It’s different, writing an Easter Sunday or Midnight Mass sermon. Someone has described the experience for most pastors who serve a congregation really well when he or she says that we live in the tyranny of Sunday in “ordinary time”. That simply means if you serve a community, especially a small one, like I do, Sunday in and Sunday out, you prepare a sermon, whether the sky has fallen, or the tedium has made your head feel like it would explode, or incredible pain has been visited upon the community or in the daily hubbub, there have been moments of exquisite joy and meaning—small miraculous occasions when as leader of the congregation you’ve gotten a glimpse of the Kingdom–at some point in the week, the reality that you will stand in the pulpit again comes home to roost and there’s no escape. Sunday will come, ready or not.
The longer I minister in community, the more aware I become that there’s something different, at least for me, about preparing the sermon I will preach for one of our two highest holy days—Christmas and Easter. There’s more pressure. Our churches typically fill up with folks who normally don’t come to church. The events are so well known and so many sermons have already been preached about the exact same thing. We’re competing with all the images of a plural culture. The list goes on. For several years, that felt overwhelming.
Something’s been changing though. Perhaps because I know all those things, and words matter so much on that night, I find myself engaged with the Christmas sermon all year long. I constantly scan for new images, new stories, new ways of retelling the old familiar story. This part is hard to describe: there’s a hollowing out, especially as November turns to December. On my long walks and early, early in the morning when my household is asleep and I sit at the kitchen table and savor my coffee and the silence, I work on slowing the chatter of the itty bitty little chorus of voices in my mind. I suppose this is akin to meditation. Over time, I have come to see that even if only for brief moments, I put myself at God’s disposal, practice what Gabriel Marcel calls ‘disponibilité’.
The pieces start coming together. It has never stopped astonishing me, how little by little, a pattern emerges, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts becomes clear. The words and the “movements” of the sermon etch themselves out. Sometimes, my heart literally starts racing because there’s this sense of discovery, of finally seeing what was there all along, waiting to be found. Always, there is a sense not just of relief, but of gratitude.
This year, preparing weekly sermons has been especially hard for me. I am regretful for my community because so often I have failed to do the Scriptures and the folks I love justice. I had been dreading the preparation of my Christmas sermon. I didn’t need to. It is coming together. The darkness of these past few nights in particular has been wonderful to walk in. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.