The following is an excerpt of The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh by Andrew Hofer, OP with a foreword by Paul M. Blowers (CUA Press, 2023).
The Power of Patristic Preaching
The Word in Our Flesh
We live in an age acutely sensitive to hypocrisy. Those Christians who have stayed in the pews look for authenticity and transparency in the Church only to be discouraged time and again by insincerity and opacity. The sins and scandals of their leaders have racked one Christian community after another. From fear of losing more members of congregations already shrinking, some preachers stop teaching what their listeners would count as “hard” (Jn 6:60), but this makes them inconsistent with the Gospel entrusted to them. Meanwhile, their people suﬀer tremendously from all sorts of hardships, including the world’s indiscriminate disease and sin’s discriminating injustice. Suﬀering without faith in the God who is with us can make us turn to resentment, self-pity, and despair.
“What’s the good of my having become a Christian?” Augustine of Hippo once asked in a homily. He most likely said this on the eleventh of September in the year AD 410, which means that he would have delivered this sermon less than three weeks after the Goths sacked Rome.1 Augustine asks the question to give voice to those who are tempted to leave the Church. Why are they tempted? They see themselves aﬄicted as all other people—regardless of the Christian faith. What is more, some see that others have much greater prosperity without the faith. Augustine assumes the position of the skeptic: “Has it made me any better oﬀ than one who isn’t a Christian, than that one who doesn’t believe in Christ, than that other one who blasphemes my God?” For Augustine, the prophet Isaiah oﬀers a response: “All ﬂesh is grass, and all the honor of the ﬂesh as the ﬂower of the ﬁeld. The grass has withered, the ﬂower fallen (Is 40:6–7 cf. 1 Pt 1:24).” Augustine comments: “So has everything perished then? Let it not be! ‘But the Word of the Lord abides for-ever’ (Is 40:8 cf. 1 Pt 1:25).” “Look, the grass has perished,” continues Augustine, “Do you want to avoid perishing? Hold fast to the Word.”2
Many of us who have been called to evangelize and build up the Church by life and speech want to address the frustrations that upset so many people. We want them to experience the Word through our speaking and living, and we also—sinful, broken creatures ourselves—want to hold fast to the Word. We proclaim from the depths of our being, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). “The Word became ﬂesh” (Jn 1:14), our ﬂesh, weak ﬂesh that passes like the grass of the ﬁeld. Put to death for our sins, he is risen for our salvation. We want to give witness to his love and mercy for the world. “For we do not preach ourselves,” says St. Paul, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:5). Will those tempted to leave ﬁnd in our lives and ministry Christ himself, the one who took on the form of a slave and died for our sake (cf. Phil 2:7)? Will we be with them in their questioning and pain? Will we express to them by speech and action, “Hold fast to the Word”? Will we lift them up to God in the silent prayer of our hearts?
This book ponders the mystery of Christ’s life in us as preached by the power of the Spirit in the early Church. It does not pretend to be a complete overview of patristic preaching. For example, it does not provide a collation of rhetorical rules from Christians in late antiquity about how to preach, as important as such rules might be. One of the greatest Latin orators of his age, Augustine says in his On Christian Teaching that such rhetorical rules “should not be looked for from me, either in this work or in any other.”3 Rather than being a how-to compendium of homiletics, the book serves as a resource to show the power of patristic preaching conveying the Word in our weak ﬂesh—a wondrous, multi-faceted divine mystery to be lived by hearer and proclaimer of the Word today.4 In patristic preaching, we ﬁnd the Word in our ﬂesh.
- Augustine, Sermon (hereafter s.) 33A.3 (CCL 41, 420; WSA III/2, Hill, 162). The critical edition dates the sermon to 410, following A. Kunzelmann, “Die Chronologie der Ser-mones des hl. Augustinus,” in Miscellanea Agostiniana, vol. 2 (Rome: Studi Agostiniani, 1931), 417–520, at 501. Edmund Hill reminds the reader that the dating of this sermon (and many others) is a matter of conjecture, but this sermon does have the September 11th date, without a year, in the sermon title.
- S. 33A.3 (CCL 41, 420; WSA III/2, Hill, 162 [alt.]).
- On Christian Teaching 4.1.2 (CCL 32, 117; WSA I/8, Hill, 201).
- Robert Wilken writes that the early Christian “mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives.” See Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), at xiv. For an Evangelical recognition of Wilken’s summation, see Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 15.