Lately, I have been making my way through the work of Gregory of Nazianzus, and I was particularly struck by his ‘Oration II: In Defence of his Flight to Pontus, and his Return, after his Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office’ where he not only outlines the gravity of the pastoral call and charge, but also identifies that the nature of pastoral ministry concerns healing, and that that healing is unreservedly grounded in the incarnation:
‘… the scope of our art [i.e. pastoral ministry, which he elsewhere calls the ‘the art of arts and science of sciences’] is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.
This is the wish of our schoolmaster the law, of the prophets who intervened between Christ and the law, of Christ who is the fulfiller and end of the spiritual law; of the emptied Godhead, of the assumed flesh, of the novel union between God and man, one consisting of two, and both in one. This is why God was united to the flesh by means of the soul, and natures so separate were knit together by the affinity to each of the element which mediated between them: so all became one for the sake of all, and for the sake of one, our progenitor, the soul because of the soul which was disobedient, the flesh because of the flesh which co-operated with it and shared in its condemnation, Christ, Who was superior to, and beyond the reach of, sin, because of Adam, who became subject to sin.
This is why the new was substituted for the old, why He Who suffered was for suffering recalled to life, why each property of His, Who was above us, was interchanged with each of ours, why the new mystery took place of the dispensation, due to loving kindness which deals with him who fell through disobedience. This is the reason for the generation and the virgin, for the manger and Bethlehem; the generation on behalf of the creation, the virgin on behalf of the woman, Bethlehem because of Eden, the manger because of the garden, small and visible things on behalf of great and hidden things. This is why the angels glorified first the heavenly, then the earthly, why the shepherds saw the glory over the Lamb and the Shepherd, why the star led the Magi to worship and offer gifts, in order that idolatry might be destroyed. This is why Jesus was baptized, and received testimony from above, and fasted, and was tempted, and overcame him who had overcome. This is why devils were cast out, and diseases healed, and the mighty preaching was entrusted to, and successfully proclaimed by men of low estate.
This is why the heathen rage and the peoples imagine vain things; why tree is set over against tree, hands against hand, the one stretched out in self indulgence, the others in generosity; the one unrestrained, the others fixed by nails, the one expelling Adam, the other reconciling the ends of the earth. This is the reason of the lifting up to atone for the fall, and of the gall for the tasting, and of the thorny crown for the dominion of evil, and of death for death, and of darkness for the sake of light, and of burial for the return to the ground, and of resurrection for the sake of resurrection. All these are a training from God for us, and a healing for our weakness, restoring the old Adam to the place whence he fell, and conducting us to the tree of life, from which the tree of knowledge estranged us, when partaken of unseasonably, and improperly.
Of this healing we, who are set over others, are the ministers and fellow-laborers; for whom it is a great thing to recognize and heal their own passions and sicknesses: or rather, not really a great thing, only the viciousness of most of those who belong to this order has made me say so: but a much greater thing is the power to heal and skillfully cleanse those of others, to the advantage both of those who are in want of healing and of those whose charge it is to heal’.
– Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘Oration II: In Defence of his Flight to Pontus, and his Return, after his Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office’ in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 7:209–10.
Among other things, Gregory reminds us that the ministry of pastoral care needs to be set within a theological understanding of ministry that is at once apostolic, trinitarian, catholic and evangelical. The primary ministry is the ministry of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ in the world; the mission and ministry of the Church is to participate, in the Spirit, in that ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.
Andrew Purves, in his Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, argues that a huge space seems to have opened up between the faith of the church, understood biblically and historically (the consensus fidelium), and what is often identified as pastoral theology and pastoral care. He contends that it is reasonable to expect that pastoral theology and care would in its own way express what Christians believe about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ and do so in a clear, simple and coherent manner. If this is so the focus of pastoral care will be on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, on the gospel that is a Word from beyond us, and to which pastoral theology and practice must submit to be faithful to the gospel. In other words, it must be Trinitarian, Christological and soteriological:
To insist that God, or, more accurately the ministry of the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, is the subject matter of pastoral theology means then that there is no faithful content to speaking forth and living out the gospel pastorally apart from knowledge of and sharing in the mission of the God who acts savingly in, through, and as Jesus Christ and in the Spirit precisely as a man for all people. It is important to emphasize the reality of our union with Christ, for without that all pastoral work is cast adrift from the actuality of God’s ministry. If it gets God wrong, or more specifically fails to appreciate that knowledge of God is always and only a knowledge of a God who acts, and who acts in, through, and as Jesus Christ, and into whose action and life we, by the Holy Spirit, participate through our union with Christ, the church gets its saying and doing wrong. Knowledge of God and God’s mission is the only critical perspective from which we can judge our own pastoral actions. (Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, xxi)
In other words, pastoral care becomes the task of maintaining the connection between the particularity of human stories and the grounding story of the Christian tradition and its community.