In times past, God spoke to his people in partial and fragmentary ways,
but in these, the last days,
He has spoken to us through His Son.
I have a great-nephew who bears my name. When I get a chance to introduce him to someone, I always point out that he is the “new and improved model.” And I’m sincere about that. Luke is fourteen, a good student, an excellent athlete and a reliable hand on his parents’ dairy farm. The kid is a hard worker and I’m right proud of my namesake.
His determined spirit took root early in his life. On the day he was born, there were complications in the delivery room which would hamper his language development. He did not speak clearly until he was five years old. With the help of dedicated teachers and his own strenuous effort, Luke achieved remarkable goals.
I will never forget his parents’ joy when they could understand what he needed or why he was crying; when they could recognize the names in his prayers at bedtime; when they could eavesdrop on his conversations with the dog, the cats and the all calves in the barn.
In today’s society, when words can reach out from a screen and slap you in the face, it’s easy to dismiss the power of language to transform the world, not through argument, but by heart-to-heart discourse.
Whenever I come across the verse in the Letter to Hebrews that tells of God speaking to us through His Son, I think of Luke’s efforts as a child to connect with those he loved. I find in this a mirror of God striving—through His Son—to articulate His mercy in a type of language that human beings might, at long last, grasp and comprehend.
As a homilist, my duty is to advance that effort. It is a task akin to learning to talk over and over again. I often feel like a child pointing to things that I cannot clearly articulate.
I find that blending sacred texts with the day-to-day life of my flock to be a helpful strategy. This approach relies heavily on location and context. The starting point isn’t “What does this passage mean?,” but “Where does it want to take us?”
“Come, follow me!” says the Lord.
If an encounter with Christ is to occur, the place in which it unfolds matters. Words about the stone rejected by the builders, for instance, can lead listeners into the world of construction sites, CAD drawings and building permits. Stories about tax collectors might take us to desks cluttered with receipts and pay stubs. In my current parish, references to wolves and shepherds give way to coyotes and feedlot cowboys.
This is the manner and method of liturgical discourse: transformation, not argumentation; communion, not confrontation. When it comes to pastoral preaching, a parish church is more banquet hall than classroom.
The fullest expression of sacramental speech naturally directs us to the Eucharist. At the table of the Lord, the Spirit beckons the Church to assume the posture of the Beloved Apostle. Sensing the Savior’s imminent arrest, John embraces Christ and places his head on his chest.
This is the ultimate destination of the pilgrim and the encounter toward which the stammering speech of this homilist longs to lead his flock: the sacred place in the soul where the heartbeat of Christ fills the silence within.