12 January 2006

The Art of the Homily

What is the “art of the homily”? My recent post on the “Mechanics of the Homily” lead some to ask me to share my thoughts on the art of writing a homily. Here are some very practical considerations drawn from my short experience preaching on a weekly basis:

1). Use the lectionary texts. The arguments/theses of my homilies are limited by the lectionary texts in front of me. What’s the alternative? The newspaper? CNN? A recent visit to the therapist? I preach the Gospel—the gospel text. I preach the epistle—the epistle text. What do I mean by “use the lectionary texts”? At the very minimum, I mean use the language, imagery, ideas, etc. from the actual texts. Pick up the image of the blind man raising his eyes to be smeared with spit and dirt (and yes, say “spit and dirt”!). Pick up the image of the Simon and James and Andrew throwing down their nets to follow Jesus. Pick up the cadences of the biblical language. Look at the repetition of vowel sounds. Watch the way Paul builds an argument with rhetorical flourish, layering one idea on top of another until the fullest possible picture of his teaching is compete. That’s not teaching…it’s proclamation! He’s not being pedantic, but rhetorical; that is, he’s not being a classroom Teacher so much as he is being a Preacher. Here’s an example of what I mean:

From today’s reading in Mark: “[The healed leper] spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”

Pick up on “spread,” “abroad,” “impossible,” openly,” “remained outside,” “deserted places,” and “everywhere.” Two movements of note here: 1) the healed leper’s faithful spreading of the Good News against Jesus’ express command to be silent, and 2) Jesus’ captivity to the crowd, the mass of people who have the freedom to come to him.

My “use” of this short passage: “Jesus does what he came to do: to heal the sick, to witness to his Father’s love and mercy. The healed leper, overcome with joy in his newfound cleanliness, disobeys Jesus’ command to remain silent and spreads the Good News. He spreads the news, sends it abroad, talks openly about his moments with Jesus. And the crowd listens to this Word proclaimed—healing for the sick, cleanliness for the unclean. They drive Jesus into the deserted places with their desire for his healing, with their longing for his wholeness.”

Nothing particularly profound here at all. Just a re-telling of the short lectionary passage. However, this is how the readings get repeated in the homily so that the language and images are heard again.

2). Don’t avoid complexity, controversy, or the “hard sayings.” I don’t assume that the folks in the pews are dummies incapable of digesting a complex idea or dealing with a controversial topic. I preach against sin. And do so without sugarcoating it. God’s mercy is bigger than any fear we might have of those who will wag their fingers at us for daring to mention Hell from the pulpit. I preach against specific sins. We all sin. And we all commit specific sins. God’s mercy is universal and free. Say so! Call sin sin and shout about God’s mercy. Avoiding talk of specific sins is just a way to keep the peace at the cost of the truth. I’m not suggesting that anyone go out and punch folks out with belligerent homilies on the Evil of the Day. However, preachers of the gospel MUST teach and preach what Jesus taught and preached. What else is there to teach and preach?

3). Prefer the Oral to the Written. Uh? OK. Here’s what I mean: homilies are oral performances. I don’t mean theatrical performances, but they are works enacted, works given life in their portrayal. If you write your homily and then perform it as a written piece, then you are inviting comparisons to an academic lecture. This happens to me a lot because I use a prepared text. It’s something I have to work on. Writing oral English requires that you “hear” your homily being preached aloud as you write. Take for example this opening line to an Easter homily:

“This morning the universal Church celebrates the resurrection of the Lord.”

OK. True enough. Nothing theologically dodgy, but I’m snoozing already. Here’s my version in oral form:

“He is risen! In Irving, Texas and Bangladesh. In Cairo and London. In Capetown and Maui-maui. He is risen indeed! He is risen to new life! In Jackson, MS and Miami, FL. On the riverias of France and the tundras of Russia! Our Lord is alive again!”

