The Homilist

Homiletics in theology the application of the general principles of rhetoric to the specific work of public preaching.

The one who practices or studies homiletics is called a homilist.

Homiletics (Greek homiletikos, from homilos, to assemble together), is one of those disciplines which is easy to do, but difficult to do well.  The terms homily and sermon are often used interchangeably (see the glossary for an exacting definition).  The art of homiletics is not to be undertaken lightly or casually, but with much prayer, and not a little fasting.

The crafting of the homily is a lot like writing a song. There are millions of songs out there, and more being written every day, but few being sung. Few touch a chord within the listener. Few get inside, so to speak. The turn of the phrase is not extemporaneous, but exacting. The measure of language, inflection, delivery and even diction should be prayerfully considered.  It is an awesome and fearful thing to stand in the fire.

How much more to deliver it?

For the sake of integrity, with few exceptions, the homilist for the sake of improving his own homilies, should immediately cease from preaching someone else’s sermon. In reality, this should be a matter of integrity. I feel that this commitment to the art and craft of homiletics itself is not only as an important intellectual bridge to cross; it is an important bridge to burn.

The commitment to preparing and preaching one’s own sermons should assure the homilist of the conviction to complete the creation of the sermon;  for the preaching of the Gospel in the context of the Gospel reading, the festal occasion, or the particular congregation or audience.  Biblical preaching then often takes on a genuine pastoral and apologetic quality.

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Concerning not preaching someone else’s homilies, notable exceptions would be;

  1. The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom (as delivered on Pascha)
  2. The Festal Encyclicals of the Diocesan Hierarch (as provided and instructed),
  3. Occasional festal homilies, (On the Nativity of Christ by St. Leo the Great, On the Dormition of the Theotokos by St. Gregory Palamas, etc.)
  4. Occasional accounts of the lives of saints.

The lives of saints often provide the most profound experience of  how to live the Gospel, and should not be discounted as an excellent, though infrequent, instructional tool.

In every other circumstance, the prayerful reflection on the Gospel, organization and composition of a defined message to the listener(s) on a particular day or occasion should bring a clearer mind, a sharper eye and a more visceral response to the commandment of the Lord, which it is the duty of the homilist to heed:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.”

Isaiah 40:1

As stated at the beginning of this article, homiletics is one of those disciplines which is easy to do, but difficult to do well.

It is incumbent upon the Orthodox homilist to commit himself with humility and painstaking effort to original homiletic compositions for the sake of his listeners, and his own soul.   The expression of the Gospel is a discipline which requires diligence and study, and the willingness to receive correction and guidance. This is the purpose of the Preachers Institute as well, that the Orthodox homilist may find help, aid, inspiration, guidance, and constructive critique of his most important oral and intellectual work. The practice of homiletic creation becomes itself an exercise in regular interior self-examination.

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This is an excellent practice, and, after all, practice doesn’t make perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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