On Waiting with S. Stephen

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent, 2020.

The character of Advent is certainly captured by Saint Paul when he wrote to the church in Corinth in Greece: “As you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who will sustain you to the end.” In Advent we particularly find the sense of expectation. “Advent” the word is built upon the sense of arrival: arrival of the revelation of God on earth. This sense of the arrival of God’s revelation leads to another character of Advent, which builds upon the teaching of Paul to wait: and that character is captured in simply thinking about Blessed Mary, Mother of the Church, specifically thinking about Mary in the last month of her pregnancy. The sense of expectation for any mother eight months pregnant is often unbearable; how much more so for Mary, expecting the Son of God, the Saviour of the human race to be born of her virginity.

The Advent sense of expectation is found, too, in the witness of S. Joseph, who we can easily imagine waited on Mary, as husbands wait upon their wives this close to birth. Indeed, this is the sense of “waiting” meant by Paul: not passive thumb twiddling, but active love and care which for us is in our daily prayer and continues in our loving of God in the world and in the people we meet, for the Holy Spirit is in all things, all things having been made by Christ. Advent’s sense of expectation is also about making room in our hearts for God: making room in our hearts for the revelation of the mystery hidden for all eternity: the manifestation of God in human form.

Our loving Jesus directs us to “Watch therefore—for,” He says, “you do not know when the master of the house will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” And so Jesus adds, “And what I say to you I say to all: watch.” This sense of “watch” in the Church means to be alive, to be awake. Awake to the Gospel in our every day lives; awake to all things being held in God’s loving hands; awake to the Crucified and Risen One revealed in the opening of Scripture and the breaking of Bread; awake to God from Whom all blessings flow. Daily prayer is the work of God because through it God wakes us up to Him.

We are to watch—we are to be awake—because as Jesus teaches us about His coming: “Of that day, or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And He adds, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” I do not think Saint Stephen, holy deacon and martyr, knew when Jesus would come to him. But it is unmistakable that He did come to Stephen. Saint Luke records the witness of Saint Paul, who despite being enraged and gnashing his teeth against Stephen, saw Stephen to be full of the Holy Spirit, and so as he gazed in heaven, Stephen saw the glory of God, and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus had come to Stephen in the same way as the Church saw Him go: witnessing to Christ in humility. Stephen had witnessed to Christ in his testimony before the adversarial council; Stephen also had witnessed to Christ in his ministry as a deacon, doing great wonders and signs among the people—both of which were done at all times with pure and unmitigated humility: serving the needy so that none are without the Gospel. Jesus had come to Stephen, so much so that Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen was poor in spirit, therefore he become awake to the kingdom of God. Stephen was pure in heart, therefore he saw God in His heavenly glory.

And because Stephen, through his life of humility, a life of prayer in accordance with Scripture, was awake, Saint Paul woke up. It took time, but the blood of S. Stephen was the seed of Paul’s conversion, and Paul undoubtedly remembered Stephen during his three years in the desert after his conversion, haunted by it, and pondering in his heart Stephen’s angelic witness, and especially Stephen’s beatific vision, the vision of heaven, the true vision of God. Through Stephen’s cry, Paul heard Christ. Living into Stephen’s cry, Paul entered into the Christian life of expectation. Living into Stephen’s cry, we too are always in Advent.

On S. Stephen, pt 3

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Proper 29), 2020.

Saint Stephen, Deacon and holy-Martyr, gave his testimony in front of the high priest and the council. When he began to preach, we are told all looked upon him steadfastly, and saw his face as the face of an angel. But after he finished his testimony—and this is fifty verses long, which is remarkable also because in showing how Jesus is the Just One, the true Messiah, Stephen only uses Old Testament Scripture to do it—whether Stephen still remain as the face of an angel in their minds is not reported. But what is reported is that when they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. “Cut to the heart” is an image particular to Saint Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Simeon, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel account, uses the image in speaking to Blessed Mary—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also”—and Luke uses the image at the end of Saint Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost to describe to describe the reaction of Jerusalem—“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” In both cases, this image is about revelation: the heart (or soul) is cut or pierced so that God’s can be revealed publicly.

