Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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The risks of preaching
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Jan. 13, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
Prior to 1967 and the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council, bishops, priests and deacons wore a vestment around their left forearm that was called the maniple. It looked like a towel over the arm, similar to what one might see over the arm of a waiter in a restaurant. In fact it did serve as a towel in its origins, but over the centuries ceased to be used, and became just a symbol whose meaning gradually became unimportant for the liturgy. The priest would remove this sacred vestment before he preached. He would also begin and end the preaching with the Sign of the Cross. Both actions served to indicate that the sermon was not really a part of the liturgy. Indeed, the topic of the sermon might be totally unrelated to the Scriptural texts of the day.
Happily, Vatican II would change all that. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy would describe liturgical preaching (now more properly called the homily) as “a part of the liturgy itself.” The homily is based on the Biblical readings of the day, or even on the non-Scriptural texts of the liturgy. The homily attempts to take words addressed to people in Biblical times and re-address those words to the people of today, to make the message of the ancient words alive and nourishing for the people of the 21st century. As the United States Bishops tell us, “the purpose of the homily “is not conversion from radical unbelief to belief. A homily presupposes faith. Nor does the homily primarily concern itself with a systematic theological understanding of the faith. The liturgical gathering is not primarily an educational assembly. Rather the homily is preached in order that a community of believers who have gathered to celebrate the liturgy may do so more deeply and more fully – more faithfully – and thus be formed for Christian witness in the world.”
The hoped-for results of the homily are that the preacher unfolds the meaning of the Scriptures for people, invites and challenges them to embrace that meaning in their own lives and circumstances, so that they might more profoundly lift up their hearts in praise and thanksgiving in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, strengthened in their resolve to go forth “to love and serve the Lord.” Preaching, like all of liturgy, is about the paschal mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus so that we might die to our old selves to be gradually changed into a new creation. Preaching, in other words, is about conversion and transformation.
Because it is about conversion, about the seeking after peace and justice, liturgical preaching may have a bite to it, taking us to places where we may not want to go. Some Catholics are indignant should a homily mention contentious political issues (involvement in immoral wars, the evil of abortion and capital punishment, our citizenry’s obsession with gun ownership, avoiding “every sign of unjust discrimination” toward gay and lesbian persons, our greedy disrespect for forests and natural resources, etc.). The preacher who will not risk people’s comfort is not telling the whole Gospel story. One thinks of the model preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, preaching in the synagogue, telling his audience that the reading of the day from Isaiah the prophet was being fulfilled, right now, in the person of Jesus himself! His preaching stirred things up, so that the people took him to the edge of town, “intending to hurl him over the cliff.” That’s risky preaching.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)