Fr. James Martin shapes Christ's last words from the cross to suit his theme: "a invitation to a deeper friendship with Jesus"
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The thing with preaching is to preach from the Scripture text. No more, but certainly no less. Textual engagement can generate surprise, some little bit of awe and sometimes old truths in new and startling ways.
The best practical approach was St. Augustine’s. Along with setting a thousand-year theological direction for the Church, one that is still consulted, he also helped develop the homilitical art. It still has deep value; he was, I’d guess, the first Church Father to actually give homilitical instruction.
Having taught college speech plus a little bit of homiletics, a sure approach I use thanks to the sainted bishop, is to take the text as it is and question it. One may even question it in the actual sermon before revealing any conclusions, but the rule is, stay as close to it as possible.
Another approach, implied by Augustine, is to ask a three-part question: Why this text on this day for these people? Again, this is questioning the text to see what might arise, applying it to the situation, and to the hearer’s needs. It gives congregants an honest biblical homily, and if not a “great” homily it is at least a true one that speaks to our condition, and points to Christ as our remedy.
Either way, the text of Scripture determines the homilitical theme; the theme is not predetermined nor is it imposed on the text. The text is as it is, even a difficult one. An old joke among preachers confronting a hard text is to use diversion. Say something like: “The text today is from St. Luke, and that reminds me of something better from St. Matthew.”
Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s book on the Seven Last Words of Christ commits this sort of textual mayhem on the Seven Last Words of Christ. He uses the Seven Words as “an invitation to a deeper friendship with Jesus” and shapes Christ’s last words from the cross to suit that theme.
Martin is a very popular and widely read author. His first novel, The Abbey, is receiving deserved praise. He is also a noted preacher. His reflections on the Seven Words were delivered Good Friday last year at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, specifically at the invitation of Cardinal Timothy Dolan for the tre ore (three-hour) service.
Clearly, I am much in favor of “a deeper friendship with Jesus.” But Fr. Martin takes the occasion to present Jesus as (my phrase) a friendly neighborhood professional helper, someone who “gets” you. Fr. Martin repurposed the Scripture texts for thematic use. He did not let the texts speak for themselves. Here’s my problem: too many homilists squeeze from the text what they have already decided is in the text.
Think about “It is finished,” the Sixth Word. Questioning the text means asking what “finished” means. The preacher must call up the trajectory of Jesus’ life, place it within the economy of salvation and then describe for us what we see in that life of Christ now finished on the cross. The reliable conclusion is when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he said all is accomplished, for us, for creation, for the creative intent of the Father. Of all the Seven Last Words of Jesus, this Sixth Word alone points to the telos of God’s creation. “It is finished” becomes the triumphant cry of the victim, expectantly heralding the kingdom of God rushing over the cosmos, overwhelming the opposition. “It is finished.”
Fr. Martin’s approach is different. As the chapter title has it, Jesus’ Sixth Word becomes “Jesus Understands Disappointment.” When Jesus said “it is finished,” he could just as well have said, “That’s it; I’m done,” a very human reaction to disappointment. So, runs the conclusion, Jesus is a friend who can understand us because he understands disappointment.
Fr. Martin, let me say it clearly, has not produced bad meditations. There are things in here to pull out and savor. But they are sometimes awkwardly conjoined to Christ on the cross. But given Fr. Martin’s theme, everything must be made to fit the subtitle An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. Yet twisting text to theme isn’t a good approach. That’s why the text, not the homilist, must guide the homily.
Reading this book, the Randy Newman’s song used as the Toy Story theme became a vacuous earworm:
“You got troubles and I got ’em tooThere isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for youWe stick together, we can see it through
Cause you’ve got a friend in me.”
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor, is a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead.