Monday, January 28, 2019

How to Survive While Listening to a Sermon

At the end of my homily at one of the Sunday Masses, I quoted extensively from an article I read many years ago. I'd kept a yellowed copy in my file on preaching and dug it out as I prepared to preach this week. There was no source on the typed script in the file but I have found it on the Internet and learned it was reprinted from the Fall 1979 issue of the Newsletter published by the College of Preachers, now an Episcopal conference center for the continuing education of the clergy in Washington D.C. 

A footnote on that College: it was started with an endowment of a million dollars in 1929, when that sum was almost US $15 million in today's dollars. An Episcopalian benefactor obviously thought preaching was important! 

Here is the link to the Rev. Clement W. Welsh's article "How to Survive While Listening to a Sermon". It is fine advice for the man or woman in the pew and perhaps an encouragement to better preaching by the priest in the pulpit.

The homily is a two-way street (3C)

I was looking for a funny quotation with which to begin my homily on Sunday, and I found one without any trouble. Lord Hawkins, a 19th century judge in England, once said “It was a divine sermon. For it was like the peace of God—which passes all understanding. And like his mercy, it seemed to endure forever.”

Homilies are the subject of my homily today. There’s a simple reason for that: both the first reading and the Gospel today are about homilies.

And homilies are important. Pope Francis has written that “The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 135)

But homilies can be disappointing. A study of parish life in the US conducted more than thirty years ago concluded that active Catholics “find homilies inspiring and interesting, but uninformative and not helpful to the growth of their faith. (The Emerging Parish: the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life, 134.)

I’d be surprised if much has changed since.

One expert says the problem is that many preachers seem to have no idea about the homily is supposed to do. They “believe that their task is to interpret the readings rather than interpret our world through the readings and our contemplation of life.” (“The Homily Fulfilled in Our Hearing,” Richard P. Wazniak, Worship, January 1991.)

I can put that even simpler: often, the preacher tries to interpret the readings rather than apply the readings.

Today, I want to apply the readings—especially the first reading—to us, gathered here this Sunday morning. It’s not difficult. The assembly that Ezra leads in the town square is a model for our Liturgy of the Word, and helps us understand at least one crucial thing: the homily is not a monologue by the priest, but an invitation to a dialogue—a dialogue not with the preacher, but with God himself.

Look how this event unfolds. First of all, the gathering is inclusive; everyone over the age of reason is there—just like Sunday. Second, the people are attentive. How many times have we—priests included—allowed the readings to sail over our heads because we let ourselves be distracted and failed to focus?

There’s still more to learn. The Word of God—the Torah, the Law—leads the community to worship. They signify their eagerness to listen by standing up, just like we do at the reading of the Gospel, and then they show their assent by bowing their heads in worship. Listening is an activity, not a passive intellectual thing.

So obviously hearing the Word was powerful. The Letter to the Hebrews—a Christian document written to Jews—tells us that the Word of God is living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Yet the Word needs to be explained and interpreted. This is what the Levites, the Jewish priests, did for this great assembly. “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

This is what the Christian preacher must do also, but not in some abstract way. Ezra and his assistant priests were preaching for a purpose, the restoration of the people in Jerusalem.

Israel has slowly returned from exile, and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Now that reconstruction is well underway, the community needs to rebuild its understanding of God’s Word. They’re hungry for spiritual pillars to uphold them while they rebuild the Temple.

What amazing power is unleashed when the Word, the preacher, and the hearers are combined as God intends! It’s hardly surprising that the people wept when they heard the words of the Law. It was answering a deep longing in their hearts, completing spiritually their return from exile in Babylon.

It responded to what we call nowadays, “a felt need”.

Things are very different in today’s Gospel. Jesus preaches a very short homily on Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. He’s announcing the best news that congregation has ever heard. However, the response couldn’t be more different from what happened at the Water Gate in Jerusalem 500 years earlier.

Our Gospel passage ends with our Lord’s powerful words “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But that’s not the end of the story. Next week, our Gospel on Sunday tells the story of what follows: everyone likes the homily until Jesus declines to work the miracles they want, at which point everyone in the synagogue is outraged and they try to throw him over a cliff.

I’m doing a lot of thinking about homilies these days. Certainly I need to spend more time on them, and to consider more carefully what preaching is for, what it’s supposed to accomplish.

But while I do that, I’d invite all of you to think and pray about your part in the Liturgy of the Word—why and how you listen to the readings, and what you do during the homily itself.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Northing Ordinary About This Sunday (2.C)

Today is the third day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  This is observed around the world every year between January 18 and January 25 ending with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This important ecumenical initiative was proposed in 1908 by the co-founder of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, who were once very active in our Archdiocese and who have promoted this and other aspects of the ecumenical movement ever since.

