Karl Barth: Do You Breathe the Air of Expectancy on Sundays?

Feast of St Anastasia the Martyr of Rome

Karl_Barth_Square_1.jpegON SUNDAY morning when the bells ring to call the congregation and minister to church, there is in the air an expectancy that something great, crucial, and even momentous is to happen. How strong this expectancy is in the people who are interested, or even whether there are any people whatever who consciously cherish it, is not our question now. Expectancy is inherent in the whole situation.

Here is an ancient and venerable institution, capable of change and yet constant, ancient and usually modern as well (though it does not like either word), often and severely attacked from outside and still more often and more severely compromised from within, but possessed of an inexhaustible ability to live or at least to exist. Abundantly equal to the severest intellectual, political, social, and even religious shocks in the past, why should it not continue so in the future? Its existence is grounded upon a claim that seems to stand in grotesque contradiction to the facts, and yet there are actually only a few people—and very few important people—who dare loudly and unequivocally and wholly to deny its right to make such a claim. Here is a building, old or new, of which the very architecture, even apart from the symbols, paintings, and appointments which adorn it, betrays the fact that it is thought of as a place of extraordinary doings. Here are people, only two or three, perhaps, as sometimes happens in this country, or perhaps even a few hundred, who, impelled by a strange instinct or will, stream toward this building, where they seek—what? Satisfaction of an old habit? But whence came this old habit? Entertainment and instruction? Very strange entertainment and instruction it is! Edification? So they say, but what is edification? Do they know? Do they really know at all why they are here? In any case here they are—even though they be shrunk in number to one little old woman—and their being here points to the event that is expected or appears to be expected, or at least, if the place be dead and deserted, was once expected here.

And here above all is man, upon whom the expectation of the apparently imminent event seems to rest in a special way, not only because he has studied the technique of the event and is supposed to have mastered it, not only because he is paid and employed by the community or is tolerated almost without opposition in the function evidently associated with the event, but also because freedom is displayed here as well as law: the man himself chose this profession, God knows from what understanding or misunderstanding of it, and he has now for better or for worse wedded his short, his only life to the expectation of the event. And now before the congregation and for the congregation he will pray—you note: pray—to God! He will open the Bible and read from it words of infinite import, words that refer, all of them, to God. And then he will enter the pulpit and—here is daring! —preach; that is, he will add to what has been read from the Bible something from his own head and heart, “Biblical” ideas, it may be, according to his knowledge and conscience, or ideas which fly boldly or timidly beyond the Bible.

—Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man

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