My reading this summer included Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible. It is the story of the Reverend Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher from the south who volunteers to go to the Congo to spend a year at a mission there. He takes his family, which includes his wife Oleanna and their four daughters: Rachel (age 17), Leah and Adah (twins, age 14), and Ruth May (age 5). The year is 1951. The story is mostly told from the perspectives of the four daughters, each with a unique voice.
As the narrative begins, the family arrives at the airport to depart on this venture; they find that they are limited to 44 pounds of luggage per person. This had not entered into their calculations when packing; they are 61 pounds overweight. Rev. Price, of course, walks away and leaves it up to his wife to sort out what needs to be discarded.
All things frivolous (even though necessary to the oldest girl Rachel) are cast aside, but this in no way solves the problem. Then, they remember that the 40 pounds does not apply to what they have on their person. Leah, one of the daughters, tells us, “We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home, wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half slips and camisoles, several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath and outside of everything an all-weather coat. The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor …. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God, which fortunately weighs nothing at all.”
Leah’s comment set me thinking about the word of God, and what it weighs. How does one estimate the weight of the word? Does it “weigh nothing at all”? Another Price daughter, Rachel, provides an answer when she recounts their arrival in Africa and what happens when the family is taken directly to the open-roofed church where the village has prepared a meal for them.
When all is ready, the village chief announces: “Reverend and Mrs. Price and your children. You are welcome to our feast. Today we have killed a goat to celebrate your coming,” and the women cooking the meal break into clapping, cheering and a great clamor ensues. Then, Nathan is invited to offer a word of thanks. In doing that, he serves up his own meal, choosing a text from Genesis about “the emissaries of mercy smoting the sinners who come heedless to the sight of God, heedless in their nakedness.”
As he is speaking, Nathan points to one woman at the fire, who like all of the women, is bare breasted. He then compares nakedness to the darkness of the soul, and how “God will destroy any place where the clamor of sinners has grown great before the face of the Lord ….” When he stops speaking, no one cheers or claps or sings anymore. Indeed, there is no more loud clamor.
A few women use their wraparound sarongs to cover their breasts. Some leave to go home without any supper. Nathan has served up the Word of God, a weighty word; he has provided his own meal and it is a heavy one, indigestible, in fact. It is something this preacher continues to do throughout the novel.
What, then, is the weight of the word of God? I invite you to imagine it in terms of food, the weight of a meal. God’s word weighs in as nourishment that builds up the body of believers, feeding them, responding to their hunger. While it can be both heavy and unappetizing at times, as well as one offering little more than insubstantial sound bites at others, at its best it can provide substantial sustenance for the human spirit, mind and heart.
It has the capacity to respond to the existential condition captured in the words of a contemporary troubadour, Bruce Springsteen, who has reminded us: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
The Word of God: Food to be Eaten and Digested
The Word of God as something to be eaten is dramatically imaged in the writings of two of the major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the final book of the New Testament. John McKenzie reminds us that the word was “the charisma of the prophet, as instruction in the Law was of the priest and counsel of the wise man.”
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel are given a scroll to eat. “See, I place my words in your mouth,” Jeremiah is told (1:9), and, later in the book, Jeremiah says, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; … .” (Jer 15:16; other translations have “When I found your words, I devoured them).”
Similarly, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, a voice says to the prophet, “O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel.” Ezekiel says: “Then I ate it and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey” (Ezk 3:1-3).
And, in the New Testament, the seer John in the book of Revelation is told to go and take a scroll from the angel’s hand and “take and eat” (Rev 10:8f). Here the prophet finds it sweet in the mouth, but sour in the stomach. All three prophets spoke at times of great upheaval; each was called to digest the word of God into their very being before they spoke and acted.
When we think about Jesus, two of the activities He is most frequently presented as engaging in are preaching the word of God and eating. And the two are intimately related: His eating with others is itself a proclamation, just as His proclamation is a form of nourishment. Jesus, who came proclaiming the Kingdom of God in the Synoptic tradition, and who is presented as the Word made flesh in the Fourth Gospel, especially grips our imagination in His connection with food, both as a consumer and as a provider.
Again and again, the gospels remind us how much Jesus loved to eat and to share food with others. The question, “Why does he eat with sinners?” usually draws attention to the company Jesus keeps, but equally significant is the activity: He eats with sinners and tax collectors.
There wasn’t anyone He wouldn’t eat with: from Simon the Pharisee to Martha, Mary and Lazarus, to Matthew and Zaccheus, both tax collectors and collaborators with the Roman authorities, to the Twelve, and to a multitude of five thousand on one occasion and four thousand on another. One of His last actions was to share a meal with His intimates, including the one who would betray Him.