And this is how Luke uses the image in the story of Stephen, as well. Stephen, who has imitated Peter in preaching how our Lord is the Crucified and Risen One as known by the opening of the Scriptures, speaks so powerfully and with such authority that this adversarial council is cut to the heart. They of course go on not to be Christians (well, not immediately, more on that in a moment), but to stone Stephen. So what was revealed by the council’s heart being cut? We learn in the next verse from Saint Luke: “Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit” (just like Mary, just like Elizabeth and John Baptist, just like Simeon, all as described in Luke’s Gospel account) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” What the heart cut open revealed was a vision of heaven, and it was perceived by Stephen. We know this because he then cried out, “Look! I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He said this out loud, and someone heard him. After he said it, they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And as they stoned him, Stephen imitated Jesus perfectly in saying, “Lord, receive my spirit” and Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” To be perfect means to live every day with such humility before God that His grace perfects us, that is, transforms us to be pure in heart, so as to see God. Stephen, at the moment of his stoning, saw the glory of God. At the Ascension of Jesus, angels taught the Upper Room Church that Jesus will come in like manner as He was seen as going into heaven. And Jesus went into heaven as the icon of humility before the Father. Stephen, in this moment perfected before God, beheld Jesus, who because of Stephen’s humility, came to Stephen, for Jesus is always the Coming One, who comes to those who pray with humility to Him.

I said a moment ago that we know all this because someone heard Stephen. Who heard Stephen? Who heard and saw all this going on in Stephen that we know at all about this momentous episode? It is clear that the person who heard all this, who saw all this, is Paul. While all were cut to the heart by Stephen’s words and deeds, cut to the heart by Stephen taking up his cross completely, it was Paul who was cut most to the heart. And despite consenting to Stephen’s death, as we are told, the power of Christ shining in and through Stephen planted a seed in the heart of Paul, which led to his conversion and all of his writing that has guided the Church for ever more. And recall the words of Jesus at Paul’s conversion: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Part of what knocked Paul to the ground, blinded him, and after his baptism sent him for three years into the desert, was realizing that as Paul had done to one of the least of the brothers (that is, one of the most humble in his weakness), so had Paul done to Jesus. In killing Stephen who had taken up his cross and followed Jesus, Paul was responsible for persecuting Jesus Himself.

It took Paul, as I said, three years to come to grips with this reality: three years of prayer in the desert, of reinterpreting his whole life in a radically different way by the light of Christ’s passion. Three years or more until Paul finally told this to the person responsible for us knowing about all this: Paul told this to Luke, and Luke, himself taken up into the Christian life, relays the story with the proper spiritual sensitivity so that Stephen’s death—which to many onlookers would have looked simply as a man dying—instead reveals Christ to us. That Stephen’s death would reveal to us that Christ has destroyed the last enemy, which is death; that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.

Stephen’s example to us of what it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world rests upon Paul’s perception and interpretation of the event and Stephen’s whole life, which in turns rests upon Luke’s perception and interpretation, which in turn rests upon our perception and interpretation—that we, along with Paul and along with Luke, can be cut to the heart. And that we, as we gaze ourselves upon Stephen, might behold the face of an angel—and that we, through the ears of Luke hearing himself through the ears of Paul, may also hear Stephen’s report of the vision of the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. And that we, through the spiritual eyes of Luke seeing himself through the eyes of Paul, may with Stephen, behold the glory of God.

On S. Stephen, pt 2

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (Proper 28), 2020.

We continue today with our reflection on Saint Stephen the hoy Martyr, looking at how his story in Scripture makes more real for us the profession in the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Communion of Saints”—a living relationship with the Saints being fundamental to baptismal living. Saint Stephen is such a poignant example of everything it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world; witness to Christ to others both in word and in deed. Last Sunday I spoke of how his preaching as a Deacon, not so much liturgically as a sermon during Mass but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes as he served the poor, embodied the wise maidens and how they made sure to have enough oil—oil being a composite symbol of Scripture of giving oneself in sacrifice with prayerful compassion according to Scripture (the primary symbolism of oil being seen in the example of Saint Mary Magdalene).

Summing up also is the term taught by Jesus in that parable of the wise and foolish maidens—His teaching to “watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him through prayer gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread. And we can be sure that St Stephen himself took this to heart, and made his own life by God’s grace over into a life of watching—finding Christ through prayer in Scripture and thereby suffering with Christ (what we mean by having compassion) all as a living sacrifice of his life to Christ, offering and presenting his soul and body unto Christ, as we say in the Mass and as Saint Paul says, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. As we hear the story of Saint Stephen and take his story into our heart, we partake more and more with Him in the Holy Communion of Christ, and share more and more with Stephen the grace and heavenly benediction, or blessing, of Christ—for Christ blesses all who partake of Him.

