A Proclamation of Salvation
Over the last several decades, theologians who focus on evangelization in general, and the moment of catechesis within it in particular, have given considerable thought and attention to the topic of the kerygma, and rightly so. The kerygma can be aptly understood to be the summary of the Gospel; and, as such, it is always deserving of closer study, especially so in an age when Catholicism is waning in many places. In this three-part series, I’ll explain what the kerygma is and why it’s important. In this first installment, I’ll provide a basic overview of the kerygma, examine its significance today, and offer a closer look at one of its components more relevant to the work of catechesis in our time.
The Importance of the Kerygma
Let’s first look at the importance of the kerygma in the work of evangelization generally, and catechesis particularly. Understanding the kerygma is essential for at least two reasons. First, the question, “What is the Good News of Jesus Christ?” is obviously an important one. In the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus’ very first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). His first directions are to repent of our sins and to believe in the Good News, the Gospel. Clearly this is a matter of supreme importance; and, therefore, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of the nature of the Gospel.
The second reason that the kerygma is an essential topic is closely related to the first. Considering how important the Gospel is to our Christian faith and to our life as his disciples, studies have shown that far too many Christians (including many Catholics) do not really know what the Gospel is. In fact, it could be fairly argued that not only are many believers ignorant of the actual content of the Gospels, they probably don’t even see it as either Good or as News. And if that’s true of Catholics and other Christians, how much more true must it be of the peoples of the world, all of whom Jesus told us to make disciples?
Understanding the kerygma, the core content of the Gospel, is essential then: first, because of its centrality to Christianity; and second, because of how little it is actually known in the world today, among Catholics, other Christians, and the general populace.
The Kerygma: a Proclamation
Let’s now turn to what the kerygma is, by considering what the word “kerygma” means and by providing an overview of its content.
To the first point, the term kerygma itself is a Greek word that means “proclamation,” and it’s closely related to the Greek terms that mean “to proclaim” and “to herald.” The kerygma, then, is the proclamation or announcement of something. As noted above, the kerygma is the basic Gospel message, the core of the Good News. “News”: consider that word in its everyday usage. When you hear, read, or watch “the news,” what does that word mean? It refers to someone telling you about something that has happened, or is currently happening. The same is true with the Good News, the Gospel, and the kerygma: it is the announcement, the proclamation of something that has happened (and as we will discuss later, still happening).
This point about the kerygma being the proclamation of something that has happened is incredibly significant; but for now I’d like to highlight just one way that that is so. When we speak about our Christian faith, we often have a tendency to speak about the “how-to” aspects: here’s how to live; here’s how to pray; here’s how to study or learn the faith; here’s how to become a better Christian, a better man, a better woman, a better parent, etc.; and above all, here’s how to make sure you’re on the right track, the track bound for heaven. In other words, we talk about what we do. Talking about the “how-to” or talking about what we do isn’t the proclamation of something that has happened; and while it may be Good, it isn’t Good News but rather Good Advice.
In other words, when we’re sharing our faith with others, many of us unwittingly skip over the Good News and go straight to the Good Advice, to the “how-to”, to what we do. The problem here isn’t the how-to’s: it’s absolutely necessary to talk about those things. The problem is skipping the Good News; for the Good News (and its core, the kerygma) is what makes the Advice Good, the how-to inviting, attractive, and even possible!
The Good News, then, is a proclamation of something that God has done, something that he has accomplished, to which we respond.
Content of the Proclamation
So, what is this proclamation? What is the content of the kerygma? What is this thing that God has done?
In the very beginning, after Pentecost, as the Apostles and other disciples began proclaiming the kerygma, it was the announcement that, “He is Risen!” In effect, the Apostles and disciples went from place to place announcing that “He is Risen!” In fact, that’s what we hear them saying to one another on the first Easter Sunday: He is Alive! He is Risen!
However, while that might have been intelligible to those who were already followers of Jesus, it made little sense as it was proclaimed to those who weren’t followers, and even less to those who didn’t know who Jesus of Nazareth was. So, “He is Risen!’ needed to be explained, as people knew neither who “he” was nor what it meant to say that he was “risen.”
