3 Epiphany, January 27
Listeners must be ready for the preaching of the gospel. They must settle their nerves and open their ears and focus their attentive powers. For this reason, the “dramatic opening” is much overrated. Listeners do not actually hear the first few words or even the first few sentences. Instead, they adjust to the oratorical manner of a speaker, pass judgment about the speaker’s appearance, and decide whether the speaker is credible, all of which occurs, and much more, as the opening sentences of the sermon are spent. The larger the crowd and the larger the space, the longer this adjustment tends to be. It takes time to truly listen. In the world before electric amplification, it was even harder.
This is why, to note one example, St. John Chrysostom spent so much time in the beginning of his sermons simply asking to be heard: “[W]hen we are to harken to such words, and are not to stand far from a smoking mountain, but to enter heaven itself, we ought to show forth a greater self-denial; not washing out our garments, but wiping clean the robe of our soul, and ridding ourselves of all mixture with worldly things. For it is not blackness we shall see, nor smoke, nor tempest, but the King Himself sitting on the throne of that unspeakable glory, and angels and archangels standing by Him, and tribes of the saints, with those interminable myriads” (On St. Matthew, Homily II).
In sermon after sermon, at length well exceeding a modern homily, this great preacher used a long and flowing introduction to prepare his listeners.
Now a biblical example. “They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. … He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of the people were attentive to the book of the law” (Neh. 8:1b-3).
The people listened, stood in reverence, raised their hands to heaven, bowed down in holy fear, and pronounced their Amen. Unable to understand everything exactly as written, they were given an interpretation, the essential sense. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. There is a book of nature too. The heavens tell the glory of God, day and night speak, and the sun runs its course (Ps. 19:1-6). “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom. 1:20). Nature and the God of nature await a true hearing.
“The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:17-20).
Their eyes were fixed and their ears attentive, though not to the point of faith. Faith comes by the grace of deep listening.
Look It Up
Read the opening sentence of the Rule of St. Benedict (bit.ly/BenedictFull).
Think About It
“Hear, my child … and incline the ear of your heart.”