The only miracle found in all four gospels, Nathan Mitchell points out, is one involving food. Jesus fed the hungry multitude. And we hear about it six times, twice in Mark and Matthew, once in Luke and John. In Matthew and Mark, He first feeds a multitude of Jews, then a multitude of Gentiles.
But the significance is more than an abundant meal from scant resources, more even than a gesture of compassion and care for a multitude of tired and hungry strangers. Most often when we think of these occasions, we focus on how He took, blessed, broke and then gave the food to the disciples to distribute (in John, Jesus Himself gives it out). Thus, the link between this event and the Last Supper and then to our own gathering around the table of the Eucharist receives the emphasis.
Or, in this day of great famines throughout the world, we can hear in this narrative the imperative to feed any and all who hunger; Jesus’ concern that “the people have no food” challenges us when viewing scenes of starvation in Africa, Latin America, Asia, as well as those who hunger in our own country. His turning to the disciples and saying, “You feed them” speaks straight to our hearts and calls us to action. But there is yet another way to hear this story: Jesus Himself is bread given to and for us.
In the Gospel of Mark, after the second account of feeding the four thousand (Mk 8:1-8) followed by His refusal to give a sign to the Pharisees, Jesus gets into a boat. Mark says, “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (8:14). What does this statement mean? Isn’t it a contradiction? What is this “one loaf” that Mark refers to?
Jesus goes on to speak of the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod, but the disciples do not understand. They think He is upset because they do not have any bread. Jesus grows impatient, questioning them about the fragments left over, how many were there in each instance. Finally, in frustration, asking, “Do you not yet understand?” They do not understand that they do have bread; the one loaf that is in the boat with them, Jesus.
The fourth gospel makes the link even more clearly when it presents Jesus the Word made flesh, the revelation of the Father, as the bread come down from heaven.
In the bread of life discourse: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal” (6:27). “Very truly, I tell you it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (32-33). “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (35).
Jesus as Word, as the revelation of the Father, is our food. We are to eat the bread of Jesus, the Word of God, that we might have eternal life, along with the bread that is the flesh of the Son of Man.
From the early centuries, the nourishing power of God’s Word in the Scriptures has been recognized. The tradition of lectio divina, the slow deliberate reading of the Word of God, has been rediscovered in our own day by both preachers and listeners as a way of feeding on the word.
The language of lectio is the vocabulary of gastronomy: to savor, taste, consume, digest, and even ruminate and belch. Abba Anthony of the desert advised regarding the Word of God that we should be like camels rather than horses, slowly chewing the food of the word, returning to what has been partially digested for further chewing.
Jerome compared reading the Scriptures with eating the Eucharist when he stated about the Church Fathers: “They consumed the Word like the Eucharistic bread and wine, and the Word offered itself to them with the profundity of Christ.” And, again, “I believe that the Gospel is the body of Christ … and the Scriptures, the divine doctrine, are truly the body and blood of Christ.”
Not only the preacher feeding on the Scriptures concerns us, but also the community being fed when all gather to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Eating at two tables is integral to worship and a reminder of one of the ongoing identifying marks of the community established in Jesus’ name.
“The Church is nourished spiritually at the table of God’s word and at the table of the Eucharist: from the one it grows in wisdom and from the other in holiness. In the word of God the divine covenant is announced; in the Eucharist, the new and everlasting covenant is renewed. The spoken word of God brings to mind the history of salvation: the Eucharist embodies it in the sacramental signs of the liturgy” (Introduction to the Lectionary, #10). Two tables, both necessary sources of sustenance; one act of worship.
Such sustenance includes the homily. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal refers to the homily as “a necessary source of nourishment for the Christian life” (41). Thus we are led to consider it as food, and to ask, “What kind of food is it? And what is being fed?”
Since the word homily was restored to ordinary Catholic vocabulary by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), various understandings of this form of preaching can be found in official and other writings. I would propose that our present understanding of this form of preaching is still a work in progress. I further propose that there have been two phases of understanding the homily thus far and would like to suggest that it is time for a third phase less comprehensive than the first but more expansive than the second. Before considering a possible third phase, let us briefly review the first two.
The first phase of understanding the homily would extend from the time of the Second Vatican Council with its promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963 until 1982. This initial phase can be seen as one that approached the homily as a form of preaching that served almost all of preaching’s purposes.
Let us begin with the paragraph in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy where the word “homily” was first reintroduced to common usage: “… by means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year” (#52).
