Ars Praedicandi: Preaching the Beatitudes

We have two homilies to share today in the Pray Tell feature, Ars Praedicandi. By coincidence, both of these were brought to our attention as excellent examples of the art of preaching this past Sunday. Although both were delivered on the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, using the same lectionary readings (Year A), each is unique—not only by virtue of the fact that they were delivered to different assemblies and in different places, but also in how they carry out their purpose. Seeing them side by side therefore gives us an opportunity to look at craft and style as well as content.

In the comment section, we would invite readers to share their thoughtful responses. What engaged you, and how did it do that? What did you notice about the style and content that seemed to add to its effectiveness? Were there similar virtues in the two homilies? If you felt they exhibited different strengths, how would you describe those differences?

Warm thanks to both Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, and Fr. Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, for sharing their homilies with us.

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FIRST EXAMPLE

Imagine, if you will, a world where international conflicts do not automatically lead to an arms race and the threat of war, but rather serve to mobilize a body of professional peacemakers who will do all in their power to bring about a nonviolent resolution to the conflict.

Imagine a country where those who are treated unjustly by employers, or by law enforcement agencies, or even by religious leaders have easy and affordable access to legal counsel to help them plead their cause and satisfy their hunger and thirst for justice.

Imagine a society where the poor and the meek—those without economic influence, social standing, or better-than-average talent or intelligence—are not demeaned, but are regarded as deserving of respect and assistance.

Imagine a community where those who are mourning the death of a loved one or the loss of health or fortune are not ignored or—worse yet—offered pious platitudes about the will of God, but are comforted by people who are willing to stand by them, listen to them, and support them.

Imagine a church whose pope says that the primary mission of the followers of Christ is to proclaim and practice the mercy of God, even in difficult cases, and no one criticizes him for disregarding or watering down church teaching.

That is the kind of world Jesus is asking us to imagine when he describes what life is like in the kingdom of heaven. In that kingdom, he says, even the poor, the meek, those who mourn, those who work for peace, those who have been treated without justice or mercy are μακάριοι, blessed, happy.

Jesus does not mean these people are happy because they are poor, meek, mourning, or treated without justice or mercy, or even reviled for the good they do. They are happy because they can be confident that no matter how difficult or even impossible their situation may be, they are part of a community whose members will reach out to them with compassion, respect, and aid.

And so it follows that when Jesus asks us to imagine what this kingdom of heaven is like, he is also inviting us to imagine the part that we could play in making it a reality.

For some of you, such imagining may lead you to prepare for a career that does not have financial reward as the primary criterion for choosing it. For others it may involve looking for the kind of volunteer service to which you can bring your passion, talent, and knowledge. For most, if not all, of us, it may involve imagining what we could have done differently at those times in our lives when we came across someone in need and turned aside, pretending we didn’t notice.

Imagine that.

 

Prayer of the Faithful

Merciful God, we come before you in our need, asking for your blessing as we pray: May your will be done and your kingdom come.

  • Strengthen us that we may be willing and effective advocates for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we pray:
  • Endow our leaders and lawmakers with pure hearts that they may see with godly vision and work together for the common good, we pray:
  • Bless us with your grace and empower us to be compassionate peacemakers, willing to suffer for the sake of your healing and reconciling love, we pray:
  • Open our hearts and doors to refugees and exiles and protect all who are falsely persecuted throughout the world, we pray:
  • Grant eternal rest to all who have died, and help us comfort those who are mourning and those who are dying, we pray:

Look upon your Church, Lord, and by the working of your providence, bring to completion your plan of salvation. Let the whole world see and know that through your Holy Spirit at work among us, your kingdom is being brought to perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

 

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SECOND EXAMPLE

Blessed are the vain, for they shall be the center of attention.

Blessed are the arrogant, for the world belongs to them.

Blessed are the rich, for they will be in the top 1%.

Blessed are the ruthless, for they will get ahead.

Blessed are the cold-hearted, for nothing will slow them down.

Blessed are the blusterers, for they shall trend on twitter.

Blessed are they who watch out for themselves, for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are you when you do wrong, and speak lies, and a deceitful tongue is found in your mouth, for you will make headlines.

