Viewing Sacred Art with Eyes of the Heart

Preaching the Word of God with images and icons

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Kramer“Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk 24:44-45).

In his apostolic letter Aperuit Illis (2019), Pope Francis notes: “The relationship between the risen Lord, the community of believers and sacred Scripture is essential to our identity as Christians. Without the Lord who opens our minds to them, it is impossible to understand the Scriptures in depth. Yet the contrary is equally true: without the Scriptures, the events of the mission of Jesus and of his Church in this world would remain incomprehensible” (No. 1).

As preachers, we are tasked with exegeting the Scriptures and interpreting the human situation through sacred writings to help the faithful be engaged in various ways. In January 2024, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology hosted its annual preaching conference. This focus was “Ideas to Engage the Assembly: Integrating Illustrations, Images, and Icons.”

During diaconal formation, we were taught that words evoke images and that our words should help people form images in their minds so that they can recall those images and reflect on them during the week. My presentation at the conference centered on how a preacher’s choice of words can create powerful images. Specific, concise, carefully chosen words proclaimed in a homily have the capability of awakening people to a world they have never seen before. Those words speak to the condition and lived experiences of the listener. I strongly believe that a preacher’s ability to create a message that can conjure unforgettable images is a powerful tool.

However, over the past 30 years I have also experimented with the use of a variety of images in the preaching event. We all know the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” There are times when a specific painting, stained-glass panel, statue or icon can enhance our homily.

Some parishes have screens on which the image of a biblical scene, sacred art or icon can be shown during the homily. Parishes without screens may display an icon or painting in the gathering area and invite parishioners to view and reflect on it during the week.

Biblical scholar Stephen J. Binz has a wonderful book entitled “Transformed by God’s Word: Discovering the Power of Lectio and Visio Divina” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95). As a homiletics professor, I have always incorporated the meditative practice of lectio divina in the classroom, as well as in my preparation for preaching. The movements that are integrated — lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (praying with the sacred text), contemplatio (contemplation, allowing the Lord to reveal to us) and actio (an active resolution to make the text come to life) — allows God to speak to us in the silence of our hearts.

What Binz reveals to his readers is the Eastern Orthodox practice of visio divina — looking at sacred art, icons or other images that allow us to read with eyes of the heart, in contrast to lectio divina, which asks us to listen with our ears (to the Word of God). The movements are the same, yet reached through a different lens. Availing ourselves of both dimensions can bring us depth and clarity about where the Lord is leading us in our own spiritual life, as well as in our preaching. The interaction between sacred Scripture and sacred images can add to our oral proclamation of the Word of God. Consider employing visio divina as a complement to lectio divina as you prepare your next homily, and see where God leads you.

DEACON STEVE KRAMER, D.Min., is director of homiletics and associate professor of pastoral studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin.

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