FROM THE PASTOR: 09.07.2008
Preaching is a strange and wondrous thing. We tend to remember it, especially if it is notably wonderful (or terrible!); but we also tend to remember it because it is the part of the mass that most clearly varies each time we gather, following, as it does, the cycle of lectionary readings and the liturgical feasts and seasons. The late, great Jesuit preacher, Walter Burghardt, went so far as to call preaching “an art and a craft,” and I fully agree with him as far as that goes. But preaching is also much more than that; it is, in fact, nothing less than a theological and spiritual act, a graced three-way dance of meaning.
One partner is the revealed word of God in the scripture readings; and the other two partners are the assembly and the preacher. The choreographer is the Holy Spirit, who of course is at work in all three partners. It was the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures to begin with, and it is the same Spirit who brings them to life when they are proclaimed by a lector, deacon, or priest in a particular liturgical assembly.
The Spirit also dwells and is active in each member of that assembly. The people of God bring their own experiences and “inspirations” with them as they listen to the word proclaimed in their midst. Each worshipper has his or her own questions, passions, struggles, hopes and dreams; and these things necessarily color and shape what they hear and how they hear it. Just one illustrative example: how different must the Advent gospels about Mary’s carrying of the Christ child sound when they are heard by a young woman who herself is pregnant for the first time!
Lastly, the Spirit dwells and acts in and through the preacher, whose hearing (and eventual preaching) of the word is filtered through the lenses of his own life experiences and gifts, his education and his life of prayer, and also “please God!” through his knowledge of his flock. After all, no preacher prepares and preaches in a vacuum or to a generic assembly; preaching is not “one-size-and-style-fits-all.” Rather, each preacher is an individual member of a particular assembly at a particular place and time; and the more he knows the hearts and minds of his congregants and the realities of their lives, the more he is able to let their hopes, dreams, struggles, and longings (Vat II quote) influence and shape his preaching. That is why I believe it is at least as important for him to listen for the word revealed in and through the lives of his people as it is for him to prayer with and study the scriptures.
And so, the preaching dance goes on: the Spirit, who blows where it wills, plays over the partners in the three-fold dance, all within the rich symbolic context of the liturgical action and the liturgical year. And thus it is that hearts get broken open and transformed: “The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, etc.” (quote).Because preaching is not, of course, solely, or even primarily, a “head thing.”
St. Augustine, in the first Christian treatise on preaching, borrowed from Cicero when he declared that preaching is meant to “teach, persuade, and delight.” So yes, of course, homilies do sometimes teach us things; but they are also meant to stir up and change our hearts. Good preaching should fan the flames of our faith, hope, and love. It should challenge us honestly to confront the reality of sin and evil, in our world and in ourselves. And ” at least, by moments ” it should bring a tear to our eye, a smile to our lips, and make the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. What it should never be is abstract, irrelevant, or boring.
So good preaching is a tall order and, as I said at the outset, a strange and wondrous thing. It is hard work for both preacher and listeners. We who are privileged to preach to you promise to pray hard, to work hard, and to do our very best. Lucky for all of us, though, that the Spirit does the heavy lifting!
©2008 Fr. Dan Ruff, S.J.