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PreachFebruary 19, 2024
An open Book of the Gospels in the Xavier Jesuit community chapel in New York City. (Photo: Ricardo da Silva, S.J./America Media)

“Effective preaching is like good butter sinking into warm toast,” says Karla Bellinger: “You’ve gotta give the Holy Spirit a little bit of time to do some work.” As the founding executive director of the Institute for Homiletics at the University of Dallas, president of the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics, and former associate director of the Marten Program for Homiletics at the University of Notre Dame, Karla is filled with bits of wisdom like this for homilists. As a lay woman and homiletician, she teaches and coaches preachers—mostly ordained Catholic men—to give effective homilies to their congregations.

Karla draws on the ancient traditions of Christian mysticism, images, and intentional silence to make homilies less of an academic exercise or performance and more of an encounter with God. Homilies are a way to convey a message from God to the people, and since preachers are the conduits of that message, she encourages that they regularly seek out feedback on their homilies, not only from their peers, but from laypeople as well. Preaching is a “pastoral act,” she says. “You want your people to come closer to God.”

There's naturally a power imbalance, Karla suggests, between ordained preachers and parishioners. People in the pews might not share feedback unless asked, so she encourages preachers to initiate these conversations among their congregants.

Karla Bellinger teaches and coaches preachers, mostly ordained Catholic men to give effective homilies.

When Ricardo asks Karla about the easiest fixes for preachers to improve their homilies, Karla says that oftentimes, preaching is too complex. Preaching is meant to be heard, so unnecessarily complex language and structure can lead to the message being muddied. She draws on old advice for preachers: pick one focus statement. This allows the congregation to really hear what the preacher—and God—have to say.

Her other fix is less quick, but vitally important: “Pray for your people. Have your people pray for you. Put your homily within the tone of prayer of the liturgy.” A preacher’s spirituality is often palpable to the audience, she says, and it often goes a long way in helping the congregation connect with God.

Scripture Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

First Reading: Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19

Second Reading: Rom 8:31b-34

Verse Before the Gospel: Cf. Mt 17:5

Gospel: Mk 9:2-10

You can find the full text of the readings here.

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, by Karla Bellinger

A few years ago here in the Midwest, I was outside shoveling snow. It was negative two degrees. It was cold, the snow was deep, the sky was blue. The late February sun was growing stronger. Sparkles glistened in the snow where the sun shone upon it. It was beautiful. After a drab and overcast winter, I felt like I was being bathed in light.

And as I scooped the snow onto the snowbank, I thought about the Transfiguration: Jesus was bathed in light with a face shining like the sun; his clothes were dazzling, whiter than any Clorox bleach could bleach them. Maybe it was the brilliance of the snow; maybe it was the brightness of the sun; I don't know which it was, but that word “dazzling”? it just grabbed hold of me.

What does it mean to be dazzled by God? What was so wonderful that all of the Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration?

What does it mean to be dazzled by God?

Then I started to think—where else have I seen dazzling brightness? I think of the shimmer of sunshine dancing on the water... I remember a mountaintop that glowed with the pink and gold of a sunset… Like Abraham in the desert, I have looked up at the radiance of the full moon and the glimmer of the stars.

Those memories of beauty made me smile, and the shoveling grew easier.

How about you? If you live in the northern U.S., winter can be drab and overcast, gloomy and gray, and suddenly snow! Bright and white! And then after a snowstorm, sunshine. Have you ever been bathed in light, dazzled, astounded in awe?

I looked up the word “dazzling.” The Greek word stil-bo means to shine intensely, to dazzle, to be radiant, to glisten. It is only used once in the New Testament, and it comes here in today's story of the Transfiguration in Mark. The word dazzling is rare.

Like Abraham in the desert, I have looked up at the radiance of the full moon and the glimmer of the stars.

In the English language, the word dazzling is also rare. Since the early 18th century, the use of the word “dazzling” has dropped. It was at a low point in the mid 1990s. The word “dazzling” was almost gone from the English language. Are we dazzled no more? Becoming jaded and hard to impress?

