Ars Praedicandi: First Sunday of Advent (C), Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

Eugene Lowry is a favorite homilist,
especially celebrated for his
somewhat subversive approach to preaching. [1]

Lowry has argued that the problem with most preachers
is that they give away the plot too early in the homily,
akin to Shakespeare walking to the apron of the stage
before the premiere of Romeo and Juliet
and explaining that in this tragedy
about two star crossed lovers
both protagonists would eventually commit suicide
before their broken-hearted families are reconciled.

The remedy, according to Lowry,
is for the preacher first to problematize the readings,
almost pulling the rug out from under
the assembly’s established expectations
that they know where readings and homily are headed.

After what he calls this “oops” move,
he advises homilists to let the plot of the preaching unfold
in all of its surprise and unpredictability.

I’d like to move Lowry’s strategy one step further
as we launch into this first Sunday of Advent
and problematize not only a single set of readings
but actually an entire liturgical season
since, in my opinion, Advent is always a bit of a puzzlement.

It is common for Christians to believe that Advent is the season
that prepares us to celebrate the birth of the Lord.
But how do you prepare for an event that is long past?
What is the sense in a season that primes us for ancient history?
That galvanizes passion for what is completed
without devolving into a season reduced
to historical commemorations or ritualized remembering?

Ironically, one way through this dilemma
is by recognizing what could be characterized
as the completely backward design of this season,
and the inverted logic of Advent
as explicitly exposed in the readings proclaimed
over its four Sundays.

Every one of the 3 cycles of the lectionary
has the 1st Sunday of Advent opening with a futuristic gospel,
an apocalyptic vision of Jesus’ second coming
with not too subtle warnings
about the distress that lies ahead.
It is certainly what we get today in Luke.

But then, in a kind of liturgical time warp,
the second and third Sundays of Advent
propel us thousands of years backward,
transporting us to the world of John the Baptist
the adult cousin of Jesus
as he wrestles with the truth about his younger relative.

And then the fourth Sunday moves us even earlier
into salvation history
and immediate preparations for the Lord’s birth.

Ironically, this backward design of the season
demands a kind of backward thinking,
maybe even backward believing,
in order to savor the center of this season
and live in the presence of the mysteries it nurtures.

Or, as Marshall McLuhan once wisely said:
“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.
We march backwards into the future.” [2]

Now it might sound at least counter-intuitive,
if not counterproductive,
to think or even believe backward.

On the other hand, backward planning
or what is sometimes called backcasting,
is a proven and highly effective technique
in business, urban development, and even the sciences.

The basic premise is to start from a desirable future
and then look back to the present to identify
the most strategic steps or actions
necessary for achieving that goal. [3]

Actually one of the most famous technological achievements
of the 20th century
– landing astronauts on the moon in 1969 –
was precisely achieved through backward planning.

In some ways, today’s gospel gives us an image of
the perfect future that we long for:
the coming of Jesus in power and glory,
a power and glory that might bring about God’s reign
of justice, tolerance for all, and the disenfranchisement of none.

Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians outlines
some of the strategic steps we need to take
for the fulfillment of God’s reign:
overflowing with love for one another,
nurturing strong hearts,
and learning to be blameless – even holy – before God.

Our believing backward into that future
takes us to the end and the goal of Advent,
the mystery of incarnation
occurring not only once in history,
but incarnation as the enduring mystery
of God’s unending love affair with humanity –
all of humanity.

This backward reading reveals
that the ongoing work of incarnation
is the fundamental strategy
for enacting God’s holy reign,
making way for Christ’s enduring presence in the world.

Reading today’s lectionary texts forward, especially that gospel text
can sound scary, threatening, or maybe even prophetic,
naming the chaos of the present moment
with migrants freezing on the border with Poland,
dancing Grannies killed by some lunatic in Waukesha’s Christmas parade,
and Christian missionaries still held for ransom in Haiti.
Is that a fulfillment of Luke’s foreboding
that the day will close in on us like a trap?

Or do we have to learn to read these texts,
and even the events of our lives,
and this crazy world
backward first so we can move forward –
backward into incarnation
so we can move forward into God’s reign.

There is actually a form of poetry known as “reverse poetry.”
It is poetry that can be read from front to back
or from back to front.
When it is read in the ordinary sequence
from top to bottom
it often can sound quite depressing
like reading the lectionary
from Jeremiah to Paul to Luke.
It sounds promising in the beginning
like Jeremiah’s vision of the emergence of God’s justice,
but then it gets a little scary when we hear from Paul,
that we have to be blameless
in light of the Lord Jesus’ second coming
which turns to downright terror
when Luke walks us to the brink of the eschaton,
the final moments,
marked by anguish, distress, and fright.

But if you read the poem backward,
like reading the lectionary texts
and even the whole of Advent backward,
a more life-giving and affirming scenario emerges.

Recently a 10-year-old girl student Christ Church school in England
wrote a reverse poem about dyslexia
even though she herself does not suffer from that challenge.

As you know, dyslexia is a learning disability
that inhibits fluent reading,
but also reading comprehension,
spelling,
writing,
and even math skills.

When you read her poem, aptly named “Dyslexia,”
from top to bottom, it paints a disheartening picture of distress:

It reads:

I am stupid
Nobody would ever say
I have a talent for words
I was meant to be great
That is wrong
I am a failure
Nobody could ever convince me to think that
I can make it in life.

Sounds pretty depressing … but listen to it when happens
when we read it backward:

I can make it in life
Nobody could ever convince me to think that
I am a failure
That is wrong
I was meant to be great
I have a talent for words
Nobody would ever say
I am stupid.

What a reversal. What an affirmation.
What a resurrection. What a budding poet!
What an inspiration to develop a spirituality
that the world might consider dyslexic.

But that is the task of Advent
working backward from the promised reign of God
through the sacred strategy of incarnation
for birthing that reign of justice and dignity in our own time.

It is a challenging journey, to be sure
and one that begs for mercy and graces and blessings.
And so we invoke the poet’s blessing as we pray:

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see.
Is etched into
a landscape
whose contours you cannot know
from here.
All you know
is that it calls you,
draws you,
pulls you toward
what you have perceived
only in pieces,
in fragments that came to you
in dreaming
or in prayer.

I cannot account for how,
as you draw near,
the blessing embedded in the horizon
begins to blossom
upon the soles of your feet,
shimmers in your two hands.
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have traveled toward,
waited for,
ached for
suddenly appears
as if it had been with you
all this time,
as if it simply
needed to know
how far you were willing
to walk
to find the lines
that were traced upon you
before the day
that you were born.


[1] Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, expanded edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

[2] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (Toronto: Random House, 1967), 75.

[3] S.E. Bibri, “Backcasting in futures studies: a synthesized scholarly and planning approach to strategic smart sustainable city development,” European Journal of Futures Research 6:13 (2018) at https://doi.org/10.1186/s40309-018-0142-z

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