Lessons from a Patristic Homily

St. Proclus of Constantinople

In learning how to craft homilies, it is worth studying past master homilists; from these masters, we can learn masterful techniques. Reading those who wrote in one’s own native tongue is, of course, a necessary thing: Newman would probably be first in mind among English-speakers. That, however, does not mean that we should abandon all those who write in foreign tongues, particularly the Fathers. Even St. John Vianney “did not mind quoting reams from the saints: the treasury of merit, he said, was meant to be plundered.”1 Merely reading the Fathers is one way to plunder “the treasury of merit,” and a number of collections of Patristic homilies are available, though it does not seem they are as prevalent as the Fathers’ treatises and books. Another method is to have some level of analysis included, showing the techniques the Fathers used in crafting their homilies, and explaining some elements that are not as easy to understand after fifteen centuries.

Here I give an example of both reading and analyzing the homily of one of the Fathers. Unfortunately, many Patristic homilies are quite long: I have heard it said that, for some homilies of St. Augustine, a full reading aloud would take three hours. Most do not come to that length, but they are certainly longer than the typical homily today, at least in America. Some of the Fathers, though, were skilled at crafting sermons that fit the modern length very well, and one such Father is St. Proclus of Constantinople. St. Proclus (or, to transliterate the Greek more literally, Proklos), was a friend of St. John Chrysostom, as well as a Patriarch of Constantinople from 434 until his death in July 446, or thereabouts. Most of the works we have from him are homilies, and they often show his strong Marian devotion—a fact that led to one of them being included in the Acts of the Council of Ephesus. Though he may not be one of the most famous homilists among the Fathers—certainly nothing like his friend—he is one of my personal favorites, and his homilies are also often quite short, allowing them to be more readily accessible to the modern reader. For this discussion, I have chosen his homily on Pentecost. First is the homily2 in full, followed by the analysis.

St. Proclus of Constantinople, Oration 16: On Holy Pentecost3

Today, beloved, the Holy Spirit’s grace visited, beginning from today’s day; and growing until today’s day, it is magnified. The Holy Spirit’s grace shone, and suddenly the speechless ones’ mouths [became] eloquent; and the untaught ones’ tongues were trained; and the fishermen’s hearts were moved to courage. Therefore, the grace visiting from heaven today snatches away the timidity of even my impoverished reason. For as, before the advent of the Spirit, Peter, fearing, denied the Master before the maiden; and [so], after the descent of the Spirit, before the peoples and kings, with courage, he confesses, saying: “We cannot not speak of what we have heard and seen” (Acts 4:20). Whence the Jews even considered the eloquence of the Holy Spirit drunkenness, saying, “Since they are drunk on new wine.” But Peter disputed with them [regarding] what [were] the proofs confirming the Trinity even at [that] hour. For since, at the third hour, the cross was planted, also, at the third [hour], the Holy Spirit, in the form of fire, descended upon the apostles, intimating that God [is] Spirit. “For our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). And the advent of the Spirit was as dew upon wool” (Ps 72:6), since it was the symbol of the dispensation. And about the Spirit, so that it would be shown that God is Spirit, “there was a voice out of heaven like a blowing, violent wind” (Acts 2:20). And that God [is] Spirit, learn. For Isaiah says:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and upraised; and the Seraphim stood around it. And He said to me, “Who will go to this people, and whom will I send to it?” For the heart of this people is fattened, and in their ears they heard heavily, and their eyes they closed, lest they see with their eyes, and with their ears hear, and with the heart understand, and return, and I will heal them (Is 6:1-2,8-10).

Therefore, do you want to know, Spirit-fighter, that the Spirit sat upon the high and upraised throne? Hear Paul, the apostle, and be convinced. He was sent to Nero in Rome; he found multitudes of Jews there; he taught them the word of salvation.

These believed, those disbelieved. Being disagreeable with each other, they departed, [with] Paul saying one word: Rightly the Holy Spirit spoke about you through Isaiah the prophet: In hearing you hear, and do not understand (Acts 28:24-26).

Do you see that Lord and God [is] the Holy Spirit? For where do you not find the Spirit in the Trinity being everywhere glorified in the Law? Hear the prophet saying:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were established, and by the spirit of His mouth all their power (Ps 33:6).

