Applying Some Thoughts on Preaching

The Transfiguration, by Rafael (1580-20).

Following my article, “Some Thoughts on Preaching” (March 13, 2015), I received an invitation from the editor to prepare homily notes for September 2015. This essay is not a “homily notes” example, but an example of assembling one’s thoughts as one moves to the Sunday homiletics, as well as indications about mobility in presentation. To this end, I use the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, as these serve as a striking example: Gen 15:5-12,17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 9:28b-36. That Sunday each year treats the Transfiguration. In this presentation, I focus on only one aspect of that tremendous event. I do not try to explicate all the lead points that I made in my article, “Some Thoughts on Preaching.”

A Very Direct Address to One’s Hearers
Generating a sense of the moment is important. So I would intend to open with something like, “Well, you’ve all heard the readings. But without a text before you, these can simply ‘pass by’ without the content being really grabbed.” Then, with scanning the congregation, “So, I am not going to quiz you, but I’d like you to try to think, ‘What is the big message, the key word, of the Gospel just read’.” Then give a pause.

Key Word or Words
Then move on to something like: “The portion of the Gospel, according to St. Luke, that recounts the Transfiguration experience is a complex text, with lots of themes that I cannot unpackage today. The central one is this: ‘This is my chosen Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him’ (Lk 9:35). I want you to hear the word, Son. This is the essential message.”

“Both the Gospel according to St. Matthew, and the Gospel according to St. Luke, draw heavily on St. Mark. Unlike them, Mark does not start off with a Conception and/or a Nativity. Just recall how Matthew opens his Gospel: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham’ (Mt 1:1, Lk 3:32). Hear that word, Son.”

Links and Context of Lectionary Readings
This sets the scene for drawing the readings together. In this case, I leave the Epistle aside until there has been more development of my theme, and move to the Old Testament reading. Again, a direct questioning of the congregation, but without giving them the unease that someone will need to answer, or giving the extroverted the opportunity to speak up! And continue with something like: “Now recall the Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis. In this year’s reading the key word is not as direct as “son,” but is “descendants” (Gn 15:18); and this word is heard in the context of vicarious sacrifice that at sunset is consumed by fire (Gn 15:17). In the reading that occurred last year (Year B), the sacrifice was an “only son” (Gn 22:12b). Reading across texts, on this occasion, we should hear the only son as a refrain, because the resonance of that is even stronger than chosen son – because Jesus is the only Son of God; yes, the beloved only Son of God.” I would then continue with something like: “So the reach between this Old Testament text and the Gospel text  is especially strong, because here we have the evangelist’s re-presentation of an epiphany of the Person of Jesus that, in our Lectionary, is set alongside the story of sacrifice initiating the covenant of descendants. Remember that the genealogies of Jesus, in both Matthew and Luke, trace the Abrahamic descent of Jesus.”

Highlighting scriptural messages that are generally not seen
This positions the homilist to make a striking comparison: “But note what unfolds in the Genesis account is animal sacrifice, vicarious sacrifice. {The preacher continues using first person language:} Nowadays we do not much use the English word, vicarious, a latinism that roughly means, “in place of.” We still hear of the Pope being named as the Vicar of Christ, and that means that his earthly governance is, in certain respects, “in place of Christ”; that is, he acts vicariously. So what we have in this Genesis account is God’s acceptance of vicarious sacrifice. Now, move to the Transfiguration scene. And we have not something vicarioussomething or someone in substitute. Rather, we have the chosen Son in a context of speaking of his ‘passing’ or ‘exodus’ in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31).” {Here the homilest might turn partially and, without voiced remark, point to the sanctuary crucifix.}

Regaining a Sense of Alertness with One’s Hearers
I generally preach for 20 minutes (not the usual 10 minutes), and so punctuation with “alerts” is more important. But, whether for 8 minutes, or for 18 minutes, one needs to create a sense of depth and dimension with one’s words. I thus would continue along these lines: “But what have we heard of sacrifice in today’s portion from Luke? Well, it was not heard in today’s portion, but if you were reading the text in context, then only a few verses before the Transfiguration account, Luke has Our Lord make his ‘first prophecy of the Passion’: ‘… the Son of Man must suffer many things and be killed .’ (Lk 9:22). And then shortly after the Transfiguration episode, the ‘second prophecy of the Passion’: ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men’ (Lk 9:44). In the Lukan arrangement, the ‘third prophecy of the passion’ is separated by a recount of teaching ministry, and precedes the entry into Jerusalem: ‘…the Son of Man…will be delivered…and {the Gentiles} will kill him, and on the third day he will rise’ (Lk 18:33).”

