Homilies focus on morally right and wrong decision-making and offer ways to maintain a moral way of life. Rather than simply instructing the audience, though, they attempt to provide them with spiritual inspiration and allow them to correct or change their own actions. Traditionally, the word “homily” is a synonym for “sermon.” A priest could read a passage from the Bible and then explore its meaning and how it might be applied in the real world. The second and third parts of this process are the homily, not the reading of the passage itself.
While it is most commonly associated with religion, a broader definition of a homily as a type of nonfiction writing/speaking also exists.
Definition of Homily
The word “homily” comes from the Middle English “omelie.” It is defined as a speech given by a religious person, such as a priest, with the intent of providing the congregation with moral advice. The speaker uses passages from the Bible in order to shed light on contemporary decision-making and what the best thing to do in a particular situation is.
If one finds themselves torn between two choices, spends time listening to a homily, and then comes to a decision based on that, the homily has done its job. While the speaker doesn’t tell the listener exactly what to do, they provide the moral inspiration to make a particular choice. That morality is based in the Bible and in the speaker’s interpretation of the text. This means that for some, the Bible-based arguments may hold more sway than for others.
Examples of Homilies
The Parson’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
“The Parson’s Tale” is an interesting example of a homily. In the story, which is contained in The Canterbury Tales, the speaker gives a sermon on penitence. It includes a breakdown of the three parts of penitence and the causes of contrition. He moves on to speak about the importance of confession, the idea of sin, its types, and then the seven deadly sins specifically.
Here are a few lines from “The Parson’s Tale” as translated in contemporary English by A.S. Kline:
Saint Ambrose says that penitence is the wailing of man over the guilt he has done, and the resolution that he will no longer do anything that he may lament. And some Doctor said: ‘Penitence is the lamentation of a man that sorrows for his sin and pines for his misdeeds.’
Through the “story,” the parson is hoping to convey the message that human beings are continually pulled to bad, ungodly behavior and need to keep that in mind. These kinds of actions are only going to lead to more sin and eventually damnation.
Explore Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is a german composed by Jonathan Edwards, a Christian theologian. He preached the following words in the 1700s to his congregations in Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is today considered part of what inspired the First Great Awakening, also known as the Evangelical Revival. During this period, ordinary people started drawing closer to God, relying less on the words of a minister to deliver them. Here are a few lines from the homily:
He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel that has found means to fortify himself … So ’tis easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that anything hangs by; thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down.
The homily is without a doubt Edward’s most influential and famous work. It emphasized how powerful God was and how it was only his “mere pleasure” that kept men and women out of Hell. He suggested that God can send one there at any time, that the wicked deserve it, that God never promised to save humankind from Hell, and much more.
Homily by Father Bill Messenger
The following lines are an example of a homily delivered by Father Bill Messenger. He discusses the return of Jesus Christ and how much time “we” spend thinking and worrying about this. It might be “soon,” or it might be “centuries from now.”
One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus will return in glory. In spite of the fact that the Gospels tell us we do not know the day or the hour, some Christians decorate their automobiles with signs that declare “Jesus is Coming Soon!” It seems to me that we spend far too much time concentrating on this. Someday Jesus will return and the end will come. However, it does not really matter when that will happen–whether it is soon or centuries from now. What really matters is how we get there–what we do with this life.
He suggests that listeners take the time they have and make the best of it, doing good acts in God’s name, rather than contemplating when the end will come.
Related Literary Terms
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
- Frame Story: a narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Dilemma: a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.
- Epigraph: a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc.).
- Listen: Fr. Mike’s Sunday Homily
- Watch: The Story of the Good Samaritan Homily
- Listen: What is a Sermon?