But in grace, when the Savior came to the saving Baptism, the Father from above witnessed to the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove was there. This Spirit, today, in the form of fire, descended upon each of the apostles. Do you see that the apostles [are] even thrones? For “God, it says, sits upon His holy throne (Ps 47:8). This Spirit killed Ananias the liar. This Spirit apportions the charisms of goods, “Distributing to each as He wills” (1 Cor 13:11). By this Spirit was Paul the apostle filled. He darkened Elymas the mage. This Spirit did Gabriel announce to Mary, saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35). May He even now come upon us and bless [us]. For this One is mixed with the water, and melts sins as fire, and enlightens the newly-enlightened as light, and has mercy on us as God; for to Him belongs glory and power, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Two main topics come to mind when we think of Pentecost: the descent of the Holy Spirit and the “birthday of the Church.” Usually one of these two is the basis of a Pentecost homily. (Of course, there can be others, such as a Marian focus based on the fact that the Apostles were gathered with Mary on that day.) Proclus chooses the first topic and discourses on the Holy Spirit, with Pentecost as his jumping-off point. He goes on, though, to bring in a number of other passages: quotes from Isaiah the Psalms, references to Ananias, the Baptism of Christ, the Annunciation, etc. This holistic view of Scripture is common in Patristic homilies: they always cross-reference a particular passage and event with other parts of Scripture.

Proclus does not stop with only bringing in Scripture, though. Even in this short homily, we can see some other references, though small. Two topics often included in Patristic homilies are doctrinal disputes and the Liturgy. Sometimes, the Fathers will merely discuss a doctrine that flows from the passage, or an event in question, or maybe even one that is somewhat removed from it. For instance, in a homily on Pascha, Proclus begins discussing the Incarnation and describing Christ as, “the One not denuding the Fatherly bosom, taking flesh from a Virgin; motherless in the heavens, God from God, and from a mother on earth, a Virgin’s Son, the lover of mankind becoming man for men…”4 In this homily, he has a few points affirming the divinity of the Spirit, rhetorically asking, “Do you see that Lord and God [is] the Holy Spirit? For where do you not find the Spirit in the Trinity being everywhere glorified in the law?” The main debates on the divinity of the Spirit were in the 300s, with some of the standard-bearers being St. Athanasius and St. Basil, but there may have been some who were unconvinced, hence Proclus’ use of the term “Spirit-fighter” [pneumatomache], used by Athanasius to describe those who rejected the Holy Spirit’s divinity. However, it is also common for the Fathers to continue directing attacks at heretics long after their heyday: Arians and Nestorians are common foes even among the later Fathers. Perhaps they realized that, even if none still vocally subscribed to these heresies, the underlying ideas could still be present.

The references to the Liturgy in this homily are even fewer than those to more general doctrine. In the closing lines, Proclus prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon his congregation, including the “newly-illuminated” [neōphōtismous]. This term is equivalent to the term neophyte, that, is one who has recently been baptized and received into the Church; “illumination” is one of the common Greek names for Baptism. In the Patristic times, as now under RCIA, the Paschal Vigil was the primary time for the initiation of new members of the Church. The Fathers emphasized these “newly-illuminated” ones for some time after Pascha, especially in their mystagogical sermons.5 Proclus is thus referring here to those who entered the Church on the previous Paschal Vigil, at the beginning of the Paschal Season which Pentecost ends. The mention of the Holy Spirit mixing with water, and forgiving sins with fire, also seems to be Baptismal references, and particularly to the Baptism of these “newly-illuminated” ones.

Another element, somewhat connected to the Liturgy, is the emphasis on today. Of course, it is easy to understand the term basically: today is the day we celebrate Pentecost, so Pentecost is “today” in that sense. But there is a deeper meaning here: what might be called the liturgical “today.” We know that, as we are commonly reminded in teaching, the celebration of the Eucharist brings us back to the sacrifice on Calvary, making us present there. But this returning to the times of the Savior’s life, making us present there, is a fairly common theme in the Liturgy. There are a number of liturgical prayers and hymns that recall this notion that we become so present during the Savior’s life that we can call a day of His life “today”:

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him, today I am made alive with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him, today I rise with Him.6

Though the preceding quote is from a Patristic homily, we can also find the idea in the liturgy, as in the following hymn for Holy Saturday from the Byzantine Rite:

You have sanctified today, the Seventh, which You blessed, before You rested from works; for You brought forth everything, and You renewed [it], keeping the Sabbath, my Savior, and restoring [it].7

This hymn is saying that this Sabbath, today, is the same Seventh Day that God blessed during Creation, and it is also the day that the Lord rested from all His works in the tomb, thus keeping the Sabbath rest; today is truly that same Sabbath when Christ lay in the tomb.