What is notable here is the close relationship between this statement and the understanding of the preacher’s task articulated at the Council of Trent, fifth session, when the Council fathers called on preachers “to provide their people with wholesome words in proportion to their own and their peoples’ capacity, by teaching them the things that are necessary for all to know in order to be saved, and by impressing upon them with briefness and plainness of speech the vices that they must avoid and the virtues that they must cultivate, in order to escape eternal punishment and obtain heaven’s glory” (italics mine).
Trent’s emphasis on the teaching of things necessary for salvation and encouraging a life of virtue re-echoes Vatican II’s expounding of the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life, the notable difference being the explicit role attributed to the “sacred text” as the source of this homily in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
Earlier in this document, however, a new emphasis is introduced when speaking of liturgical preaching, even though this is done while employing the term “sermon”; in this case we hear a kerygmatic emphasis. Para 36, 2 states “the primary source of the sermon … should be scripture and liturgy, for in them is found the proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ ever made present and active in us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy” (35,2).
Thus, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy we find that liturgical preaching is seen as both proclamation of the kergyma, what God has done throughout salvation history, most notably in the Christ event, and as offering catechesis of saving mysteries and guiding principles. In both cases, the primary source for preaching should be the biblical and liturgical texts.
In the 1975 apostolic exhortation, On Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI also emphasizes the role of the homily as “an important and very adaptable instrument of evangelization” (#43). In this document, the Pope gives special emphasis to the impact of a Christian life as a form of witness, observing that the modern person “listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he (sic) does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (#41).
Thus, an additional note of the homily as a form of evangelizing witness “to the extent that it expresses the profound faith of the minister and is impregnated with love” (43) enters the homiletic portrait. Four years later in 1979, John Paul II returns to a catechetical emphasis in his apostolic exhortation, On Catechesis in Our Time (Catechesi tradendae), when he says: “… one can say that catechetical teaching too finds its source and fulfillment in the Eucharist, within the whole circle of the liturgical year. Preaching, centered upon the Bible texts, must then in its own way make it possible to familiarize the faithful with the whole of the mysteries of the faith and the norms of Christian living” (48).
In this first phase extending from 1963 until 1980, the liturgical homily as a necessary source of nourishment serves to evangelize, to catechize and to witness to God’s people. The homily, then, finds its fulfillment in providing the faithful with a substantial meal, offering every form of nourishment to be found in preaching’s storeroom.
The second phase began with the publication in 1982 of the USCC-NCCB document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly (FIYH). From the outset, it must be acknowledged that this document does not have the weight of one put out by a Council or a Synod; it is not an apostolic exhortation of the Pope, nor even a statement put forth by the Congregation of the Faith (with or without a formal interview.) It was produced by the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.
And what it does have is the weight of pastoral insight and experience, the result of the collaboration of bishops, homiletics professors, biblical scholars and other interested parties. In the understanding of the homily offered in this document, a more modest goal is established, or one might say, a more restricted diet, less a banquet, more a dinner with a smaller gathering of family in mind, in this case a particular faith community.
The document offers this understanding of a homily: “a scriptural interpretation of human existence which enables a community to recognize God’s active presence, to respond to that presence in faith through liturgical word and gesture, and beyond the liturgical assembly, through a life lived in conformity with the Gospel” (29).
What is the nature of the homily here? To interpret life, the life of a particular community of believers, and to do this through the biblical texts, employing these texts as a lens on life and offering a faith vision that can unite the community. And the reason for doing this: to enable a community to do two things: to recognize God’s active presence in their midst, and then to give thanks and praise in this Eucharist and to live a life in line with the Gospel.
This document explicitly recognizes that the liturgical homily cannot do everything that preaching needs to do: “It may well include evangelization, catechesis, and exhortation, but its primary purpose is to be found in the fact that it is, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, ‘a part of the liturgy itself’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #52)” (17); further on it adds that “even though the liturgical homily can incorporate instruction and exhortation, it will not be able to carry the whole weight of the church’s preaching” (26). Special times and occasions have to be provided for such necessary forms of preaching as pre evangelization, evangelization, and catechesis.
The second part of this document’s title also makes it clear that this document has restricted itself to reflecting on “the homily in the Sunday assembly.” During the Sunday celebrations of the paschal mystery, the homily aims to offer nourishment towards a particular end, addressing “a people hungry, sometimes desperately so, for meaning in their lives. For a time, they may find meaning in their jobs, their families and friends, their political or social causes. All these concerns, good and valid as they are, fall short of providing ultimate meaning. Without ultimate meaning, our lives are ultimately unsatisfied. If we are able to hear a word which gives our lives another level of meaning, which interprets them in relation to God, then our response is to turn to this source of meaning in an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.”