But then suddenly, at the turn of the millennium, dazzling white became an advertising slogan for the preferred tooth color of the American upper class. Dazzling white made a brief comeback. If you Google it, you’ll find dazzling white tooth bleaching chemicals.

But other than the straight, pearly white teeth that have become an American symbol of status, do we allow ourselves to be dazzled anymore? Is wonder still a thing?

Afraid to Look

What about the wonder of the Apostles? How long did Peter stare at the brilliance of Jesus? Pretty quickly, he looked away. He said, Rabbi, let us make three tents. Scripture says that he hardly knew what to say. He was terrified. Terrified. That radiance, it was too much, too bright, too intense, too dazzling.

And even when I was in the midst of my shoveling, I had to come inside and get my sunglasses. Being bathed in light is glorious, but whoa, it can be too much—too bright! Too intense! Too dazzling!

Honestly aren't we a little afraid to pray? Are we afraid to allow God to overpower us?

Today is the second Sunday of Lent. In the church, Lent is traditionally a time to focus on prayer. For 40 days, we ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen our interior life. But it doesn't begin with us. It is the living God who wants to spend time with us, just to be with us. The God of the universe who is infinite also wants to be the God who is intimate and close. God wants to dazzle us.

But yes, we know we should pray more in Lent. But honestly, really, aren't we a little afraid to pray? I mean, to really pray? Are we afraid to allow God to overpower us? When Jesus draws close to us, do we look away? Like the Apostles, are we terrified too? Sometimes it feels safer to stay on the surface of prayer, to remain in the drab of this life, to stay in the gloom. But Lent is a time to turn away from darkness. Lent is a time to turn toward the light.

How do we do that?

Radiance surrounds us

We can learn from the mystics. Look at the people who have experienced the close presence of God—Moses’ face glowed with the glory of the great I AM when he came down from the mountain. The saints are painted with halos of light surrounding them. Each one of them is filled with the light of God. Radiance oozes out of them.

Maybe Jesus always looked like that, but this was the only time that the Apostles saw him as he really was. Maybe.

Saint Simeon, the New Theologian, writes that those who walk as children of God are constantly surrounded by light. That is the Kataphatic tradition of Christian mysticism, in line with the spirituality of St. Ignatius—the earth is shot full of the glory of God. Wherever we are, wherever we go, the Holy Spirit shouts out God's beauty, God's truth, God's goodness and dazzling presence. It is always here if we have eyes to see it.

You and me, we may not be great mystics. We might just be ordinary people. How can we allow God to dazzle us without looking away?

How can we allow God to dazzle us without looking away?

In the book, The Dawn Treader (sic.), C.S. Lewis describes a scene where the boat sails closer and closer to the foundation of the world of Narnia. And those eastern waters grow too bright, and the children are blinded by the brightness of the sun shining on those waters. Then they lean over the side of the boat. They begin to take little sips of water. The water tastes like light. Their eyes grow stronger. They're able to see the glory of their surroundings.

Yes, the light of God is intense and bright and dazzling. Yes, the radiance of God might be terrifying. Yes, we can choose to look away.

But if you and I are called to experience the beauty of God in prayer, this Lent, we can take little sips throughout the day—for 10 seconds, let your ribcage swell with the joy of Jesus; for 20 seconds, sit with wonder like a child; for 30 seconds, glory in the created world that you see around you. That is prayer. The God of the universe wants to dazzle us. And like the children on the boat in the Narnia tales, we can grow accustomed to glory. Take small sips. Swell in the dazzling light of God.

Then, for all of Lent, like the Apostles, tell no one. Let the glory of God shine on your inner life. Let the glory of God ready you for Easter. Then the joy of the Resurrection will burst out in your dazzling, radiant smile. And with the whole church, we will shout out, “The Lord has risen!”

Dazzle us, O God. Dazzle us this day.

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