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PreachMay 13, 2024
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe, courtesy of Unsplash.

Though Jesus preached in parables that still captivate us, not every story told in a homily has a similarly lasting impact. The Rev. Christopher Clohessy shares how preachers can craft stories that linger long after Mass is over.

This week on “Preach,” host Ricardo da Silva, S.J., is joined by another South African priest. Chris is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cape Town who now teaches Arabic and Islamic theology at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies in Rome. In his homily, Chris harnesses the technique of narrative storytelling to illuminate what the work of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, looks like in our lives.

In the conversation after the homily, Ricardo and Chris talk about the power of telling stories in homilies—and the art of telling a good one. Chris says that a successful story starts with a character with whom the congregation can relate, and it comes alive through “word pictures,” images that will stick in listeners’ minds after the homily concludes. “You want to be able to get people involved, not in their listening, but in their imagination and in their emotions,” Chris explains. “I think a good emotional response to a sermon is a very important thing because in the Gospels, people respond emotionally to Jesus.”


Readings for Pentecost Sunday

First Reading: Acts 2:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
Second Reading: 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Gal 5:16-25
Gospel: Jn 20:19-23 or Jn 15:26-7; 16:12-15

The full text of the Scripture readings can be found here.


Homily for Pentecost Sunday, by Christopher Clohessy

The story is told of a young girl making what were probably the final arrangements for her wedding. The wedding was just a few weeks away and almost everything had been done: The church had been booked, the reception had been paid for, the invitations long since sent out. There was just one single thing that this girl did not have weeks before her wedding—and that was a wedding dress. The reason she didn’t have a wedding dress was because none of the dressmakers in the city were able to understand what precisely she was asking them.

To each of them, in turn, she asked the same question. “I want,” She would say, “I want a dress that makes a rustling noise every time I move,” and none of the dressmakers seemed able to help her. And finally, she came to the last dressmaker that she knew in her city and she went in and said to him, “I need a wedding dress, but it must be a dress that rustles every time I move.” And the dressmaker says, “Well, I can do that for you if that’s what you want. It’s going to be heavy and uncomfortable and not particularly pretty to look at, but it will rustle.” “That’s what I want,” she said. “I don’t need it to be beautiful, I don’t need it to be comfortable, but I do need it to rustle every time I make a movement.”

So he agrees to make the dress, and as she’s leaving the shop, he calls her back and said, “But tell me why? Why would you, on the most important day of your life, want a dress that’s going to be uncomfortable and heavy to wear and not particularly pretty to look at? Why this dress that rustles?” And the girl says, “Because my fiancé is blind and I need him to hear me even though he cannot see me. I need him to know at every single moment of that ceremony that I am there standing by his side.

So here’s a first question: What is the thing that rustles inside of you, inside of your own life, something that rustles and by that rustling reminds us of this God who we have never seen, and yet he stands right beside us at every moment of the ceremony, which is our lives? 

And here’s a second question: When will that moment come for me or for you, when more than anything else in our lives, we need somebody to stand alongside us? Will it be on the day when we have to face the bully in the schoolyard or the bully in the workplace or the bully in our own homes, because bullies aren’t just found in playgrounds? When we meet that bully, wherever we meet him or her, and we have no one whom we can turn to? Will it be the day perhaps when we find ourselves betrayed by the person we love most in life, our very best friend, and have our hearts absolutely broken by people that we build our lives around?

Or perhaps it’ll be the day when we look in the mirror and discover that we were the bullies and we were the heartbreakers, and that now years after the fact, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to heal the damage we’ve done? Maybe I’ll be on a trip and there I will meet people who possess none of the things that I possess, and yet they have a joy which I seem to have missed all of my life, which has eluded every single moment. Or that day when I encounter some dreadful, appalling example of racism or sexism or one of the many -isms that seem to so dominate our world at the moment. When will that moment come when I most need somebody who will stand by me?