The preacher, then, is a mediator of meaning. The nature and task of the homily in this document has a restricted focus: to feed the human hunger for meaning by offering a scriptural interpretation of human existence. Such preaching enables celebration of Eucharist.
The combined impact of the General Instruction’s referring to the homily as “a necessary source of nourishment” and FIYH’s vision of the homily as “feeding the hunger for meaning” has raised several questions in relation to the worship of the community in other settings, such as the great feasts of the Lord, the feasts of the saints and Mary, and the ritual celebrations of sacraments other than the Eucharist, including the funeral rites.
Do these have the same end in mind? Is the hunger for meaning the only hunger to be addressed? I would propose that there are at least three hungers to which the liturgical homily can respond, and offer some reflection on each.
Part II: Liturgical Preaching and the Hungers of the Heart
a. The hunger for wholeness and the great feasts of the Lord
The hunger for wholeness is the most basic hunger of the human person, arising out of an awareness rooted in the core of our being that we are unfinished, imperfect, broken, fragmented, and on those occasions of blinding honesty, still sinful after all these years.
The noted sociologist Robert Bellah has written of “incomplete persons” and “porous institutions,” the former in constant search for what will fulfill them and bring inner peace, the latter – represented by marriage, work and religion – institutions that no longer appear able to contain and support members of society in any lasting manner. The contemporary experience speaks more of a failure to find the perfect in any form.
Even so, we have Jesus’ command, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Essayist and poet Kathleen Norris comments that Jesus’ call, “Be perfect …,” contains good news despite that scary word “perfect.” It is more a scary translation, for at the heart of the call to perfection is a prophetic word that promises we can be whole, complete, achieve a condition of full-ness.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for holiness (another word for wholeness), they shall have their fill” (Matt 5: 6), promises Jesus. This is a goal for all according to both the witness of Scripture and our liturgical prayer. “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May you be preserved whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” writes Paul to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:23).
We pray during Advent, “Lord, free us from our sins and make us whole …” (Mon, 2nd Week of Advent). And, again, as we begin Lent, “Lord, may everything we do begin with your inspiration, continue with your help, and reach perfection under your guidance (Thursday after Ash Wednesday). Pious piffle or practical prayers?
How is this hunger for wholeness to be engaged in preaching? Charles Rice, professor of homiletics at Drew University, in Preaching the Story (1980), has written: “Most people try to connect their smaller stories with a larger one. It is the same in the church. At our baptism, we enter into a story, a very large one; call it The Story …. Our stories merge with The Story .…”
It is this story that offers even now some degree of fullness, as it is absorbed into the skin, feelings and brain cells of our being, and as it is lived out in ritual and the routine of our days. This awareness was captured more obliquely by the spontaneous remark of the 10-year-old daughter of a friend, mother and daughter both Jewish, when daughter came into a Roman Catholic retreat center in upstate New York, and saw the very large crucifix located in the center of our first floor corridor. It was the first time she had ever seen one, and her response was: “What an interesting sculpture! I bet that has a story behind it.”
Through the preaching on the great feasts, what we call the solemnities of the Lord – most notably, Christmas and Easter – believers are brought again and again to the story that makes them whole. On the great feasts, the central events of The Story are set before the community in narrative and image, proclamation and instruction, hymn and acclamation, symbol and ritual, to be entered, engaged, enfolded into the community consciousness, and given external expression in celebration.
Liturgical scholar Robert Taft asks, “what are we doing when we celebrate a Christian feast?” What is the relationship between a past unrepeatable act, like the birth of Jesus, His suffering, death, and resurrection, the ascension and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit, and the present celebration that takes place among us two millennia later?
Taft responds that the liturgical celebration allows us to overcome the separation in time and space from that once-and-for all event, so that “the salvation manifested in the past lives on now as an active force in our lives, if we encounter it anew and respond to it in faith.” Liturgy is the place where the community remembers and, in remembering the reality initiated by this past event, that very reality of salvation becomes present now. Salvation, the fullness of life, is present in our midst.
Preaching is pivotal in this transaction. The preacher’s task is to both announce and draw the community into the salvific event made present through word and symbol, enabling the community to enter into a particular moment of the Story of our salvation in Christ that is the focus of this liturgical celebration – Holy Thursday, Easter Sunday, Pentecost, Christmas, Epiphany.
First announced by the scripture readings and given further articulation and amplification in the liturgical prayers, it is through preaching that these events can be imaginatively re-presented, re-viewed, and then re-appropriated by the community.
Mark Searle has written: “The texts of Scripture and images of liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the ‘Reality’ of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought, (at least not immediately), but to mediate encounter.”
