Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sermons: The Storeroom of the New & the Old III

"...every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." (Matthew 13:52)

Sermons bring out the new from the storeroom by giving answer to peoples questions; by explaining the events which transpired during the week; and by adapting the manner of its delivery according to the common mode through which twenty-first century Americans receive information. The manner of delivery is every bit important as the content of the sermon. But our Lord also said that “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven” is bring out the “old” from the storeroom; not just the “new.” With regard to sermons, bringing out the “old” is bringing to light the historical and theological significance of the Scripture readings. And even concerning the Mass itself, priests can shed light on its biblical and historical features by making reference to them during their sermons. Indeed, the Mass is a relic which has its origin in the Old Testament and yet, it is as new as if Christ were celebrating it and offering up His Holy Sacrifice for the first time. Yet, very few people know this.

As for the Scripture readings at Mass, especially from the Old Testament, they are unintelligible to the vast majority of people who hear them. Sure, they can pick up social themes here and there. But the historical circumstances contained within the Scripture readings are an enigma to the average man, woman or child sitting in the pew. For instance, it is a safe bet that Catholics do not know if Moses lived before or after Christ; and they probably do not know if prophet Isaiah lived in the nineteenth century, in medieval times or in the eighth century B.C. Yet, the prophet’s historical situation is important in understanding his message. Even more than this, it is interesting!

The biblical message is understood best when people have some understanding or reference to biblical history. The Exodus; the Exile; the Babylonian captivity; the Dispersion of the Jews; the covenants made between God and Israel; Israel partitioning into two different countries; all of these historical episodes were of great significance to Israel before the coming of Christ. And what is more, our Lord’s birth, public ministry, death and resurrection are a kind of reenactment of Israel’s past. Jesus did what Israel failed to do! The biography of the Messiah is to be found, in large part, in the life of the Patriarchs, Prophets and the Kings of Israel and Judah. Their mission traces out the mission of Christ as a kind of preface to the Gospels.

It can be truly said that the Old Testament is a magnifying glass which elucidates the life of Christ. Unfamiliarity with its books is a loss for the Catholic; a loss that can easily translate into confusion and discouragement in an attempt to read Scripture. It follows then that the credibility and the attractiveness of the Catholic Faith rests on bringing out the old as well as the new from the storehouse. And to be sure, there is so much to bring out, so many lessons of life that are no less interesting than a movie we might see today. Indeed, there is no shortage of drama, inspiration and romance in the books of the Old Testament; if only priests can be trained to bring these stories to life.

The priest, in the 10-15 minutes that are normally allotted for sermons, does not have the luxury of a teacher in a classroom or a public speaker in an auditorium; but he can use the little time he has to give brief lessons of the Old Testament and brief insights into what is new in the world. Ironically, sermons are the most human part of the Liturgy. Unlike other liturgical prayers, each sermon proceeds from the priest as his own. His holiness, beliefs and personality is unmistakeably impressed upon it. Nevertheless, it has the power to increase Mass attendance; to make the bible come alive; to make the Faith a living reality during the week; and to galvanize Catholics to be courageous Christ-bearers in our post-Christian world.

Drawing from the storehouse of the Church, a priest's sermon, using the new and old, can be instrumental in "renewing the face of the earth." Perhaps, the clergy are the least likely to see their own shortcomings or what potential there is in giving their sermons. But a layman's opinion, if it dare be voiced, can go a long way in giving priests a perspective that only a third-party can give.