For most of us in the English-speaking world, ecumenism—a word which comes from the Greek meaning ‘the whole world’—focuses on our separation from Protestants.  The most visible expression of disunity for most Canadians was the Anglican Church whose separation from Rome is a well-known story and who continue to follow many Catholic forms in their worship.

However, there’s another ecumenical concern that might be said to be more important even than unity with Protestants, and that is reunion with the Orthodox Church.  The estrangement between the two great churches of Rome and Constantinople is a wound that is 500 years older than Protestantism, and may be said to be even more scandalous.

Unlike the Protestant churches, the Orthodox have preserved all of the ancient liturgical and spiritual tradition, and there is a recent history of intense dialogue between the Pope and Patriarchs.  In very memorable words St. John Paul declared that “The Church must breathe with her two lungs.”  By this the Pope was suggesting that the Eastern Churches have a great contribution to make to the whole Church.  Long before the split that occurred in the year 1054 there were legitimate differences in emphasis and spirituality between East and West that offer unique riches that need to be shared.

Which brings me to a very interesting coincidence—certainly an intentional coincidence but one that’s so significant that we need to pay some attention to it.  I’m referring to the fact that we read—on this so-called ‘ordinary’ Sunday, the second of the year—St. John’s account of the wedding feast of Cana.

I know you’re scratching your heads.  What is interesting or even coincidental about that?  What does it have to do with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity?  What does it have to do with the Orthodox Church?

Well, let me tell you.  One of the distinctive liturgical traditions of the Eastern Church, dating back as far as the fourth century, was the combination of three events into the one celebration of Epiphany.  Only scraps of this fascinating connection remain in the Roman, or Western, Church to which we belong.

Here’s the story, from a blog post by the American liturgical scholar Philip H. Pfatteicher:

The festival of Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church, where it retains its importance, and then spread to the West. In its origin, Epiphany was a celebration of beginnings: the baptism of Jesus, which was his authorization for his public ministry, and his first miracle at Cana in Galilee, when he ‘showed forth his glory,’ as St. John says. As the festival developed, it became a celebration of these two events, together with the visit of the mysterious Magi.

This Eastern tradition still influences the liturgy of the Roman Church. You noticed, of course, that last Sunday’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord directly followed the Epiphany, although they were years apart.

And the Liturgy of the Hours for the Epiphany makes explicit reference to the ancient connections.  Listen to the antiphon for the canticle at Morning Prayer:

Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed away her sins in the waters of the Jordan; the Magi hasten to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine.

The same connections appear in the antiphon for the Gospel canticle at Evening Prayer:

Three mysteries mark this holy day. Today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ, today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast, today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

And so, summarizes Professor Pfatteicher:

The feast proclaims the manifestation of Christ to the world: to its waters which he cleansed when he was baptized in the Jordan, to his people who are invited to the marriage of heaven and earth, and to the representatives of the nations in the form of the three kings who come to adore and pay homage to their sovereign.

“So much” he writes, “to ponder and celebrate and enjoy”—a gift to us from Eastern Christianity.

Now we see what a delightful thing it is to hear the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana today, in sequence with the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.  Since our liturgical tradition is different from that of the Orthodox, this happens only every three years—so, in a sense, this second Sunday of ordinary time isn’t ordinary at all. We’re blessed to get a rare glimpse of the riches of the Eastern tradition that are one of the reasons we desire unity with the Orthodox.

Of course the number one reason is simply that Jesus has told us he wants his followers to be one.  St. John Paul’s encyclical letter on ecumenism, Ut unum sint, takes its title from the words of Jesus elsewhere in John’s Gospel where he prays “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).  As St. John Paul states boldly “the unity of all divided humanity is the will of God” (n. 6).  Commenting on these words, Archbishop Miller points out that “the unity of Christians is a sacramental sign which manifests and brings this about” (p. 898, The Encyclicals of John Paul, J. Michael Miller, ed.).

We could say much more about Christian unity and about why Eastern Christians connect three moments in one feast and about the riches of Orthodox spirituality and theology.  But today we need to focus on Cana. At Bethlehem Jesus was revealed as Saviour of all people, at the Jordan he was revealed as the Father’s beloved Son, our Saviour. Cana seems more modest—he is revealed as someone who can change water into wine.  But of course it’s about much more than that.  Jesus is revealed as the one who can transform not only water but human lives.

The writer of my favourite contemporary books of homilies, Msgr. Stanley Krempa from Virginia, points out that the other two readings today help us reflect on the transforming power of Jesus in our own lives. 

In the first reading, Isaiah speaks to God’s people, exiled from their homeland. He tells them that God is so powerful he will change the name of his people from Forsaken to My Delight is In Her. He will vindicate and save and transform his children into a crown of beauty, a people beloved by God.

If you have ever tried to change someone, whether your spouse or a child or even a friend, you will know that changing people is even harder than changing water into wine! 