When such an encounter has occurred between the community and the Mystery being celebrated, the individual and communal response from engaged minds and hearts will lead the community from liturgy to life, from fragmentation to fullness, and from a condition of separation to a celebration of wholeness.
Theologian Robert Barron speaks of the priest as a mystagogue, a bearer of Mystery; this is also most appropriate when considering the preacher’s goal on the great feasts: “The primary function of the bearer of Mystery is to hold up to the people of God the great images, stories and pictures of salvation that lie at the heart of the Christian tradition …. The mystagogical artist, in image, symbol, and story, presents the truth that is God’s love in Christ and draws the worshipping community to share in it.” The movement is into the truth of the Mystery, a truth that makes us both free and whole.
This first and most basic hunger for wholeness is both stimulated and, to some degree, partially satisfied on these great feasts. The flood of people who continue to come on these occasions hints at something important that is being met or at least aroused. When the celebration has realized some of its potential, it brings a community to a state of fullness, of satisfaction – of enough-ness, at least for the moment.
Perhaps similar to the response the poet Jessica Powers gives witness to in her poem, “At Evening with a Child”:
We walk along a road
At the day’s end, a little child and I,
And she points out a bird, a tree, a toad,
A stretch of colored sky.
She knows no single word,
But “Ah” (with which all poems must commence,
At least in the heart’s heart), and I am stirred
By her glad eloquence.
When the preaching within our celebrations helps bring us to a state of Ah – as in Ah-doration, a state of readiness to give thanks and praise, a state of awareness of our nearness to Mystery, then we have provided a taste of the wholeness for which we hunger.
b. The hunger for meaning and the sacramental rites
This second hunger, already named in Fulfilled in Your Hearing, can be extended to the other ritual celebrations. The hunger for meaning arises out of the human desire for life to make sense, the yearning to understand the significance of what has happened.
Holocaust witness Elie Wiesel acknowledged the important role this hunger has had in his life. In an interview he recalled how during WWII, when he was a child, he was always asking himself about the meaning of events, always asking. “What is happening here? The flames, what is the meaning of the flames?” He then said, “That is actually a Talmudic question. In the Talmud, it is called mai ka mashma lan: ‘What does it mean?’ You hear a text, you read a text, and you must ask, ‘What does it mean to us?’ From my childhood on I was asking this question.”
Meaning often does not come easily. Sometimes it eludes us completely. T.S. Eliot wrote, “We had the experience but missed the meaning?” Still, something in us continues to seek it. FIYH affirms this when it says, “Without ultimate meaning, we are ultimately unsatisfied.” And, so, the preacher seeks to provide some satisfaction of this hunger for meaning, when the community gathers for Sunday Eucharist.
While Sunday preaching allows for a broad focus on human existence, the other sacraments look to particular occasions in our lives, events that carry great weight for the individuals directly concerned, but also for the community to which they belong and who gathers to support them in faith. I like the novelist Andre Dubus’ statement: “A sacrament is physical and within it is God’s love.”
Sacraments and their rites are physical; they are about bodies – the human body, first of all, with a particular need. In the rites the body is washed, fed, anointed; the body is joined with another so two become one, it is prayed over for healing, and it is laid to rest. In the rites the body is touched, hands are sometimes imposed on the body – all done with reverence and love and honor and respect.
Sacraments are also about the body of creation, dealing with such simple stuff as water and oil, bread and wine, white garments and bands of gold, created matter that itself becomes touched by the power of the dying and rising of Christ, and the creative breath of the Spirit; and this stuff becomes part of the body of a new creation mediating the love of a gracious God. “A sacrament is physical and within it is God’s love.”
In presiding and performing these sacramental rites, a word is needed to offer meaning, a way of seeing and understanding what we are about, what we are doing to the human body with the matter of creation. In this endeavor, the preacher enters into the sphere of the artist. In his recent article “The Apologetics of Beauty,” Andrew Greeley argues that beauty is the most powerful appeal of Catholicism, both to its own members and to others.
And it is the artists who “see more clearly than the rest of us. They penetrate into the illumination of being more intimately than do the rest of us. They want us to see what they see so that we can share in their illumination. They are driven to duplicate that beauty in their work …. The artist is a sacrament maker, a creator of emphasized, clarified beauty designed to make us see. Artists invite us into the world they see so that we can go forth from that world enchanted by the luminosity of their work and with enhanced awareness of the possibilities of life.” (11)
The preacher participates in the work of being a “sacrament maker,” constructing a homily as a bridge of meaning for the community that allows the Mystery of God in Christ to cross over and penetrate their being at a particular moment in life. Words announce and effect transformative encounters with Christ. It is Christ who feeds the community’s hunger for meaning when it is facing events of profound joy and deep grief, moments of gain and loss, and experiences of dying and rising.
