Sometimes we become so automatically submersed in the language and symbols of our faith that their original meaning is lost on us. We hear the term “gospel” spoken, we see the image of the crucifix, and we quickly move onto the next thing. Perhaps as these things are mentioned we intuit something good, or something specific – such as helping the poor, forgiving sins, love, and so forth. These values, however, often exist outside of Christianity. So what makes these terms specifically Christian?
If we examine the historical usage of the term gospel we will quickly realize that the early Church co-opt this term and made it their own from the Roman Empire. The term gospel would often be used by the Roman’s when their army had conquered another nation. Taken to the streets, a herald of this secular-good news would proclaim it to all in the marketplaces and streets. From the government’s stand point, from their current value-systems, this victory was to bring about greater unity amongst the nations, a type of worldly peace. This was considered good news.
For Christians however, this term was coopted with a subversive meaning. Only the Roman Empire had the right, it would seem, to proclaim their version of the good news. But early Christians took this phrase as a way of saying: “You think you have the good news? No. We have the good news, and His name is Jesus Christ…”
We have to understand this act as subversive – it was also a way to correct the secular values of their day. The Church was trying to teach the state what news is worthy of celebration. In our own culture today there are many values that continue to exist which do not have an explicit connection to the person of Jesus Christ. The Church is called to make any connection to Christ, and proclaim it. This means that all forms of activism, if they lack Christ, proclaim a similar gospel of that of the Romans. Ranging from issues over life to social justice matters, Christ reminds us that “man does not live by bread alone.” That is, it is not merely biological life, and all that sustains it that brings us to the Gospel – but something deeper: Jesus Christ. To neglect this poverty, this hunger, is to neglect the most fundamental dimension of the human person. God doesn't want the gospel to remain implicit and unintegrated. He sent His Son that we be united to Him.
Let us end by reflecting on St. Paul’s subversive claim when he “boasts of the Cross of Christ.” In this very act, St. Paul took an instrument of political coercion and torture, and said it was now something good. It would be like thanking someone for threatening you, and saying this is helping our cause. It effectively pulls the rug from under the feet of one’s oppressors. When death itself is no longer a threat that controls Christians, the Church stands tall, and firmly, and confidently in something outsiders may not quite understand. But they might want to understand it. In St. John de Brebeuf’s case, his captor, after cutting out his heart, ate it so that he would have the same courage as this saint.
I wonder. Do we use the phrase “good news” with the explicit Christian meaning? Or as a Church are we seeking the applause of a secular society by reducing the gospel to a similar value-system of the culture? What could one mean or intend to mean when they use the term today?
When terms we use with frequency as Catholics, like "Gospel" (or "gospel") are put in this larger historical context, their significance trumpets all the louder! Thank you for a wonderful reflection, Fr. Pietraszko.