Written by Fr Michael A Kelly CSsR
The seasons of Lent and Easter offer us an opportunity for personal and corporate repentance while offering us hope in a time of darkness. Grace is the gift of a loving God who shared the human condition and knows our potential for good and evil. Grace is also a gift that enables us to respond to the hospitality of a God who invites us into the embrace of a triune God with whom we are called to live life fully. What then might these bountiful themes mean for the homilist in these contrasting but complementary seasons of the paschal mystery? To answer this question, I will address a theme from each week of Lenten Cycle C and then draw upon the familiar Easter stories to see how these themes might be helpful to homilists and congregations.
Wrestling with temptation
Temptation is hardly a vogue word, but it is with us every day as we encounter familiar and new situations. The example of Jesus in confronting the devil offers us an opportunity to reflect on how we are tempted as Jesus was in Luke 4:1–13. Can we, like Jesus, resist the need for instant gratification (‘turn this stone into a loaf’), power over others (‘I will give you … these kingdoms’) and self-aggrandisement (‘angels … will hold you up on their hands’). The resistance of Jesus was the beginning of his public ministry, where he sought to care for the marginalised, empower others and challenge the powers of the day, who so often marginalised the most needy. What words give life to our congregations as they face these temptations?
Living in hope
Our world is not always a happy place, and every day the media confront us with news of disaster and tragedy. There is no future in depression, and it is only through grace that we are able to bring the black dog to heel and perceive a richer future. The transfiguration of the Lord may be a post-resurrection sign of hope of the ultimate triumph of Jesus, and although it didn’t convince the first apostles, it serves for us as a source of hope that our world can be transformed and we can contribute to that transformation.
Moses was a very reluctant leader, but his encounter with the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ changed his life and was the beginning of one of the defining experiences of the Israelites—the Exodus—which would become a lifelong reference point as they both remembered and forgot how God heard their prayer and delivered them from the land of captivity into the land of promise. How might we invite the members of our congregations to recall those transformative moments when something other touched us, transformed us and called us beyond our limited realities? It is in these stepping-stone moments of our lives that we can revisit again and again to find resources for renewal.
Forgiveness and grace
Having asserted his right to independence, the younger son, after a dissolute lifestyle, ‘came to his senses’ (Luke 15:17) as he fed the pigs. Sadly, it is often only when we hit rock bottom that we come face to face with the consequences of our choices. Rehearsing the speech that he will make to his father, he resolutely sets out for home, but the homecoming is one that is beyond his imagination. In what is ‘totally unconventional behaviour for a dignified man of affairs in the Palestinian cultural world’ (Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, Sydney: St Paul’s, 2000, p. 129), the father embraces the son and celebrates his return by reinstating him in the family household. The older son’s resentment is quite understandable, but perhaps he has never seen himself as a son and has behaved as a contract labourer. We don’t know if he enters the family home to join in the communal celebration. If he does, it will be by an act of grace that releases his heart and enables renewed relationships.
Change often comes about in our lives when we take the time for reflection. We all have multiple life experiences, but if we are to learn from them, then we need to reflect upon them. Difficult experiences may force us to engage in introspection; positive experiences may also be savoured as we learn how we have been blessed in life. The woman dragged before Jesus is wordless in her shame and humiliation, but the searing words of Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees cause them to engage in a little self-reflection, and one by one they exit from the scene. The words of Jesus to the accused woman are not judgmental, but they do invite her to turn her life around. Hopefully, this encounter will enable her to make some changes in her life and she will learn, in the words of Paul, ‘the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).
In a document entitled Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily (November 2012), the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference states quite simply, ‘Ultimately the Lord’s Paschal Mystery becomes the basis of all preaching’ (p. 9). The rich liturgies of Holy Week penetrate to the heart of our faith, and are truly worthy of lectio divina, on which Benedict XVI focuses in Verbum Domini: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (§§ 86, 87). This ancient practice not only opens up the treasures of God’s Word, but is also capable of drawing us into an encounter with the one about whom the texts speak. Reflection on the Paschal Mystery, on death and resurrection, draws us to Jesus and the compassion of God, and through our own experiences of ‘the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ’ (Gaudium et Spes, § 1) to greater solidarity with humanity.
In Eastertide, we hear of the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, and the dawning awareness of the first disciples that the Lord has risen and they are called to be witnesses. Confident that the Spirit of Jesus is with them, they find the courage that was so lacking during the trial and death of Jesus. Eastertide is the time when, under the influence of the Spirit of the Risen Lord, the themes of Lent come to fruition. In this season, our preaching should draw on the Lenten foci, which we have articulated, to enable us to reflect on our experience so as to grow in self-knowledge. We also rejoice that we have been forgiven our failings and that, immersed in the paschal mystery, we are a people of hope graced by a loving God. Our journey is not dissimilar to that of the first disciples, for we too, having experienced the Risen Christ, are called to mission, and ‘a homily that does not lead to mission is, therefore, incomplete’ (USCBC, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, p. 21).
As we attend to the Word proclaimed, we are mindful that the goal of the homily is ‘to lead the hearer to the deep inner connection between God’s Word and the actual circumstances of one’s everyday life’ (USCBC, Preaching the Mystery of Faith, p. 33). Homilies that are abstracted from the lives of the community have no power to transform hearts and minds. Homilies need learned exegesis but, without sensitivity to the contemporary context, risk being removed from the lives of the congregation. Ultimately, homilies that do not flow from the spirituality of a preacher who is steeped in a prayerful and thoughtful understanding of the Word of God will be unlikely to be fruitful.
God’s grace is not a magic potion but relies on what Catholics have called ‘natural grace’, which means human openness to the activity of God in the human heart. A graced response is a gift and a response to divine activity that enables us to commit ourselves to the mission of Jesus. The seasons of Lent and Easter bring us to our knees in acknowledgment of human failure and raise us to full stature in affirmation of the Risen Lord. May these seasons infuse in each of us new life.
Michael A Kelly CSsR is a Redemptorist priest who teaches at Yarra Theological Union, a college of the University of Divinity. He specialises in pastoral theology, religious education and homiletics.
This has been adapted from an article first published in The Summit in February 2013 for the Year of Grace.