Yet again, Try to Get a Sense of Span and of Meaning with One’s Hearers
Give a small breather in bodily movement, and a sense that “something more is coming,” and continue along these lines: “Well, the full story of ‘rising again’ will have to wait, for that is an Easter theme, and we are early in Lent. Although it is not in our lectionary portion for today, I want to tell you something about that ‘third prophecy.’ Both Matthew and Luke draw upon Mark, whose recount is tighter and more dramatic. Some translations even have the disciples ‘in a daze’ {Jerusalem Bible, Mk 10:32}. But this was not their state. Rather, they were ‘amazed’ or ‘astonished’ that Jesus should be making that journey {to Jerusalem} or they were ‘not understanding’ (Lk 18:34). They had heard the three propheciesrecall that in the Markan account, Peter had provoked Our Lord’s anger by his rejecting the first prophecy (Mk 8:32-33)and all the evangelists make clear that the drama that was unfolding before them and with them was something that they did not understand. In brief, the disciples did not understandat least did not understand deeply– what Jesus was enacting: ‘…this saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said’ (Lk 18:34). In  sparse dramatic style, Mark tells us that the disciples on the road to Jerusalem were afraid (Mk 10:32). Translations often weaken the text, but it is the same word that comes into English as ‘phobia’. The disciples were afraid.”

Prepare the Hearer for an Application to Themselves
The homilist needs to draw his hearers into the action along lines such as these: “Note that the journey is toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross. Note furthereven though the text to which I refer is not at present before youthat in the Markan account Jesus was walking ahead of them, literally, he was ‘going before them’ (Mk10:32). Now that is what was happening in the Transfiguration event. Jesusin anticipation of the tremendous trials that were aheadgives his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, a ‘forward glimpse’ of the glory of his Resurrection and Ascension, of his ultimate ‘going before them’. But here, after this epiphany on the journey toward the Cross, Jesus walks ahead of his disciples. He walks with them, yes; but he walks before them. Jesus is the Leader, they the followers. And those who are to be leaders for JesusApostlesmust be followers, followers of Jesus. I want you to hear those sublime words of Jesus: ‘Take up your cross every day and follow me’ (Lk 9:23). We right nowyou and me!are called to be witnesses to the sacrificial act of God in Christ. Weeach of usin his or her own way, is to be a leader; a leader of others to faith in the sacrifice of the chosen Son of God. We have to come to terms with the fact that we of ourselves cannot do this. We can do this only as we follow Jesus.”

Now Bring the Homily Back to its Starting Point, and Reinforce its Reach Across the Lections
A momentary pause, and then with some thrust toward a strong denouement: “This following Jesus is predicated upon his self-revelation. This is what Jesusthe Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spiritdoes when we ‘draw aside’ and, whether literally or figuratively, ‘go up our mountain.’ Jesus makes himself known to us ‘ahead.’ It is in this intimacy with Jesus— through our Lenten discipline and observance—that we re-gather and reinforce and renew our journey with Jesus: a journey with Jesus who goes ‘ahead’ of us. He is ‘ahead’ of us, and, with this in our mindfulness, Jesus calms our fears, our phobias.”

Before moving to the final reinforcement, signal to your hearers that the closure is now coming: “Now to close, I want you to hear the words of St. Paul in today’s reading from the Epistle to the Philippians. Just a small portion, ‘Brethren, join in imitating me’ (Phil 3:17). That key phrase appears also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1Cor 11:1). We are able to discern a Christian leader as one who follows Christ, who is a disciple of Christ, who displays a Christ-like manner of living. Today, there are Christians who are being ‘crucified for Christ,’ literally. Our travails may be lesser. But they remain real. No one here today is without his or her phobias. But ‘God is for us’; Jesus is ‘ahead of us.’ We are his disciples, his followers. The route may take us to Calvary, but Calvary is not the terminus. The ‘Jesus story’ is one of Resurrection and Glorification. For those who ‘follow Jesus,’ the route is to glory. In every phobia, we must be mindful of this, and in every fear, and every joy, we must hold to faith that Jesus goes with us and ‘before us’.”

“When you leave this Holy Mass today, depart with an Ite missa est to a world and a life that awaits your own ‘good news’ and your own faith in Jesus, the beloved and only begotten Son and chosen Son, who died and rose again for me!”

Voicing, Movement, Eyes
You as preacher, in carrying these texts to such a conclusion, should allow emotion to enter your voice. Speak truthfully as one who feels the great emotion of what you say. Do not read a sermon notes text (at most use only “bullet points”); rather, look at the lectionary, and at the gathered people. But I should remark that when you read the Gospel, do not look up until you say: ‘The Gospel of the Lord.’ Instead, keep your eyes fixed on the text that you are proclaiming. Then, at the end of your homily, do not look up. It is your words, not your person, or your face, that should be the abiding memory.

Return to your place with uprightness and calmness, and allow a brief time for your hearers to settle. Then, as you rise, say: “Let us stand and profess the faith of the Church in the words of the Nicene Creed.” Lead the “I believe” in a forthright, projected voice, but then lessen the projection, so that the congregation hears you as you set a deliberate pace, but do not over-voice the congregation.

Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin About Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin

Fr. Paul Anthony McGavin holds a Masters in theology (TheolM) from the Catholic Theological College, Melbourne, and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia. Much of his ministerial life was spent as a university educator, and as a senior faculty member at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He continues his work in pastoral ministry and is now a Catholic chaplain at the University of Canberra.