It is words, the words of Christ and words about Christ, that provide a way of understanding in faith the key experiences of life: committing oneself in love, bringing new life into the world, sinning against God and others and being forgiven, falling sick, and having death snatch a loved one from us.
And so we turn to the images and stories of the Scriptures, holding up what happened then to understand what is happening now: this day Jesus picks up a child, blesses and claims it for the reign of God, embracing the child and handing it back to our care; this day Jesus once again lays hands on someone sick, or on someone imprisoned by evil, and raises them up in faith, strengthened, freed; this day Jesus feeds the multitude so they will not falter on the journey; this day Jesus again attends a wedding and begins the transformation of the ordinary water of human love into the aged wine of the human love interpenetrated by the divine; and this day Jesus calls us to resurrection faith and eschatological hope: “I am the resurrection and the life, do you believe this … I am going to prepare a place for you, that where I am you too shall be.”
On the great feasts of the liturgical calendar, our words bring the community into the key moments of Jesus’ story, allowing the salvific power these events inaugurated to become present once again; during the celebrations of the sacraments, our words bring the Jesus story to the key moments of our personal lives, allowing these human events to be transformed by this same salvific power of the Paschal Mystery.
“What does this mean?” the community asks. This birth, this wedding, this sickness, this downward pull into the abyss of sin, this dying – what does it mean? And we struggle to speak a word that announces all meaning is located in the person of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, and finally, preaching on these occasions can expand the sacramental imagination of the community so that everyone begins to see all of creation as symbol of the creating, redeeming and sanctifying Triune God. Denise Levertov left us a poem that captured one such moment of sacramental awareness occurring at the end of the day:
“Peace be upon each thing my eye takes in
Upon each thing my mouth takes in.”
The pleated lampshade, slightly askew,
dust a silverish muting of the lamp’s fake brass.
My sock-monkey on the pillow, tail and limbs asprawl,
weary after a day of watching sunlight
prowl the house like a wolf.
Gleams of water in my bedside glass.
Miraculous water, so peacefully
waiting to be consumed.
The day’s crowding arrived
at this abundant stillness. Each thing
given to the eye before sleep, and water
at my lips before darkness. Gift after gift.
The gift of meaning that the preacher offers ultimately comes down to this awareness: that all is gift, all is grace, all is given for the good of all in and through Jesus Christ. Sacramental awareness leads to this life-giving recognition that all is sacrament, all holy, all sacred. No wonder we have such hunger when we do not recognize this and pass by the bread so often present on so many tables within our reach.
c. The hunger for belonging and the celebration of the sanctoral feasts
When the 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) spoke of the saints, it declared that “it is most fitting that we love those friends and co-heirs of Jesus Christ who are also our sisters and brothers and outstanding benefactors, and that we give due thanks to God for them” (#50).
A few years later, however, in 1971, Karl Rahner compared the response of contemporary Catholics to this call to honor the saints to a young man listening to a mother sing the praises of her daughter, hoping her words will move the young man to consider the daughter a worthy candidate for marriage. Rahner commented that while the young man “hears the message and does not dispute its accuracy, yet no love is aroused in him. The fact that the girl is worthy of love does not mean that there is any corresponding ability to love on the part of the young man.”
Almost 20 years later, in 1990, David Power wrote in a similar vein that “in the Catholic Church at present, devotion to the saints seems to be at a point where people are asking what is it all about … there seems to be considerable uncertainty about the meaning of devotion to the saints and about the place which their commemoration ought to have on the liturgical calendar.”
The inability of Catholics to relate to the saints during that time span could be traced to a number of factors: the tradition of hagiography that made these men and women seem unreal, at too great a distance from the struggles of contemporary believers, people from another world if not another planet; then there is the preponderance of males over females, Europeans over all other members of the world community, bishops, priests, and religious – all celibates – to those in the married and single state. Finally, there seemed to be a general disinterest to any form of devotions that inserted unnecessary middle men or women between the believer and Jesus.
But recently, there seems to have been a change, perhaps even a revival of interest. Butler’s 12-volume Lives of the Saints has been revised and reissued; works like Robert Ellsburg’s All Saints with its choice of 365 men and women chosen from all faith traditions (and a few from none), Joan Chittister’s A Passion for Life offering saints as “fragments of the face of God,” Paul Elie’s A Tremor of Bliss with contemporary writers offering reflections on a favorite saint, Sr. Wendy Beckett’s The Mystery of Love providing commentary on the saints as portrayed in art through the centuries, and John Fink’s Married Saints – all have appeared in the last few years, with some showing up at the local Crown Books and Brentano’s.