The most significant signal that Stephen was full of grace and heavenly benediction is the description of him at the end of Acts 6, that all how sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. It is an arresting image, particularly because it comes from the hand of Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel account attributed to him but also of the Acts of the Apostles. Angels figure prominently for Luke in the proclamation of the Gospel—the archangel Gabriel’s message first to Zachariah and then to Blessed Mary: the angelic light in Luke’s telling always shines with the heavenly light of Christ. To Zachariah the angel proclaimed Zachariah’s son John Baptist would be great in the sight of the Lord, and would turn many of the children of Israel to Jesus. And to Our Lady, the angel proclaimed “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Mary herself thereby so shone with the angelic light that her mere voice a short while later to her cousin Elizabeth caused the baby John Baptist to leap in her womb, and to fill her with the Holy Spirit herself. And it is the angelic light that proclaims the Resurrection of Christ—as the two men stood with the holy Women at the tomb, and reminded them of Scripture so as to be able to recognize the living among the dead, and to understand that suffering leads to eternal life.

This is what it means for the council of Jews to see Stephen’s face as the face of an angel. The glory of Christ shined through Stephen—through his eyes, through the disposition of his face, through his voice, through his fragrance. The defense he then gave radiated with angelic energy that revealed Christ through the Old Testament. To become one with Christ is to receive the radiance that shown from Stephen’s face—at that moment, on trial for his faith in Christ, Stephen was beholding God’s face, for the face of an angel is the face that see God, the face that sings to God around the heavenly throne, singing unceasingly “Holy, holy, holy.” The holiness of Stephen took everyone’s breath away, the peace of Stephen made their jaw drop, the love of Stephen began to soften their hardened hearts (especially that of Saul who looked on), and the authority of his presence, the authority of his face, the authority then of his words giving testimony to the living Christ, the Lord Christ, Son of the living God, who gives mercy to all who truly turn to Him—this holiness, this angelic presence, this love so convicted them of their sins that all their demons were scared up from their hidden places in the hearts of the council that they acted as demonic animals and stoned Stephen to death. But no before Stephen would drop his last bit of heavenly dew upon them—saying, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Do not hold this sin against them”: an echo of Our Lord Jesus Himself on the Cross, again captured by Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen teaches us that the angelic light shines to others in our faces when we ask the Father to forgive our enemies, forgive our persecutors. True forgiveness from the Father is Christ’s light in the world.

On Saint Stephen, pt 1

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 27), 2020.

In my sermon for All Saints’ Day I preached that God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. That the Church recognized this is why the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” was seen as necessary to the Apostles’ Creed, which from ancient days has been the profession of faith at a person’s Baptism. We therefore, in being baptized into Christ’s Body and incorporated into Him, are at the same time baptized into living relationship with the Saints through Christ. And so continually responding to the fact of our Baptism, which is the life of mature Christianity taught by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, invites us to reflect on our relationship with the Saints, and to develop a devotion to the Saints, even one or two Saints who we might find particularly teach us the Gospel of Christ.

I went on to say that, at least by my lights, perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon. And so what I am beginning today is a series of sermons in which, through reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, we seek to find how these describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us—a great example within the great cloud of witnesses that is the Saints.

Stephen is the first Martyr of the Church recorded in the New Testament. His saint story is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6, 7 and three verses into chapter 8. He was among the first Deacons of the Church, which is where his story begins in Acts chapter 6. The Church discerned a need for Deacons because the Twelve Apostles needed help. Having the necessary devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word—meaning the study of scripture and the liturgical celebrations both Office and Mass—meant they were not able to serve the poor as the numbers of the poor demanded. At this point there is not yet the threefold division of Holy Orders—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—that developed certainly by the early 2nd century, if not by the late 1st century. But even at this twofold division of Holy Orders we see that the ministry of the Deacon comes out of the ministry of the Bishop. The Deacon extends the hands of the Bishop, hands that reach to the poor, the lonely, and the widowed. The Deacon, in a very real sense, leads the ministry of the laity. Lay Christians, too, are to extend with love the hands of our bishop toward those in need of the Gospel.

Undoubtedly this ministry of Stephen and the other six Deacons included what is generically called “preaching.” That is, not preaching in the liturgical sense but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes. This sort of preaching could have risen to what we would call teaching, catechesis, even formation. But prior to that, Stephen’s preaching would be first and foremost his sharing with others the truth of Jesus Christ being the Son of the Father Almighty, spoken by Moses and the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the truth of His crucifixion as the revelation of personal salvation through Christ’s Resurrection. This preaching by Stephen is described in Acts as wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke. We have an extended account of his preaching, in the defense he gave in front of the council of Jews after Stephen was accused, falsely of course, of blasphemy against Moses, the Law of Moses God, and the holy Temple itself. All of Acts chapter 7 is given over to it.