How are these two different? They say basically the same thing: Jesus is risen from the dead and all the world celebrates this fact on Easter morning. The difference is that the first opening paragraph is a description and the second is a proclamation. The first tells us what is going on and the second IS what’s going on. Another substantial difference is that the first is a general description and the second is a specific proclamation. The first says “universal Church”—an abstraction—and the second says “London, Maui-maui, Jackson, and Russia”—all very specific places. The difference in oral impact is dramatic.

4). Use a combination of short, declarative sentences and longer, complex sentences. This combo helps me to introduce a Big Idea and then reinforce it with repetition. The oral form requires repetition for comprehension and retention. An example:

“Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth, pregnant with John, and John leaps in his mother’s womb at Mary’s approach, preparing himself now for his ministry later. He knows Jesus. He knows Jesus is the One Anointed. And he leaps. He leaps again and again in joy, telling the world of the coming of the Christ.”

The shorter sentences are repetitions of the longer one. The frequent, creative repetition of the main idea is a sure-fire way to etch the image/language into the memories of those listening.

5). Questions are good…if you answer them. Using rhetorical questions for affect is dubious at best. I mean, ending a homily with something like: “What would you do if given the chance to heal the sick”? I almost always think of this as a cheapy way to end a homily. It’s safe, easy, noncommittal, and, frankly, dishonest. How so? If the homily is about making the Word present to those listening, then it must look and sound like the Word, like Jesus, like Scripture. Rhetorical questions are gimmicky in that they seem to ask a real question but really just serve as a stopping point or pretend at being intellectual exercises. In fact, they can be escape routes for chicken preachers. Start with questions and answer them. The folks in the pews are smart enough to figure out that our answers are either dumb beyond reckoning or right on target. The right question asked of a difficult text can open multiple doors and shine a vigorous light on scripture. But you have to think that scripture is actually the Word of God and that your homily is a door to that Word.

6). Use theological language but temper it with appositive repetition. I think preachers fear using theological language because those listening will label them pretentious or academic or both. There’s nothing obviously wrong with using the historical language of the Church to talk about the truths of the faith. I use “Incarnation,” “redemption,” “grace,” etc. all the time. You might object and say that I preach at a Catholic university parish and you would be right! However, the way to use theological language productively is to follow each use with an appositive repetition; that is, every time you use a theological term, follow it immediately with a more scriptural or mundane appositive that develops its meaning for those listening.

Some examples:

"The Trinity, the community of divine persons that is our One God, reveals to us Who God is to us and for us."

"Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the coming into flesh of the Son, his arrival among us as a man."

"This sacrifice of the Mass, this surrendering to God in thanksgiving, is our greatest praise, our highest oblation."

Now, obviously, you can’t capture every nuance of a complex theological term in a single appositive, but I think you can do a lot of good teaching in a small space.

7). Religiously use a thesaurus. Preachers, like everyone else, are creatures of habit when it comes to language. We have our favorite phrases, our favorite themes, and our favorite images. And we use them over and over. This can become a problem over time because language use not only reveals patterns of thinking, it can begin to limit patterns of thinking as well. I mean, if you stick to certain kinds of words, certain discursive rhetorics (e.g., psychology-inspired terms or military-inspired images) then your understanding of scripture slowly shrinks to the basest limits of your preferred vocabulary. The thesaurus is the most immediate remedy to this problem. Using the thesaurus is a kind of “language-play,” but well worth the effort when it jogs us out of stagnant familiarity. Here’s what I do: I write a sentence and immediately notice commonly used words (e.g. “grace”). I grab my thesaurus or use the one on my word processing program to search for alternatives. The top six alternatives for “grace” are: elegance, refinement, loveliness, polish, beauty, and poise. OK. None of these will serve as a substitute for the theological concept of “grace.” However, each one could be used to describe God’s attitude toward us as sinners or used to describe what grace does for us.

Examples: “God’s grace, His elegant invitation to live His life with him, polishes the human soul, refines our path to His beauty, and grants us a final loveliness, the last gift of seeing Him face-to-face.”

A more direct use of the thesaurus…

Original: "We gather here this morning to see and hear the Gospel proclaim and preached, to offer our prayers and thanksgivings to God, and to celebrate the sacrament of our redemption."