The saints are back, are “in,” even controversial – consider the response to the recent beatification of Pio NoNo. They have returned, but with a difference.
Elizabeth Johnson retrieves the symbol of the communion of the saints, presenting them as “friends of God and prophets”; they are our partners in a community of disciples marked by mutual regard, embodiments of God’s wisdom which is ever active in the world, passing into holy souls and making them God’s friends and our companions. Rather than approaching them as patrons, necessary intermediaries for obtaining the ear and favors of a distant divinity, they serve as companions on the journey to God, former participants and present supporters in our building up the kingdom of God on earth, co-celebrants in our ongoing worship of God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Johnson writes: “The creedal symbol of the communion of saints expresses the understanding that a community of faithful God-seekers exists around the earth and across time itself, through the life-giving communion of Spirit-Sophia who forever weaves links of kinship throughout the world.”
Given the shift in appreciation, what does this have to do with feeding the hungers of the heart, particularly the hunger for belonging? Not too long ago, an article in the Washington Post by Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist, noted that, “The disease of our day is loneliness.” People feel disconnected, not only from others at work but even in the intimacy of the home. There is no easy solution to this, of course, but one of the tasks of the preacher is to facilitate a growth in community, to deepen the bonds between believers. This is especially appropriate during the celebration of the Eucharist.
The feasts of the saints are opportune occasions that allow for a deepening sense of community and connectedness. When we think of our role as preachers on the feast days, theologian Michael Himes suggested we think of ourselves as hosts at a cocktail party, welcoming people and making introductions. Today, the community can meet Abbot Anthony of the desert, a few months from now, Perpetua and Felicity, later in the year Teresa of Avila, Isaac Jogues and his company, Andrew Kim, Lorenzo Ruiz, Angela Merici, Katherine Drexel, Kateri Tekawitha.
I would modify Himes’ image of a host slightly, changing the venue from a cocktail party to an ongoing family reunion, introducing members of the local clan to those family members that had moved away, been lost track of, or with whom we never really seemed to have much in common – consider Rose of Lima! Or that scourge of the desert, Jerome. Can a link be forged? A contact made?
The vision of the Letter to the Ephesians is helpful here. The Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says this letter can be imagined as a four-tiered fountain: the top tier containing the glory of God spills over into the glory of Christ, the glory of Christ flows down into the glory of the Church, and the glory of the Church splashes over all creation.
This awesome vision embraces God, Christ, the saints of the church – all who have and presently live in Christ, and all creation. Such a vision might help to answer Robert Bellah’s recent complaint: “Just when we are in many ways moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.”
Preaching on the feasts of the saints allows us to image such a broader communal and social tapestry: the communion of the saints, embracing all present and all who have gone before, connecting us with that cloud of witnesses that stands with us both in prayerful support and loving solidarity.
They do not speak to us only of themselves and their achievements but exist for us as what Herman Wegmann has called, “le continue biographie du Christ.” In the saints we see the continuing story of Jesus Christ, and their voices encourage us to look to Christ as they did in their day. They also challenge us to be as innovative in our time as they were in theirs.
Robert Ellsberg reminds us that these men and women were “originals,” were often bold experimenters in their own time, reformers, on the cutting edge in a way that challenged both society and the Church. Athanasius stood alone in opposition to virtually all his fellow bishops on the question of Arianism; Augustine went up against all the trendy philosophical and theological currents of his day – Manicheeism, Donatism and Pelagianism; Thomas Aquinas’ work was comprehensive and looked on with suspicion; Joan of Arc – well, no need to talk about where Joan’s involvement in politics got her; Catherine of Siena confronted the pope, calling him to leave the comforts of Avignon and return to Rome; Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were investigated by the Inquisition – as were Ignatius of Loyola, Philip Neri; Alphonsus De Liguori was accused of laxity in his approach to moral theology.
A recent work, Woman Saints, by Kathleen Jones proposes a new category of saint represented by such women as Mary Ward in the 17th century and Bl. Mary MacKillop in the 18th: both could be classified as slow martyrs at the hands of Church authority.
Introducing the saints already included in the sanctoral cycle of the liturgical calendar is not enough. Ellsberg brings out how rich the past has been with so many saints that were never canonized. Leonardo Boff has spoken of the need for “political saints.” For him the history of the saints presents “few or almost no saints who achieved the synthesis between the mystical and the political as they are understood today. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bernardine of Siena, St. Vincent (de Paul) and a few others had an attitude which in our judgment was more one of offering help than of liberating …. The great challenge of our times: to create militants with a truly political holiness.”