Blessed are you when they praise you and salute you and when your u-tube video goes viral, Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great on earth.

The beatitudes, 2017 version.

With some obvious revisions to avoid anachronism, the 2017 version of the beatitudes could also describe the beatitudes embraced by Iñigo de Loyola in 1521.  As you probably know, he was a vain young soldier taken with chivalry and worldly renown. He was wounded in battle.  While he was convalescing, he began to pay attention to his interior movements.  When he dreamed of following his previous life, which centered on vanity, renown, wealth and power, he experienced emptiness and restlessness, what he called desolation.  To his surprise, when he dreamed of Christ and emulating those who had dedicated their lives to God, he found peace and purpose, what he called consolation.

Ignatius believed that there is a battle between good and evil going on in the world and in our heart, what he called the two standards, two opposing strategies for living, two fundamental orientations, two subtle forces at work in the world, two footpaths spread out before us. One is the standard of the world, of Satan, the enemy of human nature.  This evil spirit manifests itself as a tendency to slavery and death by means of avarice, love of honors, and pride. Amassing wealth and possessions becomes the focus of our lives. It is the standard that gives first place to the praise and acceptance of others, and tells us that because of our successes, we deserve honors. It is not enough to be successful, but that we have to be more successful than others – comparative living, a rich breeding ground for envy, resentment, and ruthlessness. Lastly, the standard of the world is about pride, being convinced that we did it all by ourselves, and that we richly deserve anything we get.

In contrast, under the standard of Christ, we recognize that all that we have is a gift from God. Possessions are not something to be worshipped; the best things in life are not things. Christ asks us to let God’s love lead us away from the illusion of material security and self-satisfaction, not so much to seek the approval of others, but to serve others. We are called to a life of selflessness, and such a life will put us at odds with the world, which could result in insults and rejection.  Christ calls us to a life of humility, a life of unconditional love and service for God and others. Under this standard, as we heard in today’s epistle,

  • we seek to be among the foolish whom God choses to shame the wise;
  • we seek to be among the weak whom God choses to shame the strong;
  • we seek to be among the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, whom God chooses to reduce to nothing those who are something.

When Ignatius placed himself under the banner of Christ and the cross, it was not a “one and done” deal.  By his own account, St. Ignatius struggled with the temptation to vainglory throughout his life.  Yes, he willingly chose to put himself under the banner of the cross but he had to make that choice again and again and again. And so do we.

So why do we resist the standard of Christ? I offer the insights of the late Jesuit Dean Brackley, who once taught theology at Fordham and went on to the University of Central America. In the January 1988 issue of Studies in Jesuit Spirituality he wrote an insightful monograph entitled “Downward Mobility: Social Implications of St. Ignatius’s Two Standards.”  Why do we resist the standard of Christ?  Brackley’s answer – Insecurity.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “insecurity gives rise to all temptation; for we are insecure at our deepest center. To be human, in all ages, means to depend on a natural and human environment we cannot control. But these needs themselves express and reflect a much deeper need for a God we control not at all. Augustine spoke of an infinite poverty at our center when he declared that we have a tremendous longing for God who alone can fill us. However, our insecurity tempts us to work and to interact socially in such a way that we substitute creatures, idols, to fill our vast emptiness and make us truly secure.”

But there is an alternative, another way to live. Brackley wrote, “The sharp contrast between the two ways emerges clearly around the question of personal worth. Instead of measuring themselves against those above and below them, instead of defining themselves at the expense of others, and instead of identifying themselves with their status and role in society, followers of Christ receive their identity and self-worth from the experience of God’s love, despite all their defects and limitations.”

Like Ignatius let us willingly chose to put ourselves under the banner of the cross, despite all of our defects and limitations, knowing that we need to make that choice again and again and again.  Let us heed the prophet Zacharaiah: “Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger.”

