Father Matthew Buettner: The Gospel and the homily: Deo gratias!
We mentioned last time that the Liturgy of the Word offers us the opportunity to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, who still guides His Church from His throne in heaven. At each Mass, the eternal Word of the eternal Father unfolds the mystery of our redemption from the Old Testament to the New Testament into the present day. He constantly reveals the divine plan of our salvation.
At the conclusion of each reading from Sacred Scripture, there is a ritual indicating that the reading has ended. The Lector proclaims, "The word of the Lord," and we respond, "Thanks be to God."
It is truly fitting that this ritual follows the retelling and the recounting of the events of Salvation History found in Scripture. Indeed, our souls and our minds ought to respond with great joy to the proclamation of Sacred Scripture in gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has accomplished principally through His beloved Son. The whole of Sacred Scripture is Good News to us who are in need of God's abundant mercy and love. The Liturgy of the Word reaches its summit in the proclamation of the Gospel, marked by the use of incense (now the second incensation of the Mass), the joyful Alleluia chant (which in itself is a shout of praise at the Resurrection and victory of the Lord), and all stand at attention, for the words and deeds of Our Lord are about to be spoken in one of the four inspired Gospels. The Gospel is proclaimed either by the deacon (if present), a concelebrating priest (if present), or the celebrant himself. He begins with the familiar greeting: "The Lord be with you" / "And with your spirit."
After he announces the evangelist from whom the Gospel is proclaimed, he makes a sign of the cross over the Gospel. Dom Gueranger reports that "He, at the same time, signs himself on the forehead, the lips, and the breast, asking, in virtue of the Cross, which is the source of all grace, that he may always have the Gospel in his heart, and on his lips, and that he may never be ashamed of it." Following this reading, another ritual response is exchanged: "The Gospel of the Lord" / "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ."
The faithful then sit down again.
Until now, the Mass has maintained a strict ritual, including the ritual responses at the conclusion of each reading. But here, the celebrant departs somewhat from a formal structure to explain, instruct and inspire. In other words, following the Gospel, the homily or sermon is the first unstructured response of man to God's saving activity in salvation history. And so, the homily extends our response to the readings; the homily is an extended "Deo gratias" ("Thanks be to God") for what God has accomplished and continues to accomplish in bringing about our salvation. It is important to note that only those in Holy Orders – deacons, priests, and bishops – may proclaim the Gospel and preach during the Mass. Why? Not only do these men receive years of theological training, but they are officially consecrated by Holy Mother Church to preach in the name of Christ. They are not to give their personal opinions and views; rather, they are chosen by the Church to speak on her behalf as an instrument of Christ.
As we just mentioned, the celebrant may give either a homily or a sermon. There is a subtle distinction between them: a homily generally focuses on the Scripture readings, whereas a sermon usually focuses on a particular topic or theme, such as a sermon on charity.
It is also important to note the distinction between preaching and teaching. The object of preaching is to increase faith, whereas the object of teaching is to increase knowledge. The ultimate purpose of the homily or sermon is to increase faith, although elements of catechesis should be included. Unfortunately, one of the difficulties about preaching is an unreasonable expectation of the homily. We may expect it to provide us with our weekly dose of Catholic faith and life: history, theology, philosophy, spirituality, liturgy, morality, Scripture analysis, etc. We want it to entertain us and be completed in five minutes or less! I will never forget one Dominican motto: "One homily cannot cover everything."
Father Matthew Buettner is the pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Lincolnton. This is excerpted from "Understanding the Mystery of the Mass – Revisited," available for purchase online at www.tedeumfoundation.org. Proceeds will go toward the purchase of land for a future seminary in the Diocese of Charlotte. Previous columns are archived online at www.catholicnewsherald.com.
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