Can we find them in such contemporary martyrs as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Jagerstatter, Oscar Romero, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, the Jesuits of the University of El Salvador, the housekeeper Rosa and her daughter? Can we hear them speaking to us in such prophetic voices as those belonging to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, William Stringfellow, Thomas Merton, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Mother Teresa, to name a few? Can we even discover some Doctors of the Church from our own age, among whom could be considered Karl Rahner, Pierre De Chardin, Henri Nouwen and …?
The Greeks looked on the mythical figure of Hermes as the god of the journey, of the intersection where roads cross; he was the friendliest of all gods, meeting people as they wandered, walking with them as a good companion. This role is not to be surrendered to myth alone, but it is amply filled by these men and women of our faith tradition who walk with us on the way and stand with us when we celebrate Eucharist.
John Shea envisions the saints in their present role in our lives in his poem, “Friends in High Places.” He begins by offering some familiar stained-glass representations: the pious nun deep in prayer, the devout young man holding a lily, the lofty queen doling out bread to a hungry beggar, the courageous slayer of dragons; but then he calls us to look more closely:
When did we notice —
The feet of the candle-like nun danced on the earth
while the flame danced on her head
There was a vein bulging in the neck of the young man
and his steeple fingers choked the stem of the lily,
The fear-bitten lip of the knight who realized the dragon was devouring his lance,
The queen was as angry to give as the beggar was to receive,
The monk’s eyes were wide with wonder and the pen trembled in his hand?
When did their faces, too long made pretty by piety, begin to wrinkle and twitch?
When did their voices, too long psalm-toned, begin to laugh and rant?
When did we know they were brothers to our burdens and sisters to our strivings
and could no longer parade as patrons of our fears, intercessors to our interests?
When did they climb down from their stain-glassed glory, scramble through the pews, lift the processional cross and make for the door
—pausing only long enough to smile and wave at us to join them?
The mention of the saints must also include one above all others who occupies a place at the heart of the Church’s life: she who knew most intimately the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within her and carried the Word to full term in her body and gave Him to the world: Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of the Lord, mother of God. Again we find a renewed interest in her that I shall comment on more specifically tomorrow.
I have presented three hungers of the human heart and three opportunities to respond to them in the various liturgical contexts we enter throughout the church year. To feed these hungers, a preacher must also have a hunger.
In Redemptoris Missio (#40.3), Pope John Paul wrote, “all who believe in Christ should feel as an integral part of their faith, an apostolic concern to pass on to others its light and joy. This concern must become, as it were, a hunger and thirst to make the Lord known ….” Again, in his letter to priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis (#28), he also wrote, “It is undeniable that the priest’s life is fully taken up by the hunger for the Gospel and for faith, hope and love for God and his mystery, a hunger which is more or less consciously present in the people of God entrusted to him.”
The preacher must have “a hunger to make the Lord known” and live a life that “is fully taken up by the hunger for the Gospel.” It is not that this hunger is ever satisfied – not on this side of the grave, neither for us nor for our people. The Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that this is beyond our ability when she writes:
Our duty is not to end the human hunger and thirst for God’s word but to intensify it, until the whole world bangs its forks for God’s food. That is what the famine is for, according to scripture. That is why God has hidden God’s face: to increase our sense of loss until we are so hungry and lonely for God that we do something about it – not only one by one but also as a people who are once again ready to leave our fleshpots in search of real food. Whatever preachers serve on Sunday, it must not blunt the appetite for this food. If people go away from us full, then we have done them a disservice. What we serve is not supposed to satisfy. It is food for the journey. It is meant to tantalize, to send people out our doors with a taste for what they cannot find in our kitchens. When they find it, they understand why we did not say more about it than we did. It was not that we didn’t. It was that we couldn’t.
The hungers of the heart are life-long. Occasionally met. Seldom more than partially satisfied. But perhaps that is as it should be, or must be. Some nourishment needs to be given on the journey, lest the people falter, wander off, lose their way, and lose heart.
And so we preachers struggle to speak, in season and out season; we strive to set the table of the word, to offer nourishment, substantial or meager. But, at the very least, to offer something. And on those occasions when something savory is set forth, we get a taste of that day to come when we shall all gather at the table in the kingdom, to sit, sup and be satisfied forever.
- (True, one finds a reference to “the usual homily” in the 1918 Code of Canon Law #1344, but for Roman Catholics preaching during Mass has been long identified as the sermon.) ↵