Very early on, then, the kerygma expanded, but once it had done so during the lifetime of the Apostles, it largely became fixed and has maintained the same features ever since. In summary, those features or components of the kerygma are the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Each of these is essential to the kerygma: it concerns the (1) salvific, (2) life, (3) death, and (4) resurrection of (5) Jesus of Nazareth, who is both (6) Christ and (7) Lord. (Note: the proclamation of the kerygma can vary according to the audience and circumstance— some components might need greater emphasis, some lesser—but all of them are necessary aspects of the kerygma.) To take one example of the many instances of kerygmatic proclamation throughout the New Testament, consider these words from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. (1 Cor 15:3-8; you might even include vv. 9-28)
A Salvific Proclamation
In future parts of this series, I’ll address the various components of the kerygma; but here I consider more closely the first of them: the salvific dimension of what God has done for us in his Son Jesus.
The kerygma is not only a proclamation of the sheer historical fact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as Lord and Messiah; it is also a proclamation of what this means for each and all of us. Remember, the kerygma is the summary of the Gospel, the Good News; and this is Good News for all of humanity. Recall the words of the Nicene Creed that preface its teaching on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection: “for us men and for our salvation….” Both the Incarnation (the Son of God taking on our human nature) and the Paschal Mystery (his passion, death, and resurrection) were accomplished for the sake of our salvation, that is, the salvation of each and every human being who has ever existed and will ever exist.
What is the salvific importance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Here we will focus on two dimensions in particular: what we have been saved from and what we have been saved for.
Many Christians are familiar with the first: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection freed us from the power of sin, death, and the devil. Before Bethlehem, and still even before Good Friday, humanity was enslaved by sin, dominated by death, and corrupted by the devil. It was to save us from these powers that Jesus came in the first place. In explaining why the Word became flesh, the Catechism tells us that he did so first in order to save us by reconciling us with God (CCC 457). Recall the words of John the Baptist when he sees Jesus coming toward him: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 2:29).
Taking up this theme in his first letter, St. Peter writes, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18-19).
In the Passover ritual of the Old Covenant, a spotless lamb (one without blemish) was offered as the sacrifice for the sins of the people. In the New Covenant, a spotless Lamb (the One without blemish) is again offered to take away the sins of all people: Jesus Himself, sinless and perfect.
And in his own words, Jesus came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). He is not only the fulfillment of the Lamb of the Old Covenant but also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah who, the Catechism tells us, “silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes” (608).
By his death, he offered atonement for our sins; and, through his perfect obedience, he undid the disobedience of Adam and each of us. He has atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father (CCC 615); in so doing, he has freed us from the power of sin, the power of death, and the power of the devil.
Again, this is at least intuited if not known explicitly by most Christians: Jesus died and rose again for our sins. But the salvation he came to bring, the salvation proclaimed by the kerygma, is not only a salvation from... it is also a salvation for. Yes, he died and rose again to save us from our sins; but he also died and rose again to save us for new life, the same new life that he had from the beginning, indeed from all eternity: life as a son of our Heavenly Father, as his child, the life of divine grace.
Now, as we know, Jesus alone is the Son of the Father; but by virtue of the grace that is poured upon us through the sacraments because of his life, death, and resurrection, we share in that divine sonship as adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, and as Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Consider these words from the Catechism:
We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection. (CCC 654)
Previously, I mentioned the first reason that the Catechism gives for why the Word became flesh: to save us from our sins. Consider now the fourth reason given by the Catechism, quoting from 2 Peter 1:4: “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (CCC 460). It then quotes from three of the most brilliant saints and theologians in Church history. Saints Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Thomas Aquinas—each of them with slight variation—explained what it means to partake in the divine nature by communicating this idea: God became man so that man might become gods.
God doesn’t want us to merely live as perfect men and women: he wants us to live his divine life, he wants us to share in his way of being, of existence. One of the theological terms used to describe this reality is deification: by the grace that God gives us because of Jesus, we are deified…made like God.
This is what Jesus saved (and saves!) us for: divine life with him! This is not just something that happens when we die: it began when we were baptized and is deepened as we receive the sacraments and grow in discipleship. We are the adopted sons and daughters of God, we now participate in the divine nature through the sacraments. God’s life, his grace both cleanses us from sin and fills us with new life: his life!
This is the salvific meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as Lord and Messiah: from sin and for sonship! This is indeed Good, even unimaginable, News! May we grow in our own participation in it and lead others to do the same.
Having earned a doctorate in systematic theology from the Angelicum, Dr. Chris Burgwald has served as Director of Adult Discipleship & Evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux Falls since 2002. Chris, his wife Germaine, and their five children live in Sioux Falls.