April 20, 2010

Easter Preaching Rant

It's a joyful challenge to be preaching on the "Bread of Life Discourse" this week, all the while leading up to next Sunday when we will have the image of the Lamb in the reading from Revelation and the Good Shepherd in the gospel. Journeying through that particular conjunction, the Lord as Lamb and Shepherd, is the prayer of my homily preparation this week.

It reminds me of something I've heard from priests from time to time over the years, about how they dread preaching through the Easter season and don't know what to say. I have always found the sentiment both sad and disturbing, but perhaps now that I am a daily preacher I can at least sympathize. Easter is supposed to be the center of our faith, the preeminent moment of Christianity. So why should it be hard to preach? I think of two issues.

First, Easter suggests that the resurrection of Christ be preached. I say "suggests" because I have not always heard about the resurrection in Easter homilies. It's true, it's a hard thing to preach. Jesus rose, or 'was raised' (theological passive), 'in his human body' (as we say in the Roman Canon, "secundum carnem") to some sort of new, glorified, eschatological life. This new life is somehow continuous with his historical life, and includes, in some sense, the physical body that he, as Word, borrowed from us through the consent of Mary. He has breath, and can eat. Oddly, however, he is not immediately recognizable, despite being the same person. Perhaps even more strangely, the risen Jesus is not confined by the ordinary limitations of physical bodiliness, as he appears and vanishes, shows up in locked rooms, etc.

Even more, the Easter homilist must preach on how this resurrection of Christ has implications for us, how his passing over to new life is also ours, and how all of this is communicated through baptism and the other sacraments. Too often these are preached in a way that does not produce portable belief and practice for people. We throw our hands up and call it a "mystery." Not that I have anything against mystery, but we need to preach mystery so as to encourage mysticism rather than mystification.

All of this is just to illustrate that the Easter preacher has a delicate and difficult task, and if we are accustomed to preaching a vague morality or general, clever sayings about "spirituality" we, as a Church, will not be up to the task.

Second, I think Easter preaching is challenging because it forces Christian particularity on the preacher. It is about the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and there is no way around it. This particularity will be hard to preach and communicate if we have absorbed the comfortable and civil theology of 'many paths to one divine something-or-other.' Perhaps few of us would admit to adhering to this theology, but many have adopted it as an operative mode. Why not? It's comfortable, it helps us to fit into the relativism of the world, and it relieves us of the discomfort of having to say that anybody might be wrong about anything. Unfortunately, however, once we adopt this 'theology' as our comfy and unspoken over-arching paradigm (and I believe that many of us have) there is nothing left to preach but vague morality and general spirituality. The theological problem with this idea is that God becomes fundamentally unknowable, since all "faith traditions" are equally inadequate to the Mystery. God, apparently, is not actually capable of revelation. Therefore, when God is unknowable and not a reliable revealer of himself, worship cannot be anything but the worship of ourselves and our own ideas. More likely it will be worship of our own pride in how enlightened we are to have adopted such a magnanimous theology. Been there, done that. I can't think of anything more boring.

Via non est nisi per ardentissimum amorem crucifixi.

Surrexit Dominus Vere. Alleluia.


ben in denver said...

We had an excellent homily for Good Shepherd Sunday last Sunday that tied a lot of themes thant have been hanging in the air lately together. The main theme was celibacy in the priesthood, our pastor was able to discuss how this is both an imitation of Our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his flock, but he also how showed how it is not exclusively a sign of suffering and pennance and that it is a tangible sign of the hope and glory of the resurrection, since in our glorified bodies there is no marriage. To get such a homily in the Year of the Priest with all that has been in the news lately was a special blessing.

I think you are right about Easter. Unlike most of our holidays, one can't even pretend that Easter is about Moralistic Theraputic Deism (MTD). It is about the particularity of our Chirstian Faith. And as such I think it is scandalous to MTD. Propitiatory sacrifice seems to be an offense to the modern mind. We want to see wrong-doers rehabilitated and evil-doer damned. As moderns, we don't care much for redemption--the redeemd are too often either insufficiently punished, or fail to be efficiently productive with their second chances.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for this, Ben. I shall have to reflect on the hardness of us moderns, but you are certainly onto something. And I shall have to read further about MTD!

ben in denver said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to the abuse crisis. I have decided that a Church that did not offer mercy and redemption to these abusers is not one I'd want to be a member of. Radical mercy is the primary element that separates Christianity from paganism.

But I must say that I haven't expressed this belief to anyone publicly for fear of being accused of being unconcered about the welfare of children.

For a society where fewer people believe in Hell than ever before, it sure seems like a lot of us really want to send some people there.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Charles,

YOU outdid even YOURSELF on this post!!! Right-rite-write-ON!!!

Your brother Fr. Sergio