Ars Praedicandi: Preaching and “Themes”

In my parish the liturgy planning group each year reflects together on the readings of Lent and arrives at a “theme” that will be highlighted in the homilies, musical choices, and other elements of the liturgy.

I think there are plusses and minuses to such a practice. On the plus side, it provides a consistent message that can be driven home over the course of weeks, perhaps making the message more likely to be remembered once Mass is ended. As a preacher, it provides me with input from parishioners as to what resonates with them at this particular moment in the Scripture readings.  The leadership at the semi-famous Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland (home of Rebuilt) swears by the idea of the preaching  “message series” and organizes all of their preaching in this way.

On the minus side, one might argue that such “themes” are an artificial layer placed on top of the Church Year, often distorting the emphases that are “organically” present in the Scriptures and other elements of the liturgy. A theme might tempt the preacher to pack more into the homily than it can bear. Likewise, a theme might unduly hobble the homilist, so that he is unable to respond to events that occur long after the theme has been arrived at.

This year the theme that we arrived at for Lent was “Conversations of Conversion.” This was suggested to us first by the long gospel readings of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent, which all seem to pivot on the conversations Jesus and others engage in. Also, we have a catechumen this year (being a small parish, this is not a given every year) and we thought that this would fit well with the Scrutinies, highlighting their significance for the whole assembly. It seemed to be a theme that grew naturally out of the readings and would, we hope, suggest a focus for parishioners in their celebration of Lent.

Of course, a theme is not much good if you can’t communicate it to the assembly. Below is my homily for the First Sunday of Lent, which attempts to introduce the theme, to offer a kind of “teaser” for the coming weeks, as well as to break open the Scriptures that have just been read. It’s a tall order.

So “themes” in preaching the seasons:  A good idea all of the time? A good idea some of the time? A good idea none of the time?


This week’s news suggests
that you really should be careful
about who it is that you engage in conversation.
For example, if you are a highly-visible supporter
of a major political party’s presidential candidate—
particularly if you are someone
who could possibly get appointed as Attorney General—
you might not want to have private conversations
with the Russian ambassador.
At the very least, it just looks bad,
and little good can come from it.
This week’s Scriptures similarly suggest
the potential dangers
of conversation with the wrong person.
For example, if you are one of the first humans,
newly arrived on the scene
and not too experienced in the ways of the cosmos,
you might not want to engage in conversation
with that oh-so-helpful serpent
who suggests to you
that you have been deceived by God,
and that doing the one thing
that God has asked you not to do
might possibly turn out really well.

Notice, in contrast, that Jesus, in today’s Gospel,
does not engage the Devil in conversation;
apart from quoting the words of Scripture,
the only thing he says is, “Get away, Satan!”
He knows that the devil has nothing worthwhile to say.
Indeed, it is actually one of the directives
in the Church’s Rite of Exorcism
that one ought not engage
a demon in conversation:
no good can come of it.
Though John Milton made Satan
somewhat glamorous in Paradise Lost,
the truth is that the devil is a tedious liar and a destroyer
whose God-given intelligence has been reduced by sin
to an animal cunning focused entirely
on turning people away from God.

Perhaps one reason we human beings
can so easily be lured into conversations
from which no good can come
is that we are, by nature, conversational.
One of the glories of being human
is our ability to use language to engage others,
to communicate and so enter into communion
with another person.
We are, you might say, conversational animals,
who need communication with others
as much as we need food or sleep or shelter.
And like any good thing that we deeply need,
the good of conversation can be turned to an evil purpose,
as when we gossip or berate or tempt.

But conversation has other possibilities.
In addition to those conversations
from which no good can come,
there are those conversations
from which great good can come:
the casual chat that begins a profound friendship,
the frank airing of differences that leads to reconciliation,
the final conversation with a dying loved one
in which you say and hear those things
that had previously been left unsaid.
These conversations can be life-changing,
which is perhaps no surprise
since the words “conversation” and “conversion”
find a common source in the Latin word convertere,
meaning “to turn together.”
To have a conversation we must turn toward the one
with whom we wish to converse,
and in so doing our life is changed.

In the holy season of Lent
we turn again to the Lord who calls us to new life.
In our Lenten Gospel readings
we will hear Jesus engaged in many conversations:
with the Samaritan woman at the well,
with the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam,
with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother Lazarus.
All of these are conversations of conversion,
in which people turn
from shame and weakness and fear
and turn toward Jesus who is living water,
the light of the world,
and life itself.
As we eavesdrop on these conversations,
we also hear the voice of Jesus calling us
to turn toward him in conversation and communion.

One of the traditional disciplines of Lent,
along with fasting and acts of charity,
is a commitment to deepen our life of prayer.
This is for many of us a frightening prospect.
Giving up things for Lent is relatively easy,
be a bit more generous is a small sacrifice,
but prayer is hard.
It is hard because life is busy
and prayer can seem like wasting time.
It is hard because it involves opening ourselves up
to a love that might very well change us forever.
It is hard because, unlike the garrulous devil
who yammers away in our Scriptures today,
God’s response in the conversation of prayer
is most often experienced as silence.

But this silence speaks eloquently of God’s love.
For in the conversation of prayer
God does not seek to trick or persuade,
but rather lets our spoken and unspoken yearnings
echo in the vast space of his infinite compassion,
so that our desires return to us transformed
by our encounter with God:
reoriented, reinterpreted,
released from selfishness.
In that echoing silence
God creates a place of freedom
in which we can slake our thirst for living water,
in which our eyes can be opened to the light of the world,
in which we can find the new life that comes forth
from the empty tomb of Christ.
Let this season of Lent be for us
a time to turn away
from conversations from which
no good can come,
and to turn back again
to this frightening,
life-changing conversation
that offers us nothing less
than the infinite love of God.

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