I have learned over the years that the best feedback about preaching comes from ‘the folks’ – the ones who actually listen (not just hear). If you are not used to getting feedback from laypeople, other than an occasional ‘attaboy’ on Sundays, I strongly recommend it. Their insights cut right to the bone of what we are trying to do. They are great allies, and I treasure every opportunity to examine information like this.
This letter came to us earlier this year in anticipation of the Paschal Vigil. Every priest in the world can take some honey from this flower. To the author, Magdalena, I can only say – Thank you for taking the time to help us preach better. May God grant you your heart’s desire for doing so.
May I have your blessing?
Personally, I think it’s pretty nice of the Church to provide you with a sermon for Pascha. Let’s face it, by the time we get to the sermon, we’ve been on our feet for hours, you’ve been on your feet for days, and now you don’t have to write a new sermon.
It’s nice for us parishioners as well. Listening to the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is a beloved tradition, hearing words that have echoed down through the centuries. We understand why St. John was called “Golden-Tongue” after hearing the simplicity and complexity in a mere 500 words.
With loving regard for the priests that have served my parish over many years, let me say that the best rendition of this sermon was not in a church, but in a garage, during a Pascha party held by a local Greek priest. Stuffed with lamb, giddy with exhaustion and joy, I heard the priest and his beloved parishioners give and respond to St. John’s amazing words. Stomping! Shouting! Exhilaration! This was what it was meant to be!
It’s coming up again. Lent is here and we approach the Feast of Feast with renewed love for our Savior, care for our parish and hopefully, more repentance in our souls. You’re faced with the challenge of presenting this great sermon. Let me offer a few humble but serious suggestions from the left side back of what we in the front of the altar want to see.
1. A little excitement, please.
St. John wasn’t known as Golden Tongue simply for what he wrote. Most of the people who heard his first presentation probably couldn’t read. It was what he said and how he said it that made it so powerful. Even in a language I don’t understand, a well-read version of the sermon is delightful because it expresses JOY. Look at this sermon on YouTube: from St. Nicholas Church in Red Bank, New Jersey. I haven’t a clue what he’s saying but I can tell from the expressive way the priest is reading that this is no funeral dirge, this is no ordinary talk – this is important. This is exciting. This is God we’re talking about!
We’re all tired, but some vocal variety will help. I could tell you what words to stress, how to raise and lower your voice, when to speed up and when to slow down – but really? Do you need me to do that? This sermon is made not for silent reading but for a vocal presentation.
2. What’s the point?
St. John made it simple. It doesn’t matter when we come. It doesn’t matter if we fasted. All that matters is that Christ rose from the dead! Hell is destroyed and we have eternal life! This is the Gospel, the Good News! Please don’t mumble. Please don’t whisper. Please, don’t make it sound like you’re reading an academic paper. Read it like you believe every single word! Please, don’t edit, don’t add to it. You don’t have to! The table is full-laden! Would you steal from the feast? Everything is there!
3. We’re part of this too.
There will be plenty of people who disagree because they didn’t grow up with the traditions of the Greeks or the (fill in the blank). But there are great little “t” traditions (customs) that allow the parishioners to participate in this sermon. Please, don’t tell us to sit down – this sermon is traditionally received with the parish standing. In the sermon when the priest reads “Christ is risen!” why shouldn’t we get to answer “Indeed He is risen” in response? Crying out “Embittered!” – like many of the Greeks call out – gives us a chance to shout the victory of Christ over death and hell. Encouraging your parish to participate even in one way may feel awkward – but only once, I promise. Next time, it will be a cherished and beloved tradition of your parish.
4. We don’t need it explained to us.
Even if there’s a first time visitor who’s wandered unaware into our festal services, the Paschal sermon does not need any help. Yes, there are plenty of references to the Gospel teachings of Christ. St. Paul is liberally quoted.
- The hours stated in the sermon don’t match up with our current method of telling time – but everyone will understand anyway.
- The eleventh hour isn’t an unknown to the average American.
- A guest might not understand the Great Fast – but this is not the time to explain it.
- “Embittered” is not an archaic word that no one understands – even if it’s a new word that someone had never heard, in context, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, let it be something they seek to learn by returning.
Let them be drawn by the love they see. We can teach the theology of Christ as the first-born of the dead during the feasting afterward.
If you absolutely, positively feel that you must explain it, consider this: When interpreting a famous speech, remember why it’s famous. We remember the Gettysburg Address. We may not understand it, but would anyone consider interrupting those magnificent words to clarify Lincoln’s thoughts? Successful interpreters will explain the difficult concepts before giving the speech so the audience, now educated, can understand and appreciate the rolling power of that speech.
This sermon is no different. If you feel compelled to expound, do it before St. John’s sermon is read, and keep it super short. Then please read the whole thing without interruption.
I hope you have a joyous Pascha, Father. Take advantage of this chance for you to rest and enjoy the beauty of St. John’s Paschal Sermon along with the rest of us.