It is a remarkable account, one that might draw us to ask, how on earth did he give such an account? How was he able to do it, given that he was facing sure death, sure stoning? Who among us would be able to give such glorious witness of the faith under such imposing circumstances?

The means to do so is actually what Our Lord Jesus is getting at in his parable of the ten maidens, and specifically with his teaching about oil. Stephen is an imitation of the five maidens who were wise in taking with them flasks of oil. Oil in scripture is a symbol of sacrifice, such as when Saint Mary Magdalene pours all of her most precious oil upon Jesus to anoint Him. She is described as anointing Jesus for burial, and so she is already suffering with Jesus, which is what compassion means: suffering with. Sacrifice, compassion are what oil symbolizes, but also prayerful listening to God, which again is Mary Magdalene’s example of choosing the better part, sitting at the feet of God, listening to Him: which for us means listening to God through Scripture. Just as having oil means the lamp can light up, so as by reading Scripture God lights up and reveals Himself as the scripture is opened.

All of which is to say that Stephen understood that the life of following Christ is a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ revealed through Scripture—indeed, a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ Who is the Crucified and Risen One revealed only through Scripture. We see how deeply Stephen had drunk of Scripture in Acts 7 and his glorious defense, which is the whole of salvation history through the Old Testament retold by the Light of the Resurrection. One cannot just do that without giving one’s life over in sacrifice, compassion towards Christ, and deep prayer with Scripture. All of which is what Jesus means when He says, “Watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread.

Living Baptismally, pt 18: Witness as Martyr

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints’, 2020.

The Church’s annual celebration of All Saints’ Day is not only the patronal feast of our church in Morton, as important as that is and as blessed as we are to have the whole company of heaven interceding to God on behalf of those who gather at the white church on the corner of Plum and Chicago. It is also the case that the feast of All Saints God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. A living relationship with the Saints, who themselves are not dead but living themselves is what is desired by God, Who, as the evangelists record Our Lord Jesus teaching emphatically, is not God of the dead, but of the living. All who are baptized are alive in Christ’s resurrection. So when the Church prays the Apostles’ Creed—when we pray, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints”—to profess this belief is to express a desire for relationship, living relationship, with the Saints: as much a living relationship with them as we have with our closest friends, even with our family. As our Collect says, God has knit together His elect in one communion and fellowship—living communion; living fellowship. The Saints are souls who want to get to know us, and want us to get to know them. And we get to know them by studying their lives, because in their lives is found the Gospel of Christ, lived out in the world.

Among the most well-known images we use to describe the Saints is the phrase, “great cloud of witnesses.” This is taken from Hebrews 12, in a glorious passage that reads “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Running with perseverance the race set before us is the baptismal life, and our perseverance is especially against the bodily appetites and passions of sinful temptation, whether physical, emotional, or mental. As Saint Peter teaches us: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” The race is that resistance to the devil and his ongoing temptation. But Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that by our side, in fact surrounding us every which way we look, is a great cloud of witnesses. And these Saints in their witness to the Gospel that is Christ, guide us, comfort us, and aid us—and they teach us the Gospel in their lives, for their lives in all their wondrous diversity share deep affinities with one another, as people who responded to the Light of Christ, and ordered their lives around that Light, and thereby live in ways characteristic of the Beatitudes taught by Christ—lives poor in spirit, lives that mourn, are meek, that hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, are pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted and reviled by wider society.

Yet we must understand that being reviled and persecuted is the consequence of the prior activity of giving public witness to the Gospel—public witness in the world. Certainly we are to give private witness to Christ in our more or less private daily living. Yet Jesus clearly taught we are to go out into the world and proclaim Him everywhere and in all places—that is, give witness to Him everywhere and in all places. This is the activity of saints—who we are all called to be. We are not called by God to be rich in money, or even poor in money. We are not called as our primary identity to be Americans, or citizens of any city, state or nation. We are not called in our primary identity to whatever job we have in society. These are all aspects of who we are as people alive in the world today, but they are not what we are called to be primarily and fundamentally. Primarily and fundamentally we are called to be saints. We are called to give witness to the Gospel in our words and deeds in the world, in public, for others to observe.

