Help with writing homilies – resources to help you write an effective sermon.
As part of my mission to provide resources for communicating the gospel, I will be featuring a series of articles on how to write a homily. In the course of this series we hope not only to provide our readers with the steps necessary to construct an effective homily, but also the theology behind preaching and its role in the liturgy. To that end, I will begin by discussing what the purpose of the homily is, its role in the liturgy and its place in the formation of the People of God.
Preaching with Purpose
After Pentecost, when Christian communities began to spring up in Palestine, there was not as yet a New Testament. What became the Christian Scriptures first began with the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. The apostles did two things. They recounted the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Then they used the Old Testament to bring to light that Jesus is the Messiah, the culmination of all God’s promises to the children of Abraham and to all nations. It was the apostolic preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit that gathered and established the Church. The Church is, at its core, the assembly of those who have put faith in the good news of Jesus as preached by the apostles. Therefore, throughout her history, preaching has been central to the identity, mission and life of the Church.
Often that preaching occurred in public forums such as the marketplace or the streets. However, as the Church took root and spread, preaching increasingly took place within the context of the Eucharistic celebration. Its location within the Mass gives it a purpose and meaning which is significantly different from any other type of speech or lecture. The homily is an act of worship as much as it is a catechesis or a moral exhortation. This should always be kept in mind while preparing or listening to a homily. And it is with this in mind that we begin our discussion of the purpose of the homily.
What do those charged with the sublime responsibility of stepping up to the pulpit to preach God’s Word hope to accomplish? I propose that the purpose of the homily and the task of the preacher can be summarized by using the three “I’s”: 1) to illustrate; 2) to instruct; and 3) to invite.
The conventional wisdom is that every homily should begin with a story to capture the congregation’s attention and to introduce the theme. Jesus himself understood the power of story-telling and used parables to preach the Kingdom. Similarly, the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was central to the preaching of the apostles. Stories are an effective tool in preaching because they draw the assembly’s imagination into the quest for faith and understanding. And they bring to light one of the central purposes of the homily which is to illustrate how the word preached by the prophets, by Jesus and by the apostles still has meaning for our day. The joys and challenges of modern life are echoes of the struggles and consolations found in the Scripture. It is the task of the preacher to use the Bible to shed light on whatever issues may be facing those gathered for worship whether it be on the personal level (stress, unemployment, family life, etc.) or on the inter-personal level (homelessness, the economy, abortion, etc.). With confidence that the Scriptures are a sure guide to life in the twenty-first century, the homilist seeks to help the congregation see how the word proclaimed throughout the millenia applies to the choices we make today. Stories, whether they be taken from the lives of the saints or from the newspaper, are a useful means of accomplishing this purpose. However, they are not necessarily the only way. The assembly can be challenged to think about how to apply the gospel to their daily lives by proposing a series of questions (What does it mean to love? What are we doing when we love someone?) or by simply spelling out exactly how it applies in concrete life situations (paying taxes, raising children). The important thing is not always how the homily illustrates a point, but that whatever means one chooses leaves the members of the assembly with the challenge of taking to their homes, schools and places of business the word they heard proclaimed in the liturgy. One of the central purposes, therefore, of the homily is to illustrate how Christ’s call to repent and believe in the good news is to be lived in today’s world.
It was common before the Second Vatican Council that the preacher would use the occasion of the homily to instruct the assembly on matters of faith and morals. Many times, the preacher would offer a series of reflections over several Sundays on the gifts of the Holy Spirit or the beatitudes whether they related to the readings of the day or not. The problem with such an approach, however, was that it divorced the homily from the rest of the liturgy. Rather than an organic part of the worship service rooted in the themes of the Scriptures which had just been proclaimed, the sermon appeared to be grafted crudely onto the rest of the liturgy. It served to create the suspicion that, if the preacher had to look outside the readings of the day for something to say, then those readings must not have any meaning to our life today. Over the past forty years, the emphasis has shifted to understanding the homily as an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and using it to bring out the themes and subjects proposed by the Scriptural and liturgical texts of the day. That is not to say that the task of instructing the assembly is no longer central to the homilist’s purpose. With the growing influence of the secular media and the decline in the quality of public education, instruction in the truths of the faith and clear exposition of the Church’s moral teaching is as important as it has ever been. However, we must take our cue from the readings of the day. The Lectionary is a textbook for the Church guiding our reflection throughout the liturgical seasons. It ensures that the central truths of the faith – the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Pentecost, etc. – are meditated on and celebrated continually. And so the Scriptures are to be the source of the preacher’s instruction. But instruct he must, because it can never be forgotten that the homily may be the only opportunity that many of the faithful have to hear the Church’s teaching presented in a clear and complete way. And so, one of the central purposes of the homily must be to instruct the faithful on the truths of our Catholic faith.
The word of God is meant not only to be heard but to be acted on. When the Scriptures are proclaimed effectively, it elicits a response from the hearer whether it be the desire to amend ones life or to make an even deeper commitment to Christ and his Church. Therefore, one of the central purposes of the homily is to invite the congregation to conversion. This invitation echoes the preaching of Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry when he traveled the Galilean countryside calling the people to “repent and believe.” It continues to be the task of the entire Church today to invite all people to consider the love of Christ and to re-order their values and priorities in accordance with that love.
It is natural for us as human beings to want to celebrate life-changing decisions and commitments. The same is true for the spiritual dimension of our lives. When God’s word stirs our hearts, it leads to a change of life which we celebrate in the sacraments. The scriptures steer us toward the sacraments. And so, the purpose of the homily is not only to invite our hearers to conversion, but to invite them also to celebrate that conversion through the sacraments, most especially the sacrament of the Eucharist. The homily, in fact, serves as a bridge linking the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Just as every homily should begin with some type of story or illustration, every homily should also end with some reference to the Eucharist which the congregation is preparing to celebrate and receive. Through the homily, Christ extends an invitation to the banquet of his Body and Blood to all those who would also accept his invitation to conversion. And so a central purpose of the homily is to call the assembly to embrace a change of heart and to celebrate that new commitment by inviting them to the banquet of Christ’s Body and Blood.
In summary, the central purposes of the homily are to illustrate how the word of God is to be lived in our own day, to instruct the faithful on the truths of Christian doctrine and to invite the assembly to conversion, reconciliation and the sacraments. They are the hallmarks of effective and memorable homilies and must always be kept in mind when they are being prepared or delivered. Focusing on them will ensure that our preaching will always be centered in Christ and in his word. And in that way we will be continuing the work of the apostles who founded the Church on the word of God and contributed to its rapid growth by fidelity to Jesus’ teaching.