Preparing for a reflection

"BUSY, BUSY, BUSY. -KV" scrawled on a wall.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, flickr, CC-by-sa-2.0.

I was asked to preach at a Vespers service at the Institute for Church Life here at Notre Dame last week, and they very kindly hosted the reflection on the Church Life website. The topic is the Easter season for those of us in academic life, who are extremely rushed right now. “Easter in the busyness.”

I thought it might be interesting, here at PrayTell, to share brief remarks on how I prepare to write a reflection like this, or like the similarly short pieces for Give Us This Day. These will probably make the most sense after you’ve read the reflection itself.

  1. First, I consider the tenor of the liturgical year. I like to think of liturgical preaching as the scriptures steeped (like tea) in the water of the time at hand, or as set (like a gem) in the metal of the current season.
Photo by A Girl With Tea, flickr, CC-by-2.0.
Photo by A Girl With Tea, flickr, CC-by-2.0.

2. Next, I consider the assembly. What are their characteristic sorrows and joys, hopes and anxieties, as they gather for worship? In this case, this was particularly easy, as I myself am prey to the same overcommitment at this time of the semester that I hazarded the assembly I was joining would feel. This was exacerbated by the time of day, since the Vespers service was at 5:15 pm, with many coming from another commitment and headed to yet other commitments in the evening.

3. I read through the scriptures for the day, trying to see them through the assembly’s eyes. What lines seem to “draw near,” as I put it in this reflection, to their experience right now? What parts are trying to open their hearts to a new vision or might breathe encouragement into their minds? I think it’s essential not to do the reading of the scriptures first, and end with the ways the assembly might hear them. Instead, I try to put on the lens of the assembly’s hearing of the scriptures right at the outset. Here, it was the futility depicted in the Psalm, which is the experience of those who do not entrust themselves to God’s help, but which reflects, for many of us, the experience of being stressed or overwhelmed. This highlighted the main message the scriptures had to offer to the assembly: the perspective that God alone is able to complete the work of the kingdom (a strong Resurrection message).

4. I find the ways that the scriptures resonate with one another. From this first insight, I noticed the abundant imagery of God’s all-sufficient power in the two Psalms, and its application to Christ the Risen Lord of Creation in Colossians and Hebrews. The happy fact that the parable of the lazy farmer can be told in one sentence gave me a way to connect the grain imagery in the Psalms with Christ the “first-born of creation,” “first born from the dead,” and the High Priest who alone and once for all accomplishes salvation. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to treat “ephapax” in an irenic way. Finally, and at the last moment, I recollected “Now the Green Blade Rises,” and concluded with the title for Christ the risen grain, which completed the shift in perspective from overburdened workers to weeping sowers hoping for an eschatological harvest.

5. Ensure that the language reflects the message and the liturgical season. Here an interesting thing happened: the editor changed one word of my reflection to fit with its transfer from oral proclamation to on the blog screen. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, except to me, the word chosen stands in tension with the central message and the Easter vision. Who can guess what word it is?
How does this compare to the way others among you prepare for preaching?

One comment

  1. I think that in preparing a homily I almost always do all five of these things, though I don’t always do them in the order laid out here. Sometimes, for example, I begin with something that has been happening in our community at the forefront of my mind before I ever look at the scriptures. I hope that doesn’t lead me into eisegesis (though I’m just po-mo enough not to worry about such things too much). Also, though this might be implied in #2, I think time spent reflecting on what has been happening in the wider world is also important.

    I think your fifth point is an important one and a place where homilies can often fail. One reason why I write my homilies out in full and deliver them pretty much as written (though never exactly) is because when you have a limited amount of time every word matters. Also, while it might be gimmicky to try to come up on every occasion with a memorable phrase that your hearers can carry with them as a “take away,” it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of verbal craft, to make our language as beautiful and evocative as possible. I sometimes get the feeling that many homilists think that only the ideas matter, but homilies and reflections are “sacramental” in the sense that form and content go together. So time spent on words is time well spent.

    Great reflection, by the way (though I couldn’t figure out what word had been changed).

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