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The Liturgy of the Word: The Homily
St. Paul teaches us that we would not have been able to believe if someone had not preached the faith to us: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14–15).
We need to know what to believe. Someone has to proclaim this Good News to us, and someone has to be sent to us. This, in a nutshell, is why we have sacred ministers and why the Liturgy of the Word often includes the preaching of a homily, something reserved in the celebration of the Eucharist to a bishop, priest, or deacon.
St. Paul also reminds us that just delivering God’s message is not enough; it needs to be understood (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:20–33). We can hear God’s Word, and listen to it, but not understand it, like that servant of Candace who needed Philip’s help to understand the book of Isaiah he was reading (cf. Acts 8:26–40).
Translating God’s word into today
The Bible’s original languages are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and many a Biblical student has lined the coffers of the makers of Tylenol learning those languages in order to understand Sacred Scripture more profoundly. Each language represents a culture, and thousands of years of salvation history are recalled in Sacred Scripture, and by authors living and writing over a period of millennia, often based on oral traditions handed along for generations.
It’s important to translate all that into English, for example, but it’s not enough if we don’t know what the Exodus meant to the Israelites, what liturgical celebrations the Jews had, whether the human author was writing in the palace of King David or languishing on the shores of Babylon in exile, who the Samaritans were, etc. It involves a study of literary critique and history. This is the work of exegesis. The homily encapsulates some exegesis in order to better understand the message the author, both Divine and human, is trying to get across.
Some situations, attitudes, and circumstances are universal to human experience; others need to be translated into today. We may not face money changers and animal vendors in the vestibule of the church, but we do face the challenge of cheapening our relationship with God or commercializing it. Our Lord can drive that out of us just as he drove those vendors out of the Temple.
The homily helps us understand the Biblical way of understanding and facing past human experiences correctly and how we can learn from them to address experiences we too are facing. The Word of God is addressed to all people of all eras, which is why a deeper understanding of it goes from letter to the spirit. God’s Word should be translated into life, and the homily helps us interpret it.
An Introduction into the celebration of the sacred mysteries
When the bishop or priest celebrating the Eucharist invites us during the Penitential Rite to “prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries” he reminds us that we are participating in a sacred mystery and need help to enter into it. The homily introduces us to some aspect of the mysteries being celebrated. That mystery is deep and multi-faceted: homilies go in many directions explaining many things because there are so many aspects to consider, but they are all united underneath in what the Church has described as the nexus mysteriorum: the nexus of faith, which if God. Homilies can teach us about the liturgical season we’re celebrating, a mystery of Christ’s life; they can teach us about the Word of God we just heard, a mystery of God’s will and love for us; they can teach us about the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the liturgical prayers of the day, and the sacraments we’re celebrating. They can take us from Heaven to earth and back.
Sometimes it’s a mystery why we’d call an occasion like a funeral a “celebration” at all, which is why an introduction into the sacred mysteries helps spark the faith, love, and hope in us that not only motivate us, but help us to see everything in the light of the mysteries of God in order to participate in them and appreciate them more profoundly.
A note of encouragement for the homiletically deprived
Any consideration of the homily should also acknowledge that not everyone receives the benefits of a good homily: the homiletically deprived are, at times, at the mercy of the homiletically depraved, or simply the homiletically challenged. Some homilies are elevated rhetorical exercises in demonstrating theological prowess that could be classified as U.F.O.’s that never come down to earth. Others are banal sprinklings of a few jokes, quips, and anecdotes that make as much lasting impact as a firework on the Fourth of July, a few showering sparks and then a wait for the next shiny thing to come along.
Don’t be shy about tactfully supporting the preacher charitably in these situations by either helping him bring that U.F.O. down to earth by asking him questions about his homily after Mass, or by sharing with him a deeper and lasting personal insight into the readings of the day that he might not have considered. We can all nourish ourselves and nourish others on the Word of God.
If you don’t feel fed, seek out one of the many good homiletic resources available: so many sacred ministers take the time to publish their homilies, either in advance or after preaching through the three Sunday Cycles of readings and the two Years of weekday readings. Pick what feeds you, and read it before Mass so that as you’re listening to the readings you can understand them more deeply. Don’t be shy about sharing whatever insights you’ve had as well. Everyone can benefit from the Word of God, especially with the help of others.