The same idea comes through in this homily by Proclus. The opening line shows it well: “today’s day” (a somewhat strange phrase even in Greek) is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended, but “today’s day” is also today, the day I am giving this homily, when the Holy Spirit’s influence is still growing. The Holy Spirit’s grace is “the grace visiting from heaven today.” Today is the day the Spirit descended on the Apostles, and we pray that He continue to do so today. This “temporal fluidity,” if we want a more academic name for it, this idea that the time of Christ’s life and that of the early Church intermingles with our own life, is common among the Fathers, and the Liturgy, as well. One has only to think of a prayer from the Extraordinary Form blessing of the Paschal Candle:

This is the night, in which You made our first fathers, the sons of Israel, having been led out from Egypt, to cross the Red Sea with dry feet…This is the night, in which, having destroyed the chains of death, Christ ascended, victor, from Hell.8

The phrase “this is the night” [haec nox est], repeated many times throughout this prayer, drives home this idea of the “liturgical today.” Countless additional examples could be given, but hopefully these suffice.

As mentioned earlier, one key element in this homily is the emphasis on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, against those who are “Spirit-fighters.” Proclus brings forward quotations from Acts, Isaiah, and the Psalms to prove this. One quotation, that from Acts 2:2, requires knowledge of Greek wordplay to be understood in Proclus’ sense. (The Greeks are very fond of their wordplay, as is often attested to in their liturgical hymns for various saints: these often include puns on the names of the saints, like how Photina means “enlightened” or Stephan means “crown.”) The general Greek word for spirit is pneuma, while the word in this quote from Acts is pnoēs; though they are separate words, they share the pn- opening, and many languages, Greek included, usually have identical words meaning “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” Along with pneuma, the Hebrew ruaḥ is well-known in this area. The quote from Psalm 33 also includes this word-play: while it would usually be translated “by the breath of His mouth,” I purposely translated “spirit,” as this is the meaning of the word that Proclus intended.

To take a step back now from the details, we should look at the homily as a whole. What is Proclus’ point? First, that the Holy Spirit’s grace descends upon the Christian, bringing, among other things, courage and eloquence. We see this from the mention of Peter at the beginning, how, before Pentecost, he denied Christ to the servant girl (or “maiden”), while, after Pentecost, he speaks boldly, even before “peoples and kings.” (The word for “people” used here is dēmos, the root of democracy, so it also has the connotations of “the populace” or “the common people.”) This Spiritual eloquence empowered Peter to proclaim the Trinity and to show, by his words and deeds, that the Spirit is also God, one of the Trinity. This is the strong second point Proclus is making, as mentioned before. One interesting argument for it, besides the Scriptural quotations, is the parallel of time: both “the planting of the cross” and the Holy Spirit’s descent occurred at the third hour (9 AM), indicating, in Proclus’ mind, a link between Christ and the Holy Spirit. Since Christ is God, this parallel implies that the Holy Spirit is also God. The argumentation is a fairly weak version of arguments from typology, which were frequent among the Fathers; in typology, an earlier person or event foreshadows one to come. This foreshadowing is more than merely coincidence, or human invention, because of God’s guidance of history: He is able to make these parallels occur for our instruction. After this temporal argument and the arguments from Scripture, Proclus brings in Christ’s Baptism, called the Theophany, or God-manifestation, among the Greeks, because there the Trinity was first explicitly revealed: the Father is in the voice, the Son is in the flesh, the Spirit is in the dove. A third point could be seen in the ending of the homily: mentions of various powers of the Spirit (distributing charisms, smiting sinners, causing the Incarnation, etc.), along with a prayer that the Spirit come upon us and bless us.

All of this occurs in a short, compressed homily, only about a page of text. One reason Proclus is able to speak so concisely is the assumption that his audience is well-versed in the Scriptures, and common styles of argumentation from them. Even though most of his listeners would be illiterate, and be unable to access a written Bible, they would have heard the readings in the Liturgy, and they would have heard countless sermons with Scriptural quotes and arguments. In the time of the Fathers, oratory was an entertainment for most people, so much so that St. John Chrysostom complains about how people miss liturgy in order to hear popular orators ,and how the craze for oratory is taking over even the Christians.9

Most listeners would be quite familiar with oratorical techniques through the sheer number of speeches they had listened to. They would also be experienced in the Fathers’ styles of argumentation. As one example, consider these lines near the end of Proclus’ homily:

This Spirit, today, in the form of fire, descended upon each of the apostles. Do you see that the apostles [are] even thrones? For God, it says, sits upon His holy throne.

To break down the argument: as previously shown, the Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit descended upon—and thus “sits” upon—the apostles. Scripture says, “God sits upon His holy throne.” Thus, the apostles are like thrones, since the Holy Spirit—God—sits upon them. (Often the Fathers will give the conclusion of their argument and follow it with the Scriptural quotation that makes the argument coalesce, rather than following the typical syllogistic sequence of argumentation.)

