20 January 2006

Praedicare! To Preach!

Praedicare! To preach! What does it mean “to preach”? Is reading a homily from the pulpit preaching? Is washing dishes at a homeless shelter preaching? Is a loud, haranguing diatribe against sin/injustice/the Bush administration preaching? Is throwing little vials of your blood on parked bombers at an Air Force base preaching?

The most obvious and readily accessible form of preaching is the homily delivered at Mass by the priest-celebrant. I think most everyone will agree that this is preaching. Are there other forms of preaching? No doubt. But let’s look at liturgical preaching in the hope of getting a better understanding of what preaching is more broadly understood.

A little clarity from the Catechism: “The liturgy of the Word is an integral part of sacramental celebrations. To nourish he faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized: […] the place of [the Word’s] proclamation (lectern or ambo), [the Word’s] audible and intelligible reading, the minister's homily which extends [the Word’s] proclamation…” (CCC n. 1154).

So, the homily is an extension of the Word’s proclamation. To give voice to the Word, to project it out to be heard is preaching. Let’s break this down even more:

1. When we say that we “proclaim the Word,” what do we mean? When we proclaim the Word, we make the Word plain in a striking way. Straightforwardly conspicuous? Memorably obvious? The idea here is that our proclamation of the Word must be plain, simple, unadorned and at the same time beautiful, noble, seductive. Not an easy balance.

2. How does the homily “extend the proclamation of the Word”? If the proclamation of the Word must be simple and seductive, then the preaching of the Word can be nothing less. There’s no sense in which we can talk about the homily improving on the Word or going deeper than the Word can go. The Word needs no improvement. It goes to the marrow of the bone. There is no deeper. This is why I like the idea of preaching as an “extension of the Word.”

The good homily will…

…draw out the Word,
…lengthen it,
…spread it out,
…lift it up,
…hand it over,
…and give it lots of volume!

The bad homily will…

…discourage the Word,
…flatten it,
…draw it in,
…hold it down,
…keep it closed,
…and whisper, whine, and wail.

3. Is there a difference between “delivering a homily” and “preaching the Word”? Yes and no. I suppose, strictly speaking, these two are the same. However, I also want to say that there is a Big Difference between merely speaking about the Word and giving the Word voice. There is a difference between reading the Bible and proclaiming the Word. There is a difference between the performance of a text and embodying the living Word—speaking, living, putting it out there, consuming, and being consumed. The homily, the preaching, is that moment of clarity and grace when the preacher exposes the Word, trespasses against a dark silence, exhorts and extols goodness, teaches Life against Sin, and invokes with his very breath the memory, the treasure, the story, the poetry of the faithful dead for the benefit of the living faithful.

4. You know you’ve heard a good homily when…

…you are encouraged in your faith, strengthened in your trust of God,
…you are set afire to read your Bible, to read the Fathers,
…you are compelled to speak the Word to someone else,
…you are convicted in your heart to conversion,
…you are shown mercy and you show mercy in turn,
…you are deepen in the Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Magisterium,
…you are sent out, given the proper tools, and convinced of success!

You know you’ve heard a bad homily when…

…you sadden by the faith handed to you, weakened in your trust of God,
…your faith is attacked, ridiculed, dismissed, or called a lie,
…you are told more about what the Bible isn’t about than what it is about,
…you are more convinced than ever that your sins aren’t all that bad after all,
…you are shown lax indifference and you show lax indifference in turn,
…you are ridiculed for being “nostalgic” or applauded for being a “suspicious thinker,”
…you are closed up, properly aggravated, and certain of failure!

So, are all the things I mentioned above preaching? Sure. If they extend the Word as it is understood in the Church’s long tradition, the living memories of the apostles still with us, and if they set out to glorify God, to seek his face always, to strengthen and support the Truth, to call us all to forgiveness, and to throw the Word into the world, as is, whole, simple, and unadorned.

Yup, that’s preaching.

Summoned? Step up!

2nd Week OT (Fri): 1 Sam 24.3-21; Mark 3.13-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

The demons loudly witnessed to Jesus’ authority as the Son of God. They writhe and wail when he preaches the Word, shouting at him, “What do you have to do with us?!” They understand, much better then we do most of the time, that Jesus is the Source of our lives and our salvation; he is the creator, the One Who Gives Direction and Purpose; and he is the Killer of Death and the Risen One. The demons writhe and wail because they know that Jesus’ authority is more than just legitimate legal power or profound social influence. His authority is founded in the creation of everything that is, rooted in the very fabric, the elemental stuff of every world there is. He is the Author of the universal story.

And one day, on a mountain, he picked from those who followed him, a small group of twelve and established the apostolic line, the college or collection of those who will go out, build-up, and carry on in his name. Jesus, desiring that his teaching survive and thrive beyond his life with the disciples, sets up a means for his teaching to be handed on, to be carried out and held up, passed on with authority. He chooses twelve, just twelve, to be bearers of his name to the world, teachers of his Way, and preachers of his Word. And not just any twelve, but The Twelve, summoned by name, pulled out of the crowd and set apart for the work of authentic evangelization.

