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Initiating a mystical union with Christ

Q: Archbishop J, are there different kinds of homilies?

Each type of homily has its place in history and in the toolkit of the preacher. The New Advent Encyclopedia says the Greek word homillia, is best translated as, “to hold intercourse with a person”, as used in 1 Corinthians 15:33 and Luke 24:14.

The Word, therefore, has a nuptial implication. The homily is not a decree, a telegram, a fax, an email or a WhatsApp message. It is primarily about intimacy and person-to-person communication.

From the start, the homily has been associated with the Eucharist, as it explored Sacred Scripture and assisted the Christian in understanding the meaning of the Christ event. The conversation of Jesus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus demonstrates this. “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:26–27). There we have the first homily, open to encounter and connected with the Eucharist.

The early Church had several kinds of homilies. I will focus on three—Expository, Hortatory and Mystagogical. Each of these contributes to the life of the disciple in a significant way.

The Expository homily is the most common. It focuses on the text as text, interpreting it on the basis of the scriptural context, Tradition and the Christ event. The aim of the expository homily is to assist the congregation to come to knowledge and understanding of a dimension of the Scripture, showing how it illuminates the Christ event.

The Hortatory homily seeks to move beyond text as text and points to the spiritual wisdom contained in the text. Here the preacher aims to instruct the will of the listener so the person may find deeper reasons for spiritual action or conversion of heart. The hortatory homily points to spirituality and morals. We might consider it an upgrade from exposition; it takes expository discourse to the next level.

The Mystagogical homily seeks to initiate the congregation into the sacred mysteries. It aims at the heart and seeks to invite the listener into the place where Christ is encountered. The aim of this form of homily is to lead the congregation to an encounter with Christ. Here Christ, by inviting the disciple to nuptial union, opens that person to a new dimension of faith. This level of encounter is available to all disciples.


A Mystical Way

In a lecture on homiletics at St Meinrad Seminary, October 2019, I said: “My aim in this paper is to speak about the homily as a space where Christ is encountered. For this to become the norm, it is important—in a consistent manner—that we go beyond the engagement with the text as text and foundation of the homily (Expository). We also need to go beyond the notion of the text as spiritual wisdom, insight and challenge (spiritual wisdom).

“To be consistent, I believe we need a new expectation—the birth of the word of God in the soul of the preacher and the hearer of the word (mystical encounter).”

Karl Rahner the famous German theologian, said: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” This is a serious and significant statement.

The mysticism that Rahner speaks about is not an esoteric teaching given to the few. It is at the very core and centre of Christianity, in which all disciples are invited to participate. It is the mysticism of ordinary everyday life; about “finding God in all things”, as St Ignatius would say.

The expectation is that every baptised disciple of Christ would come to mystical union. Not some but all! William Blake captures this in the opening of his poem Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain

of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm

of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

I believe that the challenge we face with the Mass today, is that we have not initiated our people into the sacred mysteries. We have not given them the expectation to have mystical union with Christ. We have not gone beyond the text as text, or the text as spiritual wisdom, to the text as invitation or portal into the sacred mystery that is Christ.

Christ Life

In his 2013 encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis commenting on a dialogue between the martyr Hierax and the Roman prefect Rusticus, says: “For those early Christians, faith, as an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ, was indeed a ‘mother’, for it had brought them to the light and given birth within them to divine life, a new experience and a luminous vision of existence for which they were prepared to bear public witness to the end”(5).

The birth of the Word of God in the soul of the preacher and then in his hearers is the ultimate aim of preaching today. Don’t get me wrong. We need good expository preaching to ensure our people have the foundations of faith and a firm grasp of the Scripture as sacred text.

We also need preaching that points to spiritual wisdom and speaks to the will, opening the depth of the Tradition to our people. But, for the Church in the 21st century to be truly alive and be the body of Christ in the world today, we need mystagogical preaching to initiate our people into the sacred mystery that is Christ.

In mystagogical preaching, the Word is born anew in the soul of the hearer. This Christ life, this life of grace that is conceived, bears a marvellous harvest of discipleship. This is how the Church renews itself constantly.

Key Message: There are different styles of homilies. For the needs of the Church today, mystagogical preaching is very important.

Action Step: Consider deeply the kind of relationship Christ wants with you. Tangential connection? Obedience and service? Nuptial union?

Scripture Reading: John 15:7–17