We could analyze each of the arguments in this homily, to show how the Scriptural quotes play into the argumentation, but this would probably be very monotonous. Instead, we can stop our analysis here, and review what modern homilists can learn from Proclus’ homily. Though there is much it can teach us about the Faith, I want to focus on the techniques it can teach. First, do not be ashamed of a wide use of Scripture. Perhaps we might have to give more preparation for our Scriptural quotations, as modern listeners may not be as well-versed in the Bible as Proclus’ listeners were, but it is through such quotations that we can help our listeners to become conversant with the Scripture. Second, connect the Scriptures and salvation history with those listening today. We saw this in the use of the word “today” to help make listeners present at Pentecost; likewise, reference to the Liturgy and the Sacraments can help in this goal. (Though Proclus does not do so in this homily, we can also draw moral lessons from Scripture and history to help make them applicable to the congregation.) Third, do not shy away from doctrine. Even a doctrine that might seem common-place to us—the divinity of the Holy Spirit—is a key topic of this homily. The action of the Holy Spirit—how He gives eloquence, distributes charisms, smites sinners, etc.—is also a part of doctrine. Doctrine does not need to be boring, and given only in more theoretical language, such as the language of the Baltimore Catechism or the Summa Theologica (though such language has its use). Instead of merely saying something like, “The Holy Spirit infuses the Christian with the gifts of loquacity and lack of fear,” Proclus describes the idea by declaring,

The Holy Spirit’s grace shone, and suddenly the speechless ones’ mouths [became] eloquent; and the untaught ones’ tongues were trained; and the fishermen’s hearts were moved to courage. Therefore, the grace visiting from heaven today snatches away the timidity of even my impoverished reason.

The more poetic or “flowery” language is a characteristic of the Fathers’ homilies, and Proclus, though he does use it, is remarkably restrained compared to others. Since highly florid language is not as well-liked today, Proclus’ restrained example could be a good contemporary model for how to elevate language without excess.

In conclusion, we can gain much from reading masterful homilies, and especially those of the Fathers. They combine both solid doctrine and interesting oratorical techniques, though the latter may have to be adjusted to fit modern ears. Benefit can be gained even from reading just the homilies themselves, without any assistance. But it is often useful to have some commentary to explain some aspects of their words and thoughts that would be invisible to modern readers, especially to those who do not read the original languages.10

Hopefully, this homily from St. Proclus, with its accompanying analysis, has provided a worthy example of these benefits, for the Fathers are worthy teachers, and, as some would even go so far to say, “We are of the Church insofar as we are of the holy fathers.”

  1. George William Rutler, The Cure D’Ars Today: Saint John Vianney (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), Chapter 6, “The Pulpit of Ars.” Unfortunately, the edition I used included no page numbers.
  2. Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graecus, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1857-1866), Tomus 65, 805B-808D. This series is also known as the Patrologia Graeca; further references will be abbreviated PG, with the tome and column numbers, e.g., PG 65:805B-808D.
  3. St. Proclus of Constantinople, Oration 15.6 (PG 65:804D).
  4. On mystagogy, see Brandon P. Otto, “The Awe-Inspiring Mysteries: The Importance of Mystagogy,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, August 9, 2015 (hprweb.com/2015/08/the-awe-inspiring-mysteries/).
  5. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.4, in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison, Popular Patristics Series 36 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008), 58.
  6. Αι Ιεραι Ακολουθιαι της Μ. Εβδομαδος και του Πασχα, ed. George L. Papadeas (New York: 1967), 501-502. This is my own translation from the Greek, rather than the English translation provided in this volume.
  7. Gaspar Lefebvre, The Saint Andrew Daily Missal with Vespers for Sunday and Feasts and Kyriale (Great Falls, MT: St. Bonaventure Publications, 1999) , 579.
  8. See St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood 5.8 (PG 48:677-678): “Do you not know what desire for orations has now burst into Christians’ souls, and that, greatest of all, such workers {are} in honor not only with those outside, but even with those of the household of faith?”
  9. The Orthodox saint Nil Sorsky (or Nilus of Sora) is even stricter about the need for a guide to the Fathers: “The writings of the Fathers may be compared to a drugstore in which are quantities of the most healing remedies. But the sick man unacquainted with medical science and without a doctor for a guide will find it very difficult to select a medicine suitable to his illness.” Quoted in Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Prayer of Jesus, trans. Father Lazarus (Boston, MA: New Seeds, 2005), 71.
  10. Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, The mind of the Orthodox Church, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Hellas: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998), 239.
Brandon P. Otto About Brandon P. Otto

Brandon P. Otto is a member of the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission in St. Louis, MO. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, with particular interest in the Fathers and liturgies of the Eastern Churches.