I recently came across a book on homiletics that I had not looked at for quite some time: Preaching, the Art and the Craft, by Walter J. Burghardt, SJ (Paulist, 1987). Burghardt (1914-2008) was a noted preacher, theologian, and ecumenist. He served as editor in chief of the journal Theological Studies from 1967 to 1990, taught historical theology and authored more than 25 books. In later life, his work centered on offering seminars for preachers all over the country, through a program he founded at theWoodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, called Preaching the Just Word. (He started this at age 77, no less.)
I’d like to share a passage from Preaching, the Art and the Craft and ask you to consider it in light of your own experience. Are we farther along as a Church on the task of cultivating excellent preaching than we were 25 years ago? Do you experience preaching that is imaginative in the best sense, inviting us to inhabit a world rich with symbol (biblical and liturgical) that transforms us, allowing us to see Jesus with our own eyes? After the quoted excerpt, I’ll add some thoughts on these questions.
The subject of this passage is—you guessed it—imagination. Burghardt writes that after struggling to assemble concrete helps and examples for his readers to show them how to become more skilled at using imagination in preaching, he came to a new insight:
… [S]uddenly I realized we have a more basic need. What Catholic homilists require is a conversion; we need fresh insight into our priesthood. I can best illustrate this from my own life. Here I wed three elements: the “I,” the revelation, the people.
First, I who communicate. For the first half of my priestly life, I was the most objective of human beings. Objectivity had been rooted in me—by scholastic philosophy, by a theology that lived off magisterial affirmations, by spiritual masters that stressed reason and will, suspected emotion and experience. The subjective had illegitimate parents: Protestantism and Modernism. At the altar, then, and behind the confessional screen, in teaching and preaching, in lecturing and counseling, the “I” was submerged, that Christ might appear. I rarely said “I” that only the truth might transpire. Until one day in the early 60s when I had given a remarkably lucid response to a young lady’s religious question. She looked at me a moment, then said “And what do you think?” It was a harrowing moment. I am not an ecclesiastical computer, spewing forth the data fed me. I too am a symbol, a sign that says more than my words can express. In the pulpit I may well be the most powerful image of all.
Second, the revelation we communicate. How was it initially communicated? In my more callow days we had no problem: Divine revelation consists of truths set forth in the Bible and in authoritative Church pronouncements. God has embodied His revelation in propositional language so that it can claim our unswerving assent. Now I do not deny that revelation can be mediated through true propositions. I simply point out that a fresh vision permeates our century, permeates me: Revelation is symbolic disclosure. Revelation is always mediated through an experience in the world—specifically, through symbol. …
This does not mean that revelation cannot be translated into objective doctrinal statements. It means that our biblical symbols, from the theophanies of Sinai through the cross of Christ to the descent of the Spirit, are too rich to be imprisoned in any single conception. Moreover, the knowledge that symbols give is not cold, abstract information; it is “participatory knowledge.” A symbol is an environment I inhabit, live in, the way I live in my body; I recognize myself within the universe of meaning and value it opens up to me. And because revelation is this sort of truth, it can transform us, initiate us into a saving relationship with God; it can radically influence our commitments and our behavior; and it can give us insight into mysteries reason cannot fathom.
Third, the people with whom we communicate. Early on, I took for granted that they came to liturgy to learn, that the sheep needed to be led. The assumption is clear in an address I gave two decades ago to the Catholic Homiletic Society on preaching dogma. I do not disown the address, but it was one-sided: How do I preach the truth attractively? I hardly mentioned the people “out there.” Their responsibility, as far as I can reconstruct it, was to give ear to my clear message and be seduced by its beauty. Late in life I have begun to grasp why some pulpits confront the preacher graphically with the request of the Greeks to Philip: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (John 12:21). How simple a request… and how stunning! Here is our burden and our joy: to help believing Christians to see Jesus—not with our eyes, but with their own.
Given fresh insight, a kind of conversion, on these three levels—a homilist more open and free, a revelation charged with symbols, a people wanting to see Jesus—you will inevitably preach imaginatively, prepare imaginatively. First, you will find yourself inescapably part and parcel of your homily. What you preach will strike sparks because you are aflame with it. The word you speak will say so much more than the dictionary definition because that word has taken flesh in you. You have been captured by a dream, enraptured by a vision; you have your own “voices”; the world of the senses excites you; like Teresa of Avila, you can be ravished by a rose. You will feel ceaselessly reborn, thank God each dawn with e.e. cummings “for this most amazing day… for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
Second, God’s word will never again seem “stale, flat, and unprofitable.” For you will gave discovered, with the Benedictine liturgiologist Nathan Mitchell, that “every symbol deals with a new discovery and every symbol is an open-ended action, not a closed off object. By engaging in symbols, by inhabiting their environment, [you will] discover new horizons for life, new values and motivations. The biblical symbols will overwhelm you with their many-splendored possibilities, their refusal to be imprisoned in a formula, their openness to fresh imaginings. You may even start saying, not “The kingdom of heaven is…,” but “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
Third, once you realize that your people want not catechesis or theology but only to see Jesus, you are forced to find ways to satisfy their thirst. Romeand Rahner are only a foundation. For all their objective importance, neither John Paul’s encyclical Redemptor hominis nor the “supernatural existential” are calculated to turn the faithful on. And so, like it or not, you will learn to dream dreams and see visions, retell the parables of Jesus in a modern idiom. You will create your own world of Christian imaging, learn not only to pray but to play, look for the holes in the world, listen to the space between sounds.
There are some really good ideas here, worth savoring. Even the structure is good. I liked the ”wedding of three elements”: self, revelation, and people. Like a three-legged stool, it seems a sturdy construction to me.
I particularly liked the idea of the preacher enabling the people to “see Jesus” with their own eyes. Alas, it seems to me we are still rather far from this goal. A lot of the preaching I hear doesn’t convince me that the preachers are very interested in Jesus or engaged in a living relationship with him. They are conveying his teachings, but where is he? Not evident, much of the time.
Of course, the best homilies I hear are indeed invitations into a world rich with symbol, and into a genuine encounter with Jesus, and they do “give off sparks” because the preacher is “on fire.”
Finally, Burkhardt is right to point out that the preacher is inescapably part of the homily. At the same time, I wonder if we have yet gotten the balance right. Indeed, many of the poor homilies I’ve heard seem to have fallen off the other end of the scale: they can be too much about the preacher, and not enough about the good news. (Some very self-conscious homilists as well as casual ones fall into this trap, so beware!)
So, here is my personal footnote: Homilists who preach from the heart of their ministry and their experience of the Gospel are the ones whose self-revelation is invigorating. Their lived experience of service and prayer, their engagement with God and God’s people, is the credible witness I am hungry for. If they natter on about themselves, or overreach in rhetoric and drama, it’s not so good. If it begins to seem like “It’s all about me” (and we lay people have good antennae for this), it may be as authentic as you please but it won’t be good preaching.