And talking about things that rustle, here’s the last question. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You can hear its sound. You can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s going. And so it is with everyone who has been born of the Spirit.” What does the Spirit actually look like anyway? Do we know? Does anybody know? We could fill the church with pictures of doves, I suppose, except that the Holy Spirit looks nothing like a dove. We could paste up pictures of tongues of flame, except the Holy Spirit looks nothing like a tongue of flame.

Actually, we do know what the Holy Spirit looks like. The Holy Spirit looks quite a lot like us or like people around us in those moments when they stand by our side, or those moments when we choose to stand up for somebody, or defend somebody’s good name, or plead for a cause that we absolutely know is just, or the day when we stand up to a bully, or share our expertise with somebody, or give fresh heart to people who are faltering, or just help people to get through the day—because those are some of the things that the Holy Spirit does.

That’s why Jesus calls the Spirit Paraclete. It’s an odd word. I know some Bibles translate it as “comforter,” which sounds good, but comforter isn’t exactly the same thing as Paraclete. Other Bibles use the word “helper.” It’s also a good word, but it’s not quite what Paraclete means, because what Paraclete means is someone who is called in alongside you, literally somebody who is called to stand by your side. It might be someone who is called to give testimony in a court case so that the Paraclete at that moment is a witness. Or it might be somebody who is called in to plead the case of somebody who has been charged with something so at that moment, the Holy Spirit, or the Paraclete, is truly an advocate.

Maybe somebody called in to share his or her expertise, so that at that moment, the Paraclete becomes an advisor and a teacher. It might be somebody who is called in to help us remember the most important things of life, so that at that moment, the Paraclete becomes the reminder, or maybe just somebody who is called in to give a group of people or individual people a bit of fresh heart, a bit of new courage to face the day. So that in that moment, the Paraclete becomes truly the comforter.

That’s what comforter used to mean. It comes from an old Latin word that meant brave, and the comforter was the one who gave you fresh heart and offered courage to people when they were fearful and helped people to cope with things, removing their inadequacies, helping them to press through or push through the difficulty. The Paraclete is really the one whose name you call when somebody hauls you up on a false charge, or when you stand in front of the bully, any bully, or when in the middle of the night you wake from a bad dream. The Paraclete is the one who comes to our defense and our rescue and our comfort, the one who comes blessing and refreshing and enlivening and rousing and energizing and inspiring. And the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit does quite a lot of those things by using the people who come into our lives because God always reaches people through people.

So the Holy Spirit looks just like us, whenever you and I are Paracletes, when we choose to stand alongside somebody and remind them of the most crucial things in life which they may have forgotten; or when we offer them our ability and our expertise to help them to get where they need to be; when we give them our little bits of wisdom, the wisdom that we learned at the knees of our parents and our grandparents, and we offer to them to live by and to give a shape to their world; or when we help to defend their good name when it is darkened by gossip or by slander; or when we speak on their behalf because they don’t have a voice that anyone is ever going to listen to; or when we defend them from somebody who is making their lives miserable; or just give them new heart when they’re dejected and depressed by life.

After all, that’s the whole point of the resurrection. It’s God lifting us up on our feet again. That’s what the Spirit looks like, because the Spirit is the one who comes and defends and rescues and comforts. And when we come into people’s lives, blessing them, refreshing them, enlivening them and rousing them, inspiring and energizing them, or just bringing some of that peace that people long for—then we are Paracletes, and we are like little snapshots of the Holy Spirit at work in the world, hiding in its corners, surprising us when we didn’t expect the Spirit to be there. We become like little fragments, if you like, of the kingdom of God. Yes, it might be in fragments, but even the fragments of a mirror are still able to reflect a great deal of light.

So on this Pentecost, I ask, what is the thing that is rustling inside of me, reminding me of the God I cannot see, but who right through the ceremony of my life has been right there—standing at my side? And at what moments in my life am I a Paraclete and become a representative of the Holy Spirit to others? “The wind blows wherever it pleases,” says Jesus to Nicodemus. “You can hear its sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going. And so it is with everybody who is born of the Spirit.”

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