Look closely at how Mark reports this process: 1) Jesus summons those whom he wanted, 2) they came to him, 3) he appointed them, 4) named them Apostles that they might be with him, 5) and be sent forth to preach, 6) and have authority over demons. And then we have their names. Notice that there was no nominating committee, no caucus to hash out acceptable candidates, no negotiation of the terms of employment, no participation by representatives of the diverse interests of the crowd, and no consultations with the benefactors. And they didn't appoint themsleves! Jesus summoned those whom he wanted. And they came to him.

Why? Why did these Twelve come to him? The Word seduces. And draws. He lures. And captures. Jesus the Word of God shines out unsayable beauty, unblinking truth, and his glory is diffusive. It spreads. It scatters and collects. Broadcasts and gathers, going out to bring back in. His Word touches our word and we are caught—fish in the net, sparrow in the branch—caught to be re-made, re-fashioned, done again in his image. It is our desire to be his love that drives us toward him. We are gifted with the summons to be his always. The Twelve—men, just men—answer. They come to him. And they are appointed to be with him, to go out, to preach, and take command of the forces of the dark.

Jesus summoned these men to be for him a living legacy, a lasting reach into our future, and we know them now as our bishops. Though he summoned these Twelve for this job, he summons us for other jobs, other tasks that require our gifts, our special skills and temperaments. Will we answer and come? Will we accept the authority of the Author of our lives and our salvation and answer him: “Yes, Lord! I will do your will.” What holds us back—fear, meagerness of heart, jealousy, pride, cowardice, self-righteous judgment, habitual sin—all of these are smoke, ash, nothing, absolutely nothing, in his light.

Your name is called. Summoned, standing before him, strengthened by his glory, say, “Yes, Lord!” Pick it up. Get out there. Preach his Word. Fight the darkness.

Be an apostle everytime, wherever you are.

18 January 2006

Stretch out your hand!

2nd Week of OT (Wed): 1 Sam 17.32-33, 37, 40-51; Mark 3.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

What happens when the heart grows hard? What becomes of us when our heart, our center with God, grows cold like stone and we habitually rely on the limited wisdom of regulation, policy, and procedure to make our moral choices? The world shrinks. Grows tiny. And that’s bad enough. What’s worse is that as the heart settles into habits of weighing and cutting excessive beauty and mercy, it is starved for charity and grace and shrivels and grows cold and dies. What’s left but to be angry at the waste and mourn the loss?

This is what happens to us when our hearts grow hard. But how do our hearts of flesh become hearts of stone? The standard interpretation of the gospel story this evening is as follows: the officials of the Heartless Religious Establishment refuse to do good because they are slaves to their strangled rule-following and puritanical notions of holiness. Jesus is the Warm Counselor, the Destroyer of Rigid Paradigms who rides to the rescue with his openness, his acceptance, and his tolerance of difference to save the poor wretch from the grinding narrowness of Those In Charge. Jesus heals the man’s withered hand and irrevocably sets the Pharisees against him.

Now, here’s my question: are the Pharisees rigid and hard-hearted because they follow the Law? Or, is their rigidity in following the rules a sign of their hard-heartedness? Asked another way: do they refuse to help the poor man because the rules won’t allow it, or do they refuse to help because their hearts are hard and following the rules is a just a way of making their hard-heartedness “right” in their minds?

The Pharisees refuse to help the man because they are trying to trap Jesus in an arrestable offense against the Law. Their calculated silence moves Jesus and he heals the man as an act of defiance against the Pharisees’ cold hearts, as a sign against their failure of holiness. Their refusal to do good is motivated by fear, jealousy, political expediency, and spite. They are not acting out of an unbiased assessment of the Law and its application. They are playing Gotcha! with the Lord and this absolute failure of charity and mercy angers the Lord and grieves him deeply.

Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The man does and he is healed. Jesus is angry and mourning that the hearts of the Pharisees cannot be moved to compassion, cannot be set afire by another’s need. They are dead because they will not stretch out their hands. They will not be healed in their silence.

Our own hard-heartedness is not so difficult to imagine. That stone-cold, merciless attitude is one sin away, just one refusal of compassion away. We starve our filial relationship with the Father when we look away from need, when we work at justifying our unjust acts with the letter of the Law. Any habit of the heart that freezes out the sick, the hungry, the lost necessarily freezes out our Lord and kills the hope in us that keeps the promise of eternal life alive.

The Good News is that we are given all the means we need to keep our hearts alive in the Lord, awake to the needs of others, beating in time to the life of holiness, and squarely centered in the will of the Father. We are tempted by the glory of Christ to live with him forever. And to live with him now is to live mercy, to live compassion, and to live with a heart of flesh.

When your chance comes, stretch out your hand. To heal and be healed: stretch out your hand!