the rest of what was handed down in oral tradition. It was “rousing, not formative,” “occasional, not systematic,” “assertive and authoritative” rather than “discursive” and “dialectical.”  There is no need for scientific proofs, philosophic debates, or apologetic arguments to determine or defend the veracity of the kerygma.  Cantalamessa cites the apostle Paul:

The kerygma is not something that can be re-arranged, since it is what re-arranges all; it cannot be established by human beings, for God himself establishes it and it is then what forms the basis of existence, since we “exist in Christ Jesus” who died and rose again for us (1 Corinthians 1:30). In other words, this is something different from human wisdom (sophia). On this topic, we need only listen to St. Paul as he develops his memorable argument with the Corinthians in defense of this characteristic of the kerygma: “It was the will of God through the foolishness of the kerygma to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”. 

1 Corinthians 1:21-24

The kerygma is a timeless message. There is power in the recounting of the work of God in Jesus Christ. The kerygma stands alone and should be given a place of primacy in the work of evangelization. Cantalamessa describes the kerygma as being “prophetic speech in the strongest sense of the term.” 

The preaching of the kerygma leads to encounter. The simple proclamation of the message of salvation in Christ invites and at times provokes the response of the listener. In his book Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel, Amos N. Wilder writes about the confrontational nature of the gospel message:

This plain new rhetoric of the Gospel was what it was only because it was prompted by a new direct speech or word of God himself to men. What makes such stories and such dialogue so formidable is that in each one God, as it were, forces us to give him a face-to-face answer ….The personal dramatic character of the Gospel itself necessarily involves confrontation, not instruction in the ordinary sense but the living encounter of heart and heart, voice and voice, and that this has inevitably registered itself in the ongoing story of the Christ and in the style of the New Testament. As we have observed, it is as though God says to men one by one: “Look me in the eye.” 

The Gospels are full of stories about the effects of the encounters of individuals with Christ. The proclamation of the kerygma presents the historical events of Jesus’ life, but even now Jesus is present in the proclamation of the kerygma. Behind the message is the person of Christ, the living God who constantly reaches out to those who are willing to respond to his message of love and forgiveness. Cantalamessa, speaking about the role of the risen Christ in the new evangelization, states:

Jesus is not only the object of the Church’s proclamation, that which is announced. Woe to us if we reduce him to only this! That would mean to “objectify” him and deny the resurrection. In the Church’s proclamation, it is the risen Christ who, with his Spirit, still speaks today. He is also the subject who announces. 

As a person responds in faith to Christ, the events of Christ’s life become present to that person because the risen Christ is present in the proclamation of the word.

The power of Scripture to touch and transform lives

Francis Martin has written extensively about the power of Sacred Scripture to touch and transform lives. He writes about the importance of encounter narratives:

The gospel encounter stories … are efficacious “testimony narratives” bearing witness not only to what Jesus did but also to what he is doing. They are a word of witness in the Church, made living and active by the anointing action of the Holy Spirit, so that for those who receive their literary action in faith, they become the source of an encounter with Jesus now, as being the one who heals, calls to discipleship, and enlightens …. 

In a similar vein, Martin writes about the effect of the “vocation stories” or “call narratives” that are found in the Gospels.  These narratives follow a pattern that is similar to the call of the Old Testament prophet Elisha by the prophet Elijah: the call is issued; sometimes the one called seeks to delay the response; the person called follows the call. Martin points out that these “call narratives” are intended to show that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of the prophets, and he states that they also are intended to illustrate to future disciples what it means to be called by God: 

In the theological transposition effected by the evangelists, the call to “follow” or “serve” Jesus was extended to all those generations who would come to faith in him. The Gospel writers were not attempting to convey edifying or imitable information about a dead master; they were describing for believers what it meant to live in communion with a living Lord. Every believer, each in his or her own way, is also called to preach, to live in a community with Jesus and with those who serve him, and to share his life, his commitment to the Father, his death and resurrection.  

The call of Jesus is personal; he interrupts people who are involved in their daily work and normal activities. An affirmative response involves breaking their routine and jeopardizing normalcy, in order to leave everything to follow Jesus Christ. Commenting on Jesus’ call to discipleship, Mary Healy writes:

“Following Jesus means a break with the past and a willingness to let go of all other attachments. Not everyone is called literally to abandon their profession or family, but all are called to put everything in second priority to him. Saying yes to that call is the first step in a lifelong adventure.” 

The Christian life is not intended to be one of following a list of rules or doing the minimal necessary to squeak into heaven. In the encyclical The Splendor of Truth, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II provided an exegesis of the importance of following Jesus (sequela Christi) as both the “way” and the “content” of perfection.  He says that there is more involved than hearing a teaching or following a commandment; being a disciple involves “holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. (VS, 19-21)

Jesus invites each believer to surrender completely to his love, to follow where he leads. He offers grace to become like him, to be transformed into his image, to share fully in his life. The purpose of the initial proclamation of the kerygma is to awaken faith and bring about conversion that is expressed by a change of heart, mind, and action, and that leads to a lifetime of discipleship that is shared in communion with other disciples. Evangelii Nuntiandi describes the intended results of a full response to the proclamation of the gospel message:

In fact the proclamation only reaches full development when it is listened to, accepted and assimilated, and when it arouses a genuine adherence in the one who has thus received it. An adherence to the truths which the Lord in His mercy has revealed; still more, an adherence to a program of life—a life henceforth transformed—which He proposes. In a word, adherence to the kingdom, that is to say, to the “new world,” to the new state of things, to the new manner of being, of living, of living in community, which the Gospel inaugurates. Such an adherence, which cannot remain abstract and unincarnated, reveals itself concretely by a visible entry into a community of believers.

(EN, 23)  

As well as choosing carefully the content of the proclamation, those who would proclaim God’s word effectively must pay attention to the method of their proclamation. The next chapter deals with the importance of calling on the Holy Spirit as the method of the proclamation.  The chapter will explore Cantalamessa’s treatment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through sacramental grace and charisms.  In the first chapter we looked at the need for effective proclamation of the kerygma; in the second chapter we looked at the content of the message. The third chapter deals with the method of delivery – not in the sense of style or rhetoric – but in the more fundamental sense of the importance of the permeation of the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the message proclaimed.

Top image credit: illustration of an open Bible in a landscape setting, from, © by Kevin Carden. Used with permission.

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