Today, the news is full of talk about litmus tests and bans against refugees and migrants based on visas, passports, and identity cards.   Indeed may we have the insight and courage to do what is right, to follow that standard of Christ in these trying times.  And let us also remember that the most important identity card is not issued by any government or agency or president. In his homily in Sweden on the Feast of All Saints, Pope Francis underlined how the Beatitudes are the Christian’s “identity card,” the only identity card that really matters, an identity card that “identifies us as followers of Jesus.”

I began this homily with ersatz beatitudes for 2017.  I will end with authentic beatitudes for 2017, which Pope Francis articulated in that homily last November.

  • Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others, and forgive them from their heart.
  • Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized, and show them closeness.
  • Blessed are those who see God in every person, and strive to help others also discover Him.
  • Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.
  • Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.
  • Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians.

And finally, as we heard in today’s gospel, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

 

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Our first example was preached at St. John’s Abbey Church by Fr. William Skudlarek OSB – Secretary General, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (DIMMID); Associate Editor, Dilatato Corde

Our second example was preached at the Fordham University Church by Fr. Joseph M. O’Keefe, SJ – Rector, Ciszek Hall; Visiting Professor and Fellow, Graduate School of Education

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5 comments

    1. @John Kohanski:
      John, thanks for this link. I didn’t know you belong to Christ Church in New Haven… I know that church, a very beautiful liturgy and a long and worthy history! I didn’t know they had a woman curate. She did well in her homily. Did you wish to comment on it?

      1. @Rita Ferrone:
        I guess what I took away from my hearing of this sermon is that Jesus is the embodiment of the Beatitudes, and by extension, so are we. And that the way we live can be a blessing for others.

  1. Let me start off with a couple of observations.

    As someone very familiar with the scriptural beatitudes, I found the “erstaz” beatitudes at the beginning of example 2, juxtaposed to Pope Francis’s version at the end, extremely effective. Not only did they make for a beautiful balance rhetorically, they went far to help me see contemporary waywardness and gospel promises in a fresh light.

    On a more personal level (I heard this one preached, as I was in the congregation), I most of all appreciated the way that the homily drew me in yet didn’t allow me to be complacent. For instance, at the end of the opening list of beatitudes, I was tempted to feel a little bit superior to people who subscribe to such worldly ideals — but then I was immediately called to recognize that there were great saints who started life that way. “Oh. Let’s not write those people off.” was my internal dialogue. This was actually a bit of liberating good news, too, as I thought about it, because I find the prevalence of selfishness in our society so discouraging.

    Later in the homily, there was another moment of “reorientation.” As someone who tries to be faithful, I must admit that I do feel, at least in some sense, that “I’ve made my decision.” So to be reminded that the decision to “put ourselves under Christ’s cross” has to be made again, and again, and again was a good challenge, and one that I hung onto after the homily was over.

    Last of all, the paragraph about the identity cards really touched me, because I came into that celebration grieving for the people who were stuck at the airports, detained and barred from coming home, or from entering the safe harbor that they believed and hoped America would be for them. These questions were already in the air: Who are we? What is our identity? To what “nation” do we belong? Suddenly the beatitudes took on a new meaning for me as an identity marker that crosses borders, and an allegiance that demands something more fundamental for me than my American passport does (which, by the way, I just got renewed and had received in the mail only this week).

  2. As for example one, I found it to be a masterpiece of concision, and I very much admired how the heart of its insight was reached with a minimum of words.

    Yet the words chosen were significant, and the repetition of the word “imagine” was a device I found to be both poetic and spiritually resonant and effective. In fact, it occurred to me that if one really remembered nothing more about this homily than the word “imagine” one would still have come away with a powerful point about how we can / should / must read the beatitudes — as a text which unlocks our imagination of a new world, into which Jesus Christ invites us.

    The main insight I heard in the homily was deeply illuminating, and an elegant solution to the perennial objections raised when we read this passage through a too-individualistic lens: namely, the struggle to comprehend how someone who is poor or mourning or persecuted, etc., be designated as “blessed.” By vividly relating the solution (a communal vision of what the beatitudes mean) to the challenge of making life decisions that buy into this vision of a new world, the homily left me with a salutary challenge — one that I found I wanted to rise to meet.

    I was reminded by both homilies of how preaching is an oral art.

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