Msgr. Krempa writes that “So often, we think that if our life has been a failure in some way in the past, it has to be so in the future as though we were riding on iron tracks preventing any change.”  But our future does not need to be the way things were in the past because the Lord has the power to help us move from failure to a fresh start, from the death of sin to a new birth, and from personal loss to a new chapter in our life. 

Jesus can for us what he did for Israel, helping us move from being ‘forsaken’ to being chosen.  Stories of great personal change are not found only in the lives of the Saints or in testimonies on YouTube videos.  It can happen in our lives too.

Jesus can not only change water into wine, our past into a different future, but also our talents into gifts to the Church—instruments of grace and avenues of love, Msgr. Krempa says.  This is the message of St. Paul to the Corinthians in our second reading.  Certainly everyone has their talents and gifts, but the source of this is the Holy Spirit who activates these gifts, who grants them individually to each of us.

We’re talking a great deal right now about leadership in the parish, promoting the call to ministry, and it can frighten some people. But only if we don’t recognize that the One who changed water into wine can turn our talents into gifts for him and our brothers and sisters. 

Msgr. Krempa ends his homily with words I can really make my own: “Jesus still changes water into wine among us every day.”

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Some Church Fathers on the Baptism of the Lord

I spent a delightful hour and a half with our grade seven class on Friday afternoon, walking through the various parts of the Mass. By dismissal time we'd only got to the Eucharistic Prayer, but they were so keen that questions kept coming even after I promised we'd get together again.

Their interest and enthusiasm wasn't a huge surprise–many of them are faithful altar serversbut I sure didn't expect the reaction when we came to the homily.

I joked that this was the part of the Mass no-one really liked. There was an immediate chorus of objections. The students assured me that they enjoyed the homilies at Mass.

“We like listening to the homily, one student said, “…especially when you tell a joke.

Okay, perhaps their reasons aren't entirely spiritual, but I was encouraged anyway.

I talked with the class about the challenges of preaching. I asked them to read the short note about the homily in the Sunday Missal, which they all had in their hands.  It says “The Holy Spirit speaking through the lips of the preacher explains and applies today's biblical readings to the needs of this particular congregation.

No-one understands the differences in age groups like elementary school students, unless it's elementary school teachers.  Grade sevens are worlds away from grade twos, and worlds away from grade tens.

So I asked the young people to think about how a message that applied to them could apply to their younger brothers and sisters. Or to their parents or grandparents.

They quickly understood that it was close to impossible to hear a homily every week that would be meaningful to them.

And that’s true for all of you, of every age.

Every week the preacher must decide, to some extent, to whom he is preaching. How simple or how complex a sermon, how challenging or consoling, how serious or light.

On this great feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I decided it was time to aim very high, to take a page from the books of the greatest preachers of all time, the ancient Fathers of the Church.

In the days leading up to the Baptism of the Lord, the Liturgy of the Hours–the book of psalms and prayers and readings that a priest must pray each dayhas been filled with awesome thoughts we rarely share at Mass because of their complex theology.

And yet these were sermons preached to ordinary people in Rome, in Turin, in Constantinople. People who, for the most part, had less education than we have.

So let’s listen to some of the most beautiful words ever spoken about the mystery we celebrate today.

Let’s warm up with Saint Hippolytus, a priest in Rome in the late second and early third centuries Even then, not that long after the time of Jesus, people could take for granted familiar things, annual feast days and well-known stories from the Bible, so he speaks of wonder we should feel. Hippolytus says:

“That Jesus should come and be baptized by John is surely cause for amazement. To think of the infinite river that gladdens the city of God being bathed in a poor little stream of the eternal, the unfathomable fountainhead that gives life to all men being immersed in the shallow waters of this transient world! 

“He who fills all creation, leaving no place devoid of his presence, he who is incomprehensible to the angels and hidden from the sight of man, came to be baptized because it was his will. And behold, the heavens opened and a voice said: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’”     

St. Maximus, the bishop of Turin, in Northern Italy, died sometime during the first two decades of the fifth century. He lived during the discouraging age that witnessed the Roman armies retreating before the barbarians.   Nonetheless, over 100 of his homilies survive. They were so moving that they were passed down through the centuries as models for medieval homilists to follow.

Here’s what St. Maximus said almost 1500 years ago:

“This feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events.

“At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him.

“The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.

“That is why the Lord Jesus went to the river for baptism, that is why he wanted his holy body to be washed with Jordan’s water.

“Someone might ask, ‘Why would a holy man desire baptism?’

“Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.

“For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”

That last sentence really holds the key what we’re celebrating today, so let me repeat it: Christ is the first to be baptized… so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.

