During homilies, I occasionally tell an amusing story to illustrate my point. I deliver a line I find particularly jocular, only to look up from my text to be greeted not by laughter but by blank stares. Crickets. The gentle sound of a baby wiggling in embarrassment.
The fact is, connecting with parishioners and delivering a good homily on a weekly basis is a huge challenge. It’s difficult even to define what a homily is. Is it a lecture? Should it arrive in a three-point format? Should it inculturate, explain original context, use a smattering of lexical analysis of Hebrew? Should it challenge or comfort?
There are many theories of homiletics, and I’ve noticed my homilies are not quite like others’. This isn’t an observation that occasions jealousy or pride: my homilies are neither better nor worse, simply different. I enjoy listening to other priests speak, and notice that each priest is unique. There are as many ways of preaching as there are priests, and I doubt there is one absolutely correct approach.
Whatever form it takes, a homily is a love letter. It is not, properly speaking, a lecture, and is not content with imparting only a single piece of knowledge. It does teach, to be sure, and a good homily will refer to the Scriptures, the Catechism and a Church dogma, or have some historical interest, but above all a good homily inspires love.
When I preach, I do so in a particular grammatical mode that is very close to a poem. Aristotle calls it the language of what might be and what ought to be. It’s a grammar of hope, a particular way of communicating that is enchanted with the idea that this world is overlapped and pierced by yet another more perfect, more beautiful world. When I speak of a mustard seed, it isn’t simply as a seed. It’s a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven.
A lamb isn’t simply a lamb. Bread isn’t simply bread. Even something as simple as water is the gateway to the mystical Body of Christ. In other words, this world is shot through with the grace of God.
When I finish writing a homily and take in the end result, it often leaves me shaken. Because of the inspiration of their original source, the words far surpass what I had intended. This is why I don’t have a well-defined theory of what a homily must be, that it absolutely must do this or must do that. After 13 years of preaching, the only thing I know is that I must honestly wrestle with and communicate the transcendent love that God pours out upon his beloved creation. If my words must spill a bit of blood to get the point across, that’s sometimes necessary. If they are comforting and gentle, that also has its place.
Unlike other stories, we know how the Gospel story ends. We’re not striking out into unknown territory in a homily so much as seeking our true home, trying to puzzle out how we make it into the shadow of the Cross and the divine embrace that awaits us there. That space in between what we want to be and what we actually are is where the friction is and where a magnificent adventure is discovered.
The scarlet thread of salvation is unpredictable, which is why I may have a conception of what I want to say when I begin writing a homily, but soon enough I’ve traipsed along some thematic boundary line long enough to encounter a fence. This fence I gladly hop to wander the next field because, of course, there is no outer limit on God’s love. This isn’t to say that a good homily meanders. It’s to say that, when searching out a theme, I typically discover it down some previously unknown byway. The homily finds me, the wisdom is God’s.
This is why writing a homily is so difficult. I don’t simply tell a sentimental story, joke around or lecture you. I must closely attend to the love poem God has written into the fabric of the universe and communicate something of that mystery. At The Catholic Thing website, James Matthew Wilson recently noted the similarity between priests and poets, writing: “The priest and poet are united in martyrdom, in their bearing witness to an order that transcends us, forms us – on the knowledge of which we rely for our wisdom and salvation.”
In the end, how is a single man expected to witness to the unspeakable glory of this heavenly order? How is he to encompass it in words? He cannot. He must become less so that he give voice to the God who is all in all. A good homily is but a gesture, a humble and fleeting attempt to point out a love beyond description.