I will conclude my sermon today with something of a teaser, like a “coming attractions” trailer we see before a feature film. Perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon, and what I will be doing over the next several Sundays is preaching according to the appointed lessons and finding how they describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us. Although we have the account of the death of Saint John the Baptist which came before the death of Stephen, the Church regards Stephen as the first martyr because Stephen was the first to die after the Ascension of Christ and after the Coming of the Holy Ghost—Stephen was the first to die after the Church was properly constituted as Church by Pentecost. As the feast of All Saints’ is our great reminder of the cloud of witnesses ever living around us, Stephen is the great reminder that the English word “witness” derives from the Greek word we translate as “martyr.” To be a martyr is to be a witness to Christ; to be a witness to Christ is to be a martyr. Martyr means witness to Christ before it means being put to death. Because we are all called to be witnesses to Christ in our daily lives, we are indeed all called to be martyrs.

Living Baptismally, pt 17: On Christian Stewardship

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 25), 2020.

In reflecting in our parish today on the theme of Christian stewardship in the sense of nurturing, as in Saint Paul’s phrase “like a nurse taking care of her children.” I am drawn to two passages from our lessons today. The first that I am drawn to is the summary of the Law recorded by Saint Matthew, and the second is from Saint Paul’s first Epistle to the church at Thessalonica when he wrote, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” It is important that we understand stewardship rooted in the holy Scriptures, whether these passages or others—that our understanding of stewardship is indeed fed by the Scriptures, nourished by the Scriptures because Christ as revealed by the scriptures opened to us is our daily Bread. All of which is to say that while our theme today is two words—Christian stewardship—the most important of them is the first: “Christian.” Christian stewardship rightly understood is not merely one form of stewardship among many, one way of offering of which there are other alternatives more or less equal to one another, offering to the Church as one choice but there are others. We give to our local schools, or causes within the school; we give to local charitable organizations; we give to the local scout organizations—giving to the Church we might often think of as one such giving among many, but that is not what Christian stewardship means, that is not what Christian nurturing means, and our scripture passages help to reveal that to us.

The first is what the Church has come to call the “Summary of the Law.” A Pharisee asks Our Lord, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Although Saint Matthew tells us this is a question to test Jesus, it also reflects a real debate among the Pharisees as to which of the many, many commandments found in the Law is the most important. Some scholars have counted over 600 commandments recorded in the books of the Old Testament, and the debate as to which was the most important was carried on within Jewish life and especially in the preaching of the rabbis; and there was no clear sense as to which is most important. The answer of Our Lord Jesus was clear and decisive: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus adds, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

This teaches us about Christian stewardship because it emphasizes the first word: “Christian.” Our stewardship, our nurturing, is Christian because it is always rooted in this Summary of the Law. It is always rooted in loving God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. It is rooted in offering our selves to God, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Him. Our aspiration as Christians is always to give to God our selves in their entirety; to give ourselves to God totally, wholly, and completely; and growing in our ability to give our selves to God as a living sacrifice is precisely what the baptismal life is, and how it is understood. This is why Christian stewardship is not merely giving to one cause (the parish) among many. Christian stewardship is our baptism lived out, and is defined by the doctrine of baptism, such as when Saint Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” And so Christian stewardship is tied up the offering of our selves to God that only comes from our baptism into Christ’s death—so that we might be united with Christ in His resurrection, and no longer being enslaved to sin, we are able to freely offer ourselves to God, and to God in our neighbor.

This is what Saint Paul is getting at when he speaks of sharing of our own selves to others, and his image of doing that is perfect: as a nurse taking care of her children, that is, as a mother. Christian stewardship is a mothering activity, whether done by male or female. As a great voice of the church has taught, Saint Gregory the Great, whoever begets the love of the Lord in the heart of the neighbor, engages in this very motherly, nurturing activity spoken of by Saint Paul. That is, whoever nurtures, supports, and helps grow the love of God in the heart of another person, that is, our neighbor, is being a nurturing mother of the love of God, like Saint Paul and his fellow apostles. Christian stewardship, then, is being a mother—not only with a motherly voice of love, but with a motherly giving of oneself totally and completely to God, and to God of whom all human beings are made in the image. The time, talent, and treasure we tithe to the Church is nothing more than being a mother who loves, nurtures, and supports her children. Christian stewardship is as we sing during Christmastide: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

Living Baptismally, pt 16: “On Rendering to God”

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 24), 2020.

“Render therefore,” Our Lord Jesus teaches us, “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The meaning of this teaching, and how the meaning guides how we live as followers of Christ, is the subject of our eucharistic fellowship this day. We do well to begin this reflection by noting how the Pharisees are described by Saint Matthew as interpreting and responding to the teaching. For when they heard Our Lord’s teaching, they marveled; and they left Him and went away. They crossed swords, and Jesus was the victor.