Thesaurus: "We draw closer together at daybreak to glimpse the Gospel, to take heed of its declaration and its preaching, to tender our petitions and gratitude to God, and to make merry in the sacrament of our deliverance."

Now, I wouldn’t use the Thesaurus Version in a homily. I just went through and replaced key words with “thesaurus words.” But I think you can see how this exercise offers up some insight into making that opening paragraph more interesting. I like “draw closer together” (“gather” is one of our most overused words. I would argue that it has almost become meaningless), “daybreak,” “take heed” (yes, a bit old-fashioned, but just odd enough to require one’s attention), and “make merry” (“celebrate” has become stale, overused), and I really like “deliverance” instead of “redemption.” That’s my Baptist coming out.

8). Read good literature. There’s no substitute for reading good poetry and fiction for developing a sense of how a sentence works or how an image conveys meaning. I would go so far as to say, “Lose the homily helps and spend that money on a couple of good poetry anthologies and a few prize-winning novels!”

What I haven’t covered here is the process of reading and prayer that goes into a homily. As a Dominican, my community life and my study are inextricably bound up together in the composition of a homily. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to share some thoughts on the how prayer and study fit into the art of the homily.


10 January 2006

A new authority...

First Week OT (Tues): I Sam 1.9-20; Mark 1.21-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Why would any of us think that it is a good thing to follow this Jesus? Why do we call on his name to settle disputes? Why do we think to pray in his name? Why do we give credibility to his teachings and tell others about his ministry? What is it about him that calls to mind authenticity, power, and instills in us a sense of assuredness and calm? He is a ratty carpenter. A wandering teacher of the Law, someone who roams around with a band of working-class grunts teaching what can only be described as hippyish Jewish apocalypticism and self-deluded narcissism! He casts out demons, heals the blind and lame, creates food from thin air, walks on water, and claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah promised by the Prophets. Why would any of us think to follow this guy?

Because we know what the unclean spirits know: Jesus is the Holy One of God! What we read in the Word, what we assent to in our hearts and minds, what we call upon to live holy lives in Christ is the authority of the Holy One of God. Authority is what we sense when we read and pray scripture. Authority is what reaches out and grabs us by the brains when we study the Tradition of the faith. Authority is what settles electrically into our hearts and beats along in time, giving pace to every breath we draw, every step we take—the cadence by which we are seduced into holiness, lured like fish to the nets and caught in the weightiness of his love, his mercy. “All were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority.’”

So, what is this authority that commands our trust? Authority is the possession of the power, the ability to create, to author, to bring out of nothing, something. Authority is the freedom to confirm, to approve, to give authenticity to. It is influence, holding sway and being decisive. Authority is the responsibility to hold accountable, to call to task, and to make right what is wrong. And for us, those of us who live in Christ, authority is the rule of the Author of Life in our hearts and minds, the giving over of control, direction to the Lord of our redemption. It is the license we freely give to God to govern our lives so that we might have the Good we long for, the Good we desperately desire.

Jesus is our authority because we recognize, acknowledge that he is who he says he is. Arguments, evidence, appeals to history and texts might push us along toward the conclusion that Jesus is who he says he is, but we are compelled finally, in the end to bow before the Spirit that moves us, the Spirit of mercy and love that drives us to the beauty of the Father, His Goodness and His Truth. Even the demons know who he is; they know what he will claim about himself, what he will proclaim to others about who he is and what he has come to do! Even those spirits lost to the cleanliness of love and mercy KNOW that Jesus is Lord, that he is the Holy One of God. Is possible that we can come to know differently?

Ours is not a faith of theological propositions, philosophical conclusions, or scientific findings. Of course, we are a church of intellectual power; but, we don’t give ourselves to methodologies, syllogisms, or experiments. We are not baptized into models of research or academic paradigms. We are baptized into Jesus Christ, into his authenticity as the Holy One of God, into his authority to write and re-write our lives in grace, into his freedom to create and re-create us in his image. He is the new teaching; he is the only authority we look to, the only source of life we will ever need.