Finally, let’s give the last word to Saint Gregory Nazianzen, the Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century.  St. Gregory’s teaching was so profound and accurate that he’s one of the few teachers in the history of the Church known as “the theologian.” What he preached is not complicated at all—but it certainly is challenging:

“Today let us do honour to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist.

“He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining in the world. You are to be radiant lights as you stand beside Christ, the great light, bathed in the glory of him who is the light of heaven.

You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendour, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”

The texts above, and many others, are available from called The Crossroads Initiative, a splendid website maintained by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio (a/k/a “Dr. Italy”). The biographical information I’ve used is also taken from the site’s page for Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

The beautiful image above, “Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell, comes from the website of the Sisters of Charity of New York, which also offers a short but inspiring meditation on today’s feast.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Offering Our Gifts (Epiphany.C)

Our assistant pastor is Italian.  Very Italian—I have the parmesan cheese bills to prove it.

Father Giovanni delighted the congregation Christmas Eve with his beautiful rendition of “Tu scendi dalle stelle,” a carol as dear to Italians as Silent Night is elsewhere in the world.

But I didn’t catch him humming or singing it in the house. What I did hear as he moved about the rectory was “pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.”

On one hand, “The Little Drummer Boy” is no match for “Tu scendi dalle stelle.” For one thing, the Italian carol was written by St. Alphonsus Liguori in 1732, while the popular American song was written in 1941by Katherine Kennicott Davis, a music teacher and classical composer.

On the other hand, there’s a depth of meaning in “The Little Drummer Boy” that helps to explain why it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers, famous from The Sound of Music and committed to sharing Christian values in song.

The story of that little boy with his drum lights up one of the many aspects of today’s great feast of the Epiphany. Certainly the Epiphany is a gem that sparkles from many different angles, including the revealing of Christ to all nations, the Magi’s gifts that symbolize a priest, a prophet and a king, and the star that shines in the world’s darkness. But in this morning’s Gospel we also find the call, the invitation, to imitate the Wise Men in bringing gifts to Christ our Lord.

We might have some trouble imagining how first-century astronomers toting gold, frankincense and myrrh can inspire and challenge us. But the little drummer boy has the answer: we give what we have. We bring to God what he has already given us.

If he has given us musical talent, we can imitate the drummer literally. If he has given us material prosperity, we can offer God our financial treasure, as one of the Kings did at Bethlehem.

But those are just the obvious gifts. The most tone-deaf Christian, the poorest Christian, has gifts fit for a King. We talk often, of course, of time, talent and treasure. This starts to sound like a slogan, yet “time, talent and treasure” represents precious gifts that everyone can offer to God in homage.

Nowadays, there’s no question what’s most precious to most of us: time. Let’s not forget that the Magi had offered their time before they presented their symbolic gifts. St. Matthew says the wise men came from the East, not the neighborhood. T.S. Eliot was on the mark when he emphasized the difficulty of the trip in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” It begins “A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year/For a journey.”

We offer Christ our precious time whenever we pray. We pay homage to him whenever we spend time with the poor, the lonely, the sick, or the inconvenient. We adore him when we find time to come early to Mass, or serve at Mass, or set up for Mass, as our sacristans do each and every day. We kneel down before the mystery of Christ when we spend time patiently teaching children the faith, either as parents, grandparents or volunteer catechists.

Like the drummer boy, we offer back to God whatever talent he has given us. Music may be the most obvious talent, but this parish community is able to worship well also because of those who decorate the House of God, inside and out, and who offer gifts of counsel and administration through service on the parish pastoral council and the finance council.

And during the month of January, we will be asking more parishioners to take on leadership roles in the parish as we review various ministries and rotate and renew our dedicated volunteer base.

Treasure may come last in our list for a reason—it can be the least difficult gift to give. However, gold is first on St. Matthew’s list—perhaps because it was the gift most fit for a king. And if gold is what we have, gold is what we can give. Great good is done by your financial generosity to the Church, to charitable works, and even to individuals you know to be in need.

Time, talent and treasure is a fine way of thinking about what we can offer God in the year ahead—to adore him, thank him, and honour him. As I’ve said, no-one lacks some gift we can lay before Jesus in homage.

But that’s not the whole story. There’s something more and something greater—two things, in fact, that are well beyond time, talent and treasure.

The first thing we can offer God is ourselves. By choosing firmly the path of sacrifice and discipleship we literally give him all we have. By offering God the daily joys and sorrows of family life, of our work, of our health, of our anxieties, we recognize him as King of our lives and the Lord of our world.

The second thing we can offer God is himself. This is the most precious offering of all. The gifts we lay before the altar are as nothing compared to the gift that’s on the altar: Christ himself, offered in the Eucharist to the Father.

The Offertory prayer at Mass today sums up this truth. We will ask God to accept the gifts of his Church, in which are offered “not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but he who by them is proclaimed, sacrificed and received, Jesus Christ.”