Now, I am so often to point out how important awe and wonder are to the Christian life—how “fear” in the Scriptures usually means awe and wonder, so that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” means “awe and wonder in the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—I do that so often that I feel a responsibility to point out that this is not one of those moments. The marveling of the Pharisees is not them thrown into religious awe of the God Who is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. Their marveling is rather the feeling of being bested in a duel of wits. They, S. Matthew reminds us, were trying to entangle Jesus in His talk, so that they would have grounds to arrest Him. Jesus did not give them any kind of incriminating testimony. What He said violated no Jewish law or religious custom, or sounded seditious towards the Romans. The Pharisees marveled that Jesus was able to outwit them once again.

But if that is all this episode means, then S. Matthew would not have included it in his account of the Gospel. All details included in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, along with that of Mark, Luke and John’s accounts of the Gospel, not to tell a biographical documentary of the life of Jesus, but rather to provide the food which if properly received reveals Jesus the Son of Mary as also the Son of God the Father Almighty. Being a sharp thinker that wins a dual of wits hardly shows this man to be raised up by God, having loosed the pains of death. Showing Himself to teach the virtue of paying your taxes says absolutely nothing about how God has made this Jesus, whom we crucify, both Lord and Christ. These are pedestrian interpretations. The words of Saint John in chapter 20 of his Gospel account speak for all the evangelists: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His Name.” It is for that purpose that Matthew tells us of Jesus saying, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”—that by eating this bread in prayer, Christ the eternal Word of God may be revealed to us in our very presence.

Saint Paul helps us to see past the pedestrian interpretations. This is not surprising because Paul is a great teacher of the Christian faith. Paul praises the church in Thessalonica by relaying to them the report he had heard from others about them, how they “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, Whom He raised from the dead, Jesus Who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Paul here teaches nothing but what the Lord Jesus taught in His life, even about the coin with the face of Caesar. The Pharisees, who are described in the Gospel accounts as “lovers of money,” are made an example by Jesus to His disciples of idolaters. Looking at money with the eyes of the flesh makes us greedy and makes money into an idol. Looking at money with the eyes of Christ, on the other hand, reveals money has being made by God and therefore to be offered to God, despite whatever surface images may be on the money’s outward design.

All things are made by Christ; without Christ is not anything made. Christians know this as a pillar of the Faith. We know we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. We are to love Him with all we have, for all we have has been given to us by Him, without Whom we can do nothing that is good. We know our offerings to God are to be the offerings not of Cain (who merely offered some of his fruits and vegetables) but of Abel—the firstborn of our flock and of their fat; our offering is that of Saint Mary Magdalene expensive jar and still more expensive spikenard. And our offering is the offering of Saint Paul—for we offer and present unto God our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Christ—that we may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and being thereby in Him, may be Him to the world around us, carrying the peace of Christ and offering it to all we meet.

Living Baptismally, pt 15: On Wearing the Wedding Garment

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23), 2020.

The Lord of Hosts has made a feast for us, and for all peoples. Our Lord Jesus teaches us this today that we would know that the peace which passes all understanding is available to us in the feast of the heavenly banquet prepared for us. This is a feast described by the prophet Isaiah as a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. For wine to be “on the lees” means it is protected from spoiling. Fat and marrow refers to nutrients the body needs to be healthy. A robust and nutritious meal is prepared for us, prepared by God for His people. God has spread a table before us that our cups might run over.

The feast God has made for us is a feast of Himself. God has made all things, and He has made all things through His Son that in receiving His Son we receive God. The feast of God is a feast of receiving Him—that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. And He gives Himself to be received. “Take, eat,” Jesus says. “This is my Body, which is given for you.” And He says, “Drink ye all of this, for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which his shed for you.” We His servants are called to the marriage feast to receive His Body and to receive His Blood, to receive what God has made everything ready so as to give and be received. He has taught us how to pray, so as to make us ready to receive. He has taught us how to find Him in Scripture, so as to make us ready to receive. He has engrafted us in His Body in Baptism and given us His Holy Spirit, so as to make us ready to receive what the Father has prepared for us. He has made all things so that as our mind learns to see, as our mind learns to hear, we might behold the Light who is the expression of God—that we might behold the holy Face of Christ, Who already knows all our desires, our thoughts, our actions, and our sins.

