President Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and the Lectionary

The title got your attention did it not? What if I had titled it, "The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity"? In the May 25, 2009 issue of America, Edward Foley, O.F.M. Cap., wrote on the homily and its relationship to the lectionary readings of the day. He argues that it is not always necessary to preach from the scripture readings for any given day, as other factors and events might impinge on the congregation and the homilist, not to mention an entire country, and so direct our spiritual attention in another direction. He states that "when clergy are so tied to a scriptural text, where can they find the grounding to preach about crises confronting the people in the pews?" The online comments, some from priests, are instructive. A couple of comments decry the state of biblical literacy, amongst the laity and clergy, others call for homilies, much like Edward Foley suggests, that ring true to the cultural and moral issues of the day, and which might not be treated in the readings of the day, and other comments simply call for better homilies.

I am in the position of being a scripture scholar and a layman, so I do not have to give homilies, though I teach both people who will soon give homilies and those who will listen to them from the pews. Scripture is such a powerful gift, but Foley’s article gets to the heart of many issues regarding the Bible, how it is taught, what people in the pews want, what preachers can give, and how to respond to issues of the day. I feel it in my classroom, in which I try to present the historical, cultural and social background of early Christianity and Judaism, as well as the theological context of the Bible. Sometimes I am too slow for my students. On the first day of class a few years ago, a young woman asked, as I was beginning to introduce the overview for the semester, "why does the Church hate gay people?" The common professorial reply of "let’s get back to that" so that I could stay on task for the day - as I love to do - did not seem appropriate. The question was too blunt, too strong, and came from a place of real hurt, though I never did track down the source of that hurt in class. Instead, therefore, of giving my introduction to the Bible, we got to the core of a powerful issue. We talked about it that class. I posted Church documents on our class website for the next meeting and we studied the appropriate scriptural passages in the next class. It had to be done, both to respond to this student and to clarify the Church’s teaching. I was able to demonstrate, I think, that the Church does not "hate gay people," supply the Church’s teachings, and honestly discuss the fact that unless one accepts the Church’s first principles on gender, creation and sexuality, the teaching will not make sense, or seem utterly cruel, as it does to many young people. Who has the time that I have in the classroom to present the Church’s teachings and the scriptural passages on any particular given issue in the Sunday homily, even when people are crying out for explanation?


On the other hand, the lectionary readings are so precious, as is the Church year itself, that it is in excellent exegesis and homiletics that the Bible comes alive to people in the pews and orients the faithful to the life and rhythms of the Church. These past two weeks my parents, now elderly, came to visit from Canada. They are Mennonites and have a number of genuine theological issues with the Catholic Church, apart from my belonging to it. We decided to attend the local community Church for the two Sundays they were here, both for their comfort and to forego arguments. Pastor Dan is a wonderful man; I talked to him prior to bringing my parents so that he knew who we were and why we were coming. But as we sat in the chairs on two Sundays, missing both Ascension and Pentecost, both of which I had blogged on for America, I yearned for the lectionary and even more for the Church’s rhythm, not to mention the Eucharist. I missed two Sundays in my parish - and yes, I confessed it - and I wanted to enter into these mysteries of Jesus’ life and the Church. What an awesome feat the Church accomplishes through the very reality of the liturgical year. It connects us to the history of the Church and to the ongoing seasons of the natural world, the here and now.

As to the biblical readings, and the events which intrude upon everyday reality, they do not always line up. I read the In All Things blog with a touch of envy - and no, I have not yet confessed that - as they write on President Obama, Notre Dame, Justice Sonya Sotomayor, Dr. George Tiller, and other events and figures that stoke the imagination of readers and that fill the airwaves and internet with powerful emotions and responses. Hardly anyone responds to musings on the Ascension. But why not? Why do not people respond to reflections on Pentecost with powerful emotion? Is it the texts? The author? Too boring? Too dry? Too scriptural? Or is it that these Church rhythms do not connect to the rhythms of the news cycle and the issues of the day? I must ask one further question: is it a problem that the Church readings and the liturgical calendar do not respond to the news cycle and the readings do not necessarily connect to the current issue du jour, or is that the strength of them? These issues too shall pass, but the word of God will last forever. There is that reality, though, on which Father Foley meditated, and to which my student inadvertently averted, and that is when the issues of the day transcend the news cycle and reflect the spiritual needs and hopes of the faithful. Which is to say, I am not certain how to tie all of this in to the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, but it has been on my mind for awhile.

 John W. Martens

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9 years 7 months ago

I agree completely with Prof. Marten's summary in the comment above.  I have heard homilies where the priest was clearly torn between integrating the Lectionary readings and addressing a curent issue, and the connection between the two is either dubious or is so thin that the people leave scratching their heads.  No one wins in that case, and so rather I think it is better for the homily to adequately address the issue of the day.  In most cases, though, it is my opinion to stick with the topic presented by the Lectionary.

9 years 7 months ago
 Hi there,  Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.  Have a nice day
9 years 7 months ago
Actually the readings often strike me as very relevant to current events or issues. For example let's take last Sunday's readings. 1st reading: ''We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues'' - can be related to finding a common ground (so as to speak to people who have different values in words that they can understand). 2nd reading: ''If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.'' - can be related to Dr. George Tiller's murder and can provide the start of a reflection on the role of law. Gospel: ''I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.'' - can be related to questions of authority, discernment, the Magisterium, the voice of the faithful, compromises between an impossible ideal and the reality that we can bear, priestly celibacy,...
9 years 7 months ago
Scripture Fan, Great moniker by the way. I think you are correct; the readings often do have relevance to current events and issues. You point to a number of these relevant events as connected to the readings for Pentecost. It is hard to disagree, but sometimes, as I noted, they do not align, and then I suppose a homilist has choices to make (or await the guidance of the Spirit) as to whether to preach on the events or the Scripture passages. I do believe, of course, that the lectionary readings are always relevant to our lives, both as the body of Christ and as individuals. The connections to our day to day lives is not always apparent and sometimes that is the great wonder and gift of Scripture: it points us beyond our narrow and parochial concerns to God's greater plan.


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