On Preaching

Only a proclamatory word spoken to me can free me from myself, a word that so challenges me to live from God’s future rather than from my possessed life that such eschatological existence is the only possibility open in the moment of hearing, that in the event of this word the future of God and so indeed God himself happens to me.[1]

Should preaching be beautiful, artful and poetic?  Is it dangerous if it is?  Well yes how else can it convert the heart of the preacher and people!

To preach is to participate in the proclamation of the Gospel.  Therefore it is to participate in the Incarnation of the Word in the heart of the believer.  The preacher’s task is to proclaim the scriptures in such a way as to enliven them in the heart and mind of the listener.  To do so it is necessary not only to speak truth with clarity to the congregation but also to move the congregation, to move them toward truth, to move them in love, to move them with beauty.  Saint Augustine in his work Teaching Christianity contends that the eloquent churchman when trying to persuade people about something that has to be done must not only teach in order to instruct them, not only delight in order to hold them but also sway them in order to conquer and win them.  This is the task of the preacher to evoke a longing in our bodies and souls for God.

 

The discipline of delight and persuasion with words is the discipline of rhetoric. The art of apprehension is the art of the poet and the visionary.  These two skills held together, grounded in scripture, constrained by the liturgy, and pointed towards the Eucharistic feast are the best tools of the preacher for the enlivening of souls.  These tools are not extraneous to the work of preaching, even the simplest sermon can and should be beautiful, artful and carefully spoken but even the most eloquent sermon will always be insufficient– we can only create images as in a darkened mirror at the best of times–but create with all of our attention and love we must.

 

The best teacher of these arts are the texts of scripture themselves, read over and over for their many layered meanings, for their multiplicities of tone and for their sheer magnificence. If the revelation of God to the church in scripture is one of the most beautiful and multi faceted texts ever written should not the preacher seek to preach delightfully and poetically to honor the text?  Even more importantly, our salvation is found in Christ and Christ is the positive reality of beauty.  As Fydor  Dostoevsky once wrote:

 

There is only one positively beautiful face in the world—Christ, so that the manifestation of this one immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is already, of course, an ongoing miracle. [2]

 

Thus the preacher must proclaim Christ the Good the True and the Beautiful in the most artful way possible so as to invoke in the imagination of the listener the possibility of belief in Beauty itself.  In our age we must re-equip people’s imaginations— etch out landscapes of imagination capable of responding to the divine dynamics of reality. The preacher as a poet visionary must be the helpmate of her Mother the Church.  She must take the doctrine and the revelation of heavenly love and reconciliation given to her by her Mother and in turn give back to her a prophetic vision of reality and potentiality. The Mother then and all the souls that indwell her can eat of her vision, and imaginations can be enraptured into action to birth flashes of paradise.

Poetic language awakens, it calls us to an awareness that we have a capacity for participation in the beautiful; it helps us to feel its pull. Beauty—created and being created—fosters in us a sensitivity to both our separation from and our relation to the Beautiful One. It calls to our desire for Him and heightens our awareness of our distance from Him. It makes us utter and act, chastening us for our insufficiencies and sin. It drives us to penitence; it takes us to our knees to cry for mercy.[3]

The preacher must therefore read the signs of the time and give her loving attendance to the world in its particularity, holding it always under the scrutiny of the scripture which constrain her thoughts.  The task is to give one’s full devotion to the world, knowing the suffering and pain of the world, knowing our distance from God; knowing the spaces between the image and its derivation and reaching into that distance toward the Beautiful.   The preacher seeks to apprehend with precision the world, seeing its evil and schism with depth and accuracy, he balances this seeing with a vision of heavenly glory, straining to know the streets and markets of the heavenly City, to map their splendor in order that we may enter into them hungry for their loveliness.

Preaching that attends to beauty in this way participates in the process of theosis or deification—being brought into the beautiful— it is participation in the divine creative economy, Sergii Bulgakov explains that theosis involves the human shaping of images that facilitate through resonance and recognition a deeper knowing in action and word of the life of the Godhead. We are to “come to know by working, we arrive at new vision through the images we have made, the songs we have sung, the words we have uttered.” [4]  This is a theurgic invocation of God who comes and infuses our work with his life and his breath.

 

It is here in this awakening and ‘theurgy’ that artistry and the work of the church as a whole intersect. If the church learns to be present to scripture and the world with poetic attention through the leadership of the preacher, then she has a resource that can help uncloud her vision of the beautiful, open her imagination, and theurgically invoke the pull of beauty.

However, only paired with the liturgical work of the church culminating in the Eucharistic feast can poetic preaching find its place in the invocation of divine Bulgakov warns us:

Art must have hidden in its depths a prayer for the transfiguration of the created order, but it is not itself called to the daring enterprise of sophiurgic experiment [this is one way that Bulgakov defines theosis].  It must, patiently and hopefully, carry the cross of an insatiable yearning in its own passionate hunger, and await its hour.[5]

 

All images created by the preacher will be insufficient. Thus we must bring all of our images in their insufficiency and their falleness to be broken with His body on His altar. The task then for the preacher is to participate in the proclamation of the Beautiful one through the practice of poetic attention to Scripture and the world, and through artful rhetoric used to delight, sway and convert the hearts of the congregation.  The preacher must do this with the Church, in the work of the liturgy in order that through word and sacrament we might attempt to bear the darkness of our incoherent world, repenting all the brokenness in her temporal being, and bring it all to the altar so that, hope might be revived in the body of the One who is Beauty and who saves the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Jenson, Systematic Theology 167.  Discussing Rudolf Bultman

[2] Dostoevsky, Fydor. Polonoe sobrani sochnenii v tridtsatykh tomakh (Leningrad 1973-1990)(vol 28 no. 2 p. 249-252) in Diane Thomson. Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge. UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 112.

[3] William Law as quoted in Williams, The Image of the City, 79

[4]  John Milbank, Sophiology and Theurgy: The New Theological Horizon. http://www.theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/, 35.

 

[5] The Unfading Light in Sergii Bulgakov, Towards a Russian Political Theology. (Edinburgh, Scotland: T& T Clark Ltd, 1999), 148.