Brothers and sisters, we must always seek to wear the wedding garment, our Lord Jesus teaches. It is the wedding garment that allows us to discern Our Lord’s Body present among us. Saint Paul taught the Corinthian church on this when he wrote, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body east and drinks judgment upon himself.” The person who eats and drinks without discernment is a person whose mind does not see, a person whose mind does not hear. We are all made blind and we are all made deaf by our sins—this is why we must repent in prayer, why we must turn to God in humility saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This prayer—the prayer not of the Pharisee but of the tax collector—is the prayer of a heart that yearns for God.

A heart that desires God. The yearning for God and the desiring of God is the very fabric of which the wedding garment is woven. How often we are tempted away from wearing the wedding garment! How often we are tempted, in the words of loving Jesus, to make light of the Gospel through our disbelief; how often we are tempted not to go the Altar in prayer, but one to his farm, another to his business—that is, to allow other activities to take priority over the holy Mass, to allow other activities to take priority over receiving the daily Bread given to us from heaven through the Scriptures. How often we are tempted to ignore the voice of Moses, to ignore the voice of the prophets, to ignore the words of God’s Mother—for Moses, the Prophets, and Mary all teach us about Jesus, all teach us about the heavenly realities beyond time and space, all teach us true meaning obedience, which is having a listening silence of wonder at the feet of God Who is always on His heavenly throne and closer to us than our own breathing.

As Saint Paul teaches us, “The Lord is at hand.” And because He is at hand, let us give our anxiety and worry to Him, let all our requests be told by us to God, that we might have no anxiety about anything. Let us put on the wedding garments of humility, that Paul’s words may ever be our own: “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me,” and thereby be continually given to all good works through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Living Baptismally, pt 14: On the Upward Call of God in Christ

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22), 2020.

Flowing out of our liturgical life—the Liturgy of daily Office and Mass Sunday by Sunday and the appointed Holy Days—is our Personal Devotion: our loving of God and neighbor in our day to day, and in our neighbor loving God; seeking and serving Him in all people and doing so according to the Crucified and Risen Christ revealed in Scripture. Personal Devotion is anything we do that is done for the greater glory of God, and for greater intimacy with Him. Studying Scripture and giving to the poor are the classic expressions of personal devotion, but it also includes an innumerable spectrum of activities that bring beauty and goodness into the world: a spectrum ranging from tending a garden and arranging flowers to being a responsible citizen to private prayer and meditation, to reading about the lives of the Saints, to donate time, talent and treasure to a charitable organization, to serving the lonely, to being a good listener, a good husband, a good wife, a good parent, a good teacher, a good person when that adjective “good” always means “loves God” before it means anything else.

“Personal devotion” is described in the New Testament, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, as “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship”—the activity of studying the apostolic proclamation of Christ which is captured in Scripture, and living out that proclamation in Christian community where love for all abounds, and hospitality our primary characteristic. In the overall Christian life, personal devotion flows out of the Liturgy of Office and Mass, and is anything we do in this world and in our lives out of a desire to love God and love neighbor.

This is what Saint Paul is teaching us today, when he says “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s guidance is to seek a robust personal devotion based on how the Holy Spirit calls each of us personally—that is, according to our personal characteristics, temperament, life situation, background, gifts; in short, according to our personality. We are all members of Christ’s Body, members one of another in Him, but we never lose our personality, our uniqueness, our story—we do not lose our identity, but what is transformed is the horizon of our identity. In our baptism, our commonwealth, our citizenship, is stretched to heaven. This is a citizenship that begins in the Cross, and all of reality becomes cross-shaped. Reality is cruciform, that is, of the form of the Cross.

This is why when we confess our sins in the Liturgy we express our desire for mercy and forgiveness, that we may delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. We must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform, reality in the form of the Cross. This is why we receive Eucharist, why we receive Holy Communion—for we must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform. This is why we celebrate the Liturgy of Office and Mass according to the Kalendar—for doing so accustoms us to the Cross. All temptation we face is ultimately a temptation away from the Cross, and turned away from the Cross, we are enemies of the Cross in Paul’s guidance. To be an enemy of the Cross is to live in purely worldly ways, to live as if our only citizenship is this world, and to order our lives around the values of this world—of wealth, of power, of possession.

True Christian spirituality, as Saint Paul teaches along with all of the other Saints, is based on our heavenly citizenship through Baptism—and indeed as Paul teaches to the Corinthians, in being a steward of the sacramental mysteries of Christ. When we live that way—summarized as Liturgy with personal devotion—we are living in the vineyard of God prepared for us. When our devotion to God flows forth from liturgical prayer, we are living in the Kingdom of God given to us—given to us to be stewards of the Sacraments, stewards of sacramental mysteries, stewards of God’s vineyard the bears the fruit of eternal and everlasting life; fruit that come of our hands, God ever working through our hands, through our words, through our deeds—fruit of beauty and goodness, that others may taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ that in our personal devotion, we bear such fruit.

