I was talking the other day with a fellow theology professor about the challenges of evangelization in a culture that, in its increasingly post-Christian form, becomes progressively more inimical to the Christian worldview.
The Pretty Gospel
The big challenge, as we saw it, could be stated this way: How do you preach a Gospel that strikes a mortal blow at the foundations of a culture built on the ‘cult of the self,’ on the valorization of radical autonomy, on the deification of individual choice as a source of moral truth, and on the privileging of pleasure sans suffering as the driving force of all meaning in human life? In a word, how do you preach ‘the word of the cross’ in a staurophobic culture and make it appealing to your audience? Or is that even a proper way of thinking about evangelization – making the Gospel ‘appealing’?
We both agreed that there are too many examples of ‘appealing’ evangelizing strategies that end up transforming the Gospel into something it simply isn’t: a valuable commodity being sold in the marketplace of ideas. The Gospel is not a commodity. Rather, it’s the cost of communion with God and neighbor, and as such it stands as Lord of the marketplace.
As we continued to converse about this issue, I recalled a story from my father’s OCA Orthodox church in Rhode Island. At Divine Liturgy one Sunday, a young American priest preached with great passion on the meaning of Christ’s Cross (I think it may have been September 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross). After the Liturgy, in the church hall, I spoke with an elderly matushka, a pious ‘Mama’ in the parish community who had years before emigrated from the then-Soviet Union to the U.S. I told her how ‘totally awesome’ I thought his homily was, but she was not equally impressed.
‘It was pretty,’ she said with her Russian accent, ‘but he does not know of what he speaks; he has not suffered enough yet to know.’
Then she dug the knife in deeper, ‘You Americans do not know how to suffer, which is what makes you so shallow. God has made Russians experts in suffering. Some became demons, others, saints. Only God makes the saints.’
I was silent, squirming in this awkward moment.
‘When he has suffered more,’ she concluded, ‘then he will speak of the Cross with power.’
Later, years later, I came across a prayer penned by the daughter of Czar Nicholas, Olga Nikolaevna Romanova, shortly before her death. She was brutally murdered/martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1917. As I prayed these words I at once remembered this aged matushka’s words:
Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, Our neighbor’s evil to forgive, And the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet, In days when enemies rob us, To bear the shame and humiliation, Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, Bless us with prayer and give our humble soul rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies
That’s power, that’s beauty.
Suffering is a universal human vocation and an iron law of life. All must walk along its way. Suffering has the power to dismantle the ‘cult of self’ only if it is allowed to encounter the Cross of Christ, where love crowns suffering with a beauty that never tarnishes; where hope crowns suffering with a glory that never sets; where faith crowns suffering with the vision of a Face that never fades.
Built into nature are God-breathed laws that conspire with grace to call man back toward his original vocation to lift the cosmos back to the Creator as a living sacrifice of thanks. Evangelization needs to be attentive to this wisely ordered design that, though often darkly opaque, reveals the shining splendor of the glory of God shining on the Face of Christ.
Our job is not to ‘sell’ that Face, but to unveil it by our manner of speaking and living and praying and suffering and dying.