There seems to be renewed talk today about the sacramentality of preaching. Certainly, some of the more prominent figures of the Nouvelle Théologie movement associated with Vatican II are most responsible for this, even if their influence be rather indirect. After all, it was those theologians who, in working within the confines of the Council that promulgated the confession of a four-fold presence of Christ in the liturgy (in the priest, the Eucharist, the worshiping assembly, and the Word of God), proposed that Christ was the primordial sacrament. Everything that has received his Christological touch, therefore, could be considered thoroughly sacramental. This includes his viva vox.
Yet, Catholics are not alone in searching for a more sacramental understanding of preaching. In fact, it is on this subject that Catholics and Protestants may find the most common ground. How these two ecclesial streams define the sacramental character of preaching, however, is dramatically different. But is either entirely correct?
When Roman Catholics speak of preaching as sacramental, they are usually proposing that preaching should properly find its place in the liturgy by pushing hearers toward the Sacrifice of the Mass. In other words, preaching is sacramental if it prepares the parishioner to receive the sacred mysteries. It is important to note, however, that the mysteries are not understood as being contained within the preaching task itself.
Protestants likewise understand preaching to be sacramental insofar as some propose that, within preaching, Christ is mediated to the present context. Calvin, of course, would speak of Christ being “near us” in preaching, “as though we were face-to-face.” For some Protestants, preaching is sacramental precisely because Christ is present in the preaching act. Yet, the Christ who is present in preaching is the same Christ, present in the same way, who comes to the Protestant in Holy Communion. He is a spiritual Christ. Therefore, while he may undoubtedly come to the hearer in preaching, he comes lacking corporeality.
I would propose, however, that preaching, when understood as sacramental in the most historic sense of the word, cannot be relegated to a word that pushes one toward the Mass or a word that delivers an intangible Christ. Instead, preaching today needs to be conceived of in a manner analogous to the Annunciation to Mary. Remember what occurred therein:
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
St. Jerome called the angel’s words a sermon (Luke 1:29). In other words, the angel preached a homily to her. And within the particularity of the angel’s sermon, Mary was not simply pushed toward the sacrifice of the temple, nor was she simply given a spiritual presence of the second person of the Trinity. On the other hand, when the angel preached this sermon to her, the very words he spoke were made flesh. The word, says Luther, crawled in through Mary’s ear and down to her womb. Or, to say it in Augustinian terms, the word came to an element and a sacrament was there. The Annunciation was a sacramental event and a sacramental word because of the sacramental preaching of the angel. In short, it was sacramental because it delivered the person of Jesus Christ. But was that cosmic event simply a one-off?
Remember what occurred at the creation of the world. The Lord said, in his own ineffable way, “Let there be […].” Yet, he said “Let there be” eight times. And eight is the eschatological number; it is the number that will have no end. So the Lord’s “Let there be” of creation came to meet Mary at the Annunciation. For this reason, it seems, she said so hopefully, joyfully, and optatively, “Let it be unto me […].” Mary received the “Let there be” of creation when she received the sacramental sermon of the angel. And she made the totality of what was delivered therein her own with the words of her fiat. Her “Let it be unto me” received the Lord’s “Let there be.” But an eschatological eight does not stop with Mary. What went for her goes for us, or so it seems from the image of the Church in Revelation 11-12.
What this means, of course, is that both pastors and lay people, speakers and hearers or, as Luther labeled us, givers and receivers, have a certain amount of responsibility at every service.
Pastors, who indeed stand in the stead of Jesus and speak by his command, must say what Jesus says (homologeo) in a way that people today can hear Jesus speaking to them. After all, if Jesus was aware of his cultural context, should not we be equally as aware of ours? Therefore, we need to find new and fresh ways to deliver – repeatedly – the message of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
As for hearers, they should expect nothing short of a transformation when listening to a sermon. In other words, preaching is not intended, primarily, to educate us or give us a new piece of information. Rather, as with all communication between a lover and beloved, when the pastor speaks on Jesus’ behalf, what he delivers to us is the life and being of the One of whom he speaks.
To that end, if the Lord continues to speak a creative word, which his eight-sided “Let there be” would seem to imply, then we also can receive what he says today with a faithful fiat. And when we receive the word that is spoken to us by men who stand in persona Christi (2 Cor 2:10), we can have a share in the same divine life which once gave contour to creation and which, in deep humility, took on our contour in the Incarnation. And when Jesus is mediated to us in that way – tangibly, corporeally, sacramentally – he changes us, so that we might be sacraments to the entire world. Why? Precisely because when a sacramental word “words” us, we are, in turn, given a sacramental word to speak. And this dying world, as we know it, is in desperate need of a viva vox.
Rev. Joshua Genig is Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, Georgia, and is finishing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.