Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Well, not entirely. Things have changed a bit, even here in Texas. These days, when I go into our local grocery store (even if, rarely, I am not in clerical attire) I am regularly addressed as “Father”. But, years ago, a check-out clerk, seeing my collar, would ask, “Are you a preacher?” – to which I would smile and respond to the effect that preaching was indeed one of things I do.
I have been doing it now for more than fifty-five years. And it gets easier as the years pass because, now, the lectionary and the cycle of the seasons have been pondered so often – and not only easier, but also ever more enjoyable. To spend a morning at my desk (often with music in the background), reading and reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, consulting commentaries and the teachings of the doctors of the Church, scouring my files for hopefully vivid – and, perhaps, amusing – illustrations, praying over it all: what a pleasure it is to spend such a creative morning, as unhurried as “retirement” allows.
The Roman Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments recently published its Homiletic Directory that provides immensely valuable and practical assistance to the preacher. In particular, it insists that an effective homily always requires prayer — an invitation to the Holy Spirit “as the principal agency that makes the hearts of the faithful amenable to the divine mysteries … The homily should be delivered in a context of prayer, and it should be composed in a context of prayer”.
In that the homily is preached in a liturgical setting – the Mass or the Divine Office – the prayerful context of its delivery is assured. But perhaps we should do more to ensure that the words are received by the congregation in a conscious context of prayer.
Many years ago, a priest whom I had invited as guest preacher at the Church of St Mary the Virgin mounted the pulpit after the proclamation of the Gospel. After what seemed like a very long moment of silence he turned to the sedilia and said to me: “What do I have to do to make the people sit down?” With some laughter the congregation sat. What they had been waiting for, what they were accustomed to before sitting for the sermon, was some preliminary invocation – “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, perhaps, to which they would affirm by their “Amen”.
When I was young, Anglican preachers (I can’t speak of others) would often begin their sermons by quoting an adaption of Psalm 19:14 – “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight”, and the people would complete the verse by responding “O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer”. Thus they would assert some personal investment in what would follow.
A great Anglican theologian and preacher, who married great scholarship with profound spirituality, Warden of Keble College, Oxford, Austin Farrer (with whom I had some personal contact more than fifty years ago) would bring his eloquent, moving and instructive sermons to an end by prayer. Thus: “The best way to assure a constant supply is not to gaze into the bottom of the pool but the drawer water out and scatter it on the garden, so as to make room for more to flow in below. Be with me, O God, and help me to obey thee in using and spreading abroad thy grace.” (The end of a sermon entitled The Hidden Spring.)
Or this: the last words of his sermon on The Ultimate Hope, preached a few days before Christmas 1968, just a week before his sudden and premature death: “ … passing from the great Begetter to what is begotten by him, we shall see his likeness in his creatures, in angels and blessed saints: returning at long last the love that has been lavished on us, and reflecting back the light with which we have been illuminated. To that blessed consummation, therefore, may he lead all those for whom we pray, he who is love himself, who came to us at Bethlehem, and took us by the hand.”
But to me, Austin Farrer’s most engaging sermon conclusions consisted in his practice of enfolding, in varied form according to context, a formula of prayer which I can only track down to a small manual of pulpit prayers compiled by T. W. Wood and published in 1876. One example, from many (see Austin Farrer’s sermons in Said or Sung, and A Celebration of Faith): “You gave, beyond taking back, you were committed, when you gave your spirit into your Father’s hands: and so I am contented to know that I am committed into yours. For you are our everlasting shepherd, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God; to whom be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, henceforth and for ever. Amen.
Perhaps we should return to such sanctifying eloquence.