As far back as the Old Testament, there have been sleepy church-goers, even with the likes of St. Paul as the preacher!
Falling asleep during the Sunday sermon has a long history. The New Testament tells the story of a young man named Eutychus falling asleep during a sermon by St. Paul (Acts 20:7-12). While the Apostle preaches a long-winded sermon (he speaks until midnight), Eutychus sits on a window ledge, drifts off into sleep, and spills out of the third story window to his death below.
The irony is that Eutychus means lucky or fortunate (but apparently not in his case).
The Catholic preacher needs to be ready with a message worth listening to, and the person in the pew (you) can be ready to listen to what he says. Even if you will not be sitting on an open ledge, consider these 7 steps you can take for listening to a Catholic sermon (aka, the homily) so you do not fall asleep.
1Pray for your priest's homily prep
We mistakenly assume the homily begins when the priest talks. However, listening to the message begins a week earlier when the priest or deacon starts preparing his homily for Sunday. He needs your prayers, so pray for your priest.
Pray that Jesus will bless the time he gives to preparation. Pray that he receives the grace to find the message that Jesus wants him to speak on Sunday. Pray that his words will be Jesus’ words. Ask and it will be given to you. (Matthew 7:7)
As a bonus, you will find praying for your Sunday preacher prepares you to hear the message God will have for you.
2Prepare yourself beforehand
Keep in mind that the Scriptures are God’s inspired words and the Gospels bear the message of Jesus. When proclaimed in the Sunday assembly, Jesus speaks directly to his people. This is why Catholics stand for the Gospel proclamation.
Anticipate that Jesus will say something at Mass. So, on Saturday evening (Friday evening if you are a Saturday Mass-goer), read through the Sunday Scripture readings (click here), pray that the words will find a home in your heart, and pray that the preacher will open God’s words with a message for you.
Also, be sure to get a good night’s sleep. Nobody can speak to you if you are nodding off even before you arrive. Prayer and good sleep will help turn your Sunday focus to Jesus, where it surely belongs.
Catholic Christians do not often think of doing this, but nothing prohibits it. The first time I saw this, I was confused.
On my first Sunday at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, I proclaimed the Gospel and saw a woman (on my staff) reach into her purse, take out her iPad, open it, and begin reading while I presented a message that I spent hours preparing. I thought: “Now that’s being passive-aggressive. This parish is gonna be a challenge for me.” And then, I saw her do the same thing for the next several Sundays.
When I eventually talked to her about it, she gave me a puzzled look and said she does not read her iPad. She instead opens her journal and writes notes of what I say. I instantly moved from feeling insulted to feeling impressed (and relieved). What a great way to take the Sunday message into her prayer later on, or to talk from with friends over dinner. (Also, seeing a note taker prods me to prepare well what I will say on Sunday, not only to have a message worth listening to, but a message worth taking notes of.)
Or, if you are not a note taker, you can still jot down something later about what you heard, how God spoke to your heart, and add a short prayer for the grace you need to live up to God’s message. Then, be ready for these next four ways you can respond to God’s message.
4Be ready to profess your faith
When someone speaks to your heart, the instinct is to affirm your relationship by saying something in return, which is what we do as Catholic Christians. After we listen to the homilist, we pause a moment to take in Jesus’ message for us. We then stand as a community and profess our faith in Jesus together.
The words we say have a name: the Profession of Faith. It is usually the Creed written by bishops at Nicaea in 325, where they discussed how to respond to heresies of the day, particularly Arianism, which distorted Christian teachings about Jesus. Their debates resulted in a statement affirming their faith in Jesus. We continue to make the same statement every Sunday in response to what God says to us.
Therefore, listen to the Sunday message for something to help you profess your faith.
5Be ready to pray for others
God is a relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who loves us for no other reason than to love us. After the Profession of Faith, we pray for the needs of others, which is our first act of compassion inspired by Jesus’ words.
The Bible calls us to be people of prayer, and our prayer is modeled on Jesus who “went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness.” (Matthew 9:35)
Listen to God speaking to your heart, and be ready to make an act of compassionate prayer for others.
6Be ready to be thankful
After we profess our faith and pray for others, we set the altar with bread and wine for a sacred meal that the New Testament calls the breaking of the bread. Early Christians soon began calling it Eucharist, a word meaning Thanksgiving.
In other words, the Sunday message intends to give you a reason to be thankful for what God has done for you through Jesus. Jesus said he would die and rise … and he did! Ever since, we have been privileged to share in his death and resurrection by living in Communion with Jesus. You have no more uplifting motivation for being thankful.
7Be ready for your mission
God gives you a set of talents and gifts given to nobody else. When you hear Jesus speaking to your heart, know that he gives you a mission to use your unique set of God-given talents and gifts. With Word and Sacrament to bolster you, you can walk out through the church doors with an added bounce in your step, because you are accepting your God-given mission for another week.
The Apostle James writes: Be doers of the word and not hearers only. (James 1:22)
Question: What if the sermon (homily) truly is bad?
Answer: Not to excuse poor homily preparation (God knows that I do not always hit the mark), but I am convinced that Jesus always has a message for you, if you listen for it. If you prepare well, if you expect to hear Jesus speaking to your heart, and if you come to church ready to profess your faith, to pray for others, to be thankful, and to assume your God-given mission, you will also hear God’s message for you.
Revisiting the story about Eutychus
On Sundays, we never hear the story of Eutychus dying from the Apostle Paul’s killer sermon. (People would die laughing if they heard it read on Sunday.) However, a careful reading of the Eutychus story (Acts 20:7-12) points us to a deeper meaning.
Notice that the incident happens on the first day of the week (code for the Christian Sabbath) when they break bread (code for Eucharist). Thus, this is an early Christian Mass, at which Paul preaches and young Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death. The Apostle Paul rushes downstairs, the young man is brought from death to life, and everyone returns to the meal and has Communion (the breaking of the bread).
This odd story actually reminds us that dying and rising happen during Mass today. The homily sets us up for and anticipates our death and resurrection with Jesus with bread and wine. Eutychus’ story is your story. You are Eutychus. You are fortunate (lucky) to share in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
How do you prepare to listen to the Sunday message?
Do you have a routine to prepare for Sunday?
What can a Catholic preacher (homilist) do to help you hear Jesus’ message more clearly?