On the Angels

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Michaelmas (observed), 2020.

Before we say anything more about angels, let the simplest and most fundamental thing about the angels be said and understood by us all. And the simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth. This is what our Collect affirms. It is also affirmed in the Doxology we sing at the Offertory of the Eucharist: “praise Him above, ye heavenly Host”—affirms the first part, that angels serve God in heaven. An affirmation of the angels in our life is found affirmed in the Sanctus prayer we say as the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins: “therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name; evermore praising Thee, and saying, “Holy, holy, holy”—angels join us in praise at the Altar in the Eucharist to defend us, that is, support us, as we face the heavenly Light of lights Who is transfigured before our faces on the Altar.

Likewise, their role of defender is affirmed in the Burial liturgy at a funeral, even in the last words said over the body of the deceased in the Commendation as the body leaves the Church for the cemetery or final resting place: “Into paradise may the angels lead you.” Angels defend the soul of the faithful departed against the temptations of the devil. The simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth.

There are two more specific aspects of angels described in Scripture for our reflection on this our observance of the Feast of Michaelmas, itself on our Kalendar for this Tuesday. The first is the war in heaven described in the Revelation to S. John, chap. 12; and the second is the ascending and descending of angels upon the Son of Man described by Jesus according to S. John in his Gospel account. So let us reflect on both of these.

John describes a war that arose in heaven. Michael, one of the archangels and whose name means “Who is like God?” fought with his angels against the dragon and his angels; that is, against the Devil who is also called Satan, who accuses God and deceives the world. The battle happened, and the holy Angels of light defeated the unholy angels of darkness. It is important to see this as light verses dark, day verses night. And the reason it is important because to the Church is was revealed early that John’s description expounds upon the mystery of the first day of creation described in the opening verses of Genesis, chapter 1. These verses: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw the light: it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day; the darkness He called Night; and there was evening and morning, one day.” This is all about the angelic war in heaven described by John in the Revelation; this is not about the creation of perceivable light and darkness as we might think, because light perceivable by the eyes was not created until the fourth day: “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven for illumination to divine day and from night.” Greater light (the sun), lesser light (the moon), the stars—all this is the fourth day, and not the first.

What is described in Genesis as created on the first day is invisible light, not perceivable to the eyes, but only available to us as revelation. Hence John’s description of the war in heaven is one of the keys pieces of scripture that in fact point us to when angels were created. They were created at the very beginning of God’s creation—indeed, the angels are the Light. And the war in heaven was a battle between humility and pride: the holy angels in their humility overpowered the unholy angels burdened by the weight of their pride. Indeed, when we are humble before God, God shines through us as well; and when we are full of pride, we are heavy and weighed down with the darkness of death.

What, then, is meant by Jesus revealing at angels will be seen to be ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? To speak of angels as “ascending then descending” is rather curious, is it not? Usually we might think of it the other way round: that angels first descend to us and then ascend to heaven. But in speaking of angels being seen by the disciples as ascending and then descending upon the Son of Man echoes firstly the vision of Jacob in Genesis chapter 28. For Jacob “dreamed that were was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And so angels reveal to us Christ lifted up, reveal to us Jesus ascending, and themselves ascend to send to us the good news of His ascension on the Cross, which is the ascension into the heavenly reality.

Jacob goes on to say: “And behold, the Lord stood above the ladder and said, “I am the Lord.” And so Jesus is directly us straightforwardly to regard Him as the ladder: Jesus is the ladder to heaven; and the top of the ladder which is Him is Him, for the voice speaks to Jacob and says, “I am the Lord.” All throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses that phrase: “I am”— in John 6, He says, “I am the bread of life.” In John 8, He says, “I am the light of the world.” In John 10, He says, “I am the door.” In John 11, He tells us that He is “the resurrection and the life.” In John 14, He says He is the “the way and the truth and the life,” and in John 15, He says He is “the true vine.” Even in John 8, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Each of these I Am statements in John echoes the I am statement of the Lord to Jacob. And so, angels reveal to us the “I Am-ness” of Jesus: reveal to us His living presence, as Peter proclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Angels ascend to reveal to us Christ ascended and lifted up upon the heavenly cross, and angels descend to reveal to us the real living presence of Christ, His I Am-ness, even to reveal to us the Word made flesh of the Eucharist, dwelling among us—revealing His glory for us to behold, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Thanks be to God.