Preaching as an ecclesial response to the gospel

For quite some time now, I’ve been mulling over the place of the homily or the sermon in the Liturgy of the Word. Its position following the proclamation of the Gospel, a moment ritually set apart by the actions of standing and the unison responses to the reader, makes it clear that the homily is a response to the Gospel, not simply an explanation of it. In other words, the homily is the place where the proclamation of the word is completed because the Word itself comes to life in the community’s own experience.

To make this happen in practice, homilies need to be communal and localized. It can’t simply be the presider’s word; it must be the whole assembly’s word. In a good homily, the assembly’s recognition is evoked at every moment. Yes. That is my word. That’s the word that was meant for me. In a great homily, the assembly hears things from the Spirit that the presider doesn’t remember having said. (In an Ambrose or Augustine homily, they go on hearing it for centuries afterwards!)

Here’s an essay tonight that (coming from a very different cultural location within Christianity) articulates this intuition in a sound and practical fashion.

I get how a baby would interrupt a performance’s transmission of beauty or message because they interrupt that well-crafted focus.

But Preaching is about naming and claiming God’s love present in the room. It’s about that Holy Spirit that isn’t given to the preacher and then transmitted to the people: that Spirit is in each one there and they communicate back and forth. Churches that have call-and-response to the preaching moment get this phenomenon, and to them,crying babies are just another “amen” section.

How it would look in my own assembly, where “Amen” sections are not the norm, is something I’m still working out. But the homily that is a community’s response to the gospel, prophetically and poetically articulated by the presider, should be our goal.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Some random reactions:

    Here is the definition favored by the essayist:

    “A sermon … is “verbal and nonverbal communication of the inward manifestation of a command by the Holy Spirit to relate to others something about God’s presence, purpose, and power in one’s life and in the life of all of humanity” (Teresa Fry Brown, Delivering the Sermon, pp. 17)”

    Compare that to what is found in the Vatican II document on the liturgy:

    “The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.” (SC 35/2)

    I guess I would say that there is some alignment there, and also perhaps some differences. The Vatican II definition seems to put a premium on scriptural and liturgical sources and content. That seems to be observed, by and large, in Catholic preaching, which really does seem to see itself as bound to the readings of the day (although liturgical texts may be a neglected source in Catholic preaching?). Preaching that is not tied to a lectionary certainly can be freer in its choices of topics and themes – which may have its positives and negatives.

    Just speaking for myself: if I am able to achieve prophecy and poetry in my preaching, it comes about through assiduous preparation: prayer, research, drafting, practicing, etc. I’m not a natural poet nor prophet. For those that are – they’re blessed. But I’d just sound a word of caution in that “being prophetic” or “letting the Spirit guide me” too often can be a fall-back or excuse for avoiding the hard work of preparing a homily. Poorly prepared homilies usually are pretty bad homilies in my observation, no matter how Spirit-filled the preacher may feel.

  2. Regarding crying babies – I admit I’ve never considered that it may be the Holy Spirit that is prompting them to cry :-). I certainly agree that preachers and the assembly need to exercise tolerance toward them; parents need to be considerate of others; and the faith community needs to provide a place for parents of noisy children to escape to. I’d add that the “crying room”, which to me spells “banishment from the assembly”, isn’t my first choice for such a refuge. A refuge that is temporary, comfortable, and provides for easy return from one’s former seat is what I’d wish for.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Jim, insightful as usual. When I read the article, I didn’t assume that Spirit-inspired preaching meant it would be unprepared. On the contrary, what I found illuminating was the image that the Holy Spirit wasn’t only inspiring the preacher, but the preacher and the assembly. There is a back-and-forth to a good homily that goes beyond the attentive reception that I might do, say, at a play. This is the point of the linked article – that preaching is distinct from (other kinds of) performance, and that part of that distinction is a unique relationship between preacher and assembly. The anecdotal point about babies crying is simply an illustration of that main point.

  4. Lovely musings, Kimberly. I wrote a paper on this topic for Theresa Koernke’s class trying to figure out how a liturgical homily would look like when one doesn’t approach it as an event mediated solely from the Spirit through the homilist to the people. There is certainly a communal aspect to preaching that involves much more than just the verbal delivery that happens within the liturgy.

    My favorite description of the purpose of the homily comes from Fulfilled in Your Hearing (52):

    “Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret people’s lives.”

    I haven’t studied the US Bishops’ latest document on preaching enough yet, but from what I’ve already read of it, I haven’t seen a similar kind of description there that connects the preacher, homily, Scripture, and lives of the assembly as clearly for me.

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