Fr Dallman preaches for the Fourth Sunday in Easter on S. John 10:22-30. He offers Eastertide mystagogy on how Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ makes Himself known and recognizable in His resurrected and glorified Body—”That He may dwell in us, and we in Him.”
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Easter Day, 2019
It was the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee who went into the tomb. The stone was rolled away, but they did not find the body. What they found was new and utterly unfamiliar. And they were perplexed. And why wouldn’t they be? The mystery of their Master, their and our loving Lord Jesus Christ, took yet another turn. Jesus had lived and taught in such mystery—always confronting His followers with their own shadows, yet confronting always with love and presence that to not follow Him felt empty and wrong. It was the women who treasured and kept and abided in the words of Jesus—the women before the men for the most part.
They had been taught, it seems, by Our Lord’s most blessed and chaste Mother: Mary, who was named by the angel full of grace. She too was perplexed when she was confronted by God’s truth: that He had made her the fullness of grace, and that she, who had known no man, would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and would call His name Jesus—He who would reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of Whose kingdom there shall be no end—that she would be the Mother of Son of God. At hearing this she was greatly troubled, we are told by Saint Luke. She too had entered into the new and utterly unfamiliar, a mystery of the same order as the cave on Easter Sunday morning.
Since then the Church has been imprinted with this pattern which we have learned from God: when we are confronted by His presence, He very well might manifest Himself in the new and utterly unfamiliar. In some sense, this should be how we expect God to come to us—expecting, it seems, the unexpected, but also expecting to be perplexed, even troubled, and to have to grapple with something we feel ill-equipped to handle.
What we should never be is scared; because we are always in God’s hand, and He is ever-watching over His flock like the Good Shepherd. Our job is to be faithful as God works the newness of His creation through His Son and through us. Our job is to be faithful: faithful in prayer and worship, in giving of ourselves to God and His Church, in giving of ourselves to others, for God lives in all those who are made in His image—and all people are made in His image, and so we are to give ourselves to whomever God calls us to serve, and do so with the joyful action of love.
God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son—that in giving Him to us on the Cross, we might be taught what true humility looks like: for our loving Lord Jesus is for all times the sacrament of humility, even so in the way we receive Him today in the most ordinary form of bread and wine: ordinary, simple, accessible: so humble as to be vulnerable, for we so easily forget that He is always with us in the Tabernacle. He became so vulnerable in His humility that He allows Himself to be forgotten in the Tabernacle, where He rests all but two days of the year.
Brothers and sisters, let us continue to remember Him as He rests in perfect peace in our Tabernacle, consecrating this space as sacred, heavenly—everywhere there is a Tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament, there is the holy land, there is the new Jerusalem. Remembering our Lord allows us to be formed by Him. This was the first teaching given to the women early on that first Easter Sunday morning: remember. Remember the words of Jesus, remember what He told you, remember—in other words, keep all the words of Our Lord in our heart, treasuring them, pondering them, like Blessed Mary taught the early Church to do.
Brothers and sisters, it is a blessed Easter! Our Lord—truth Himself, truth incarnate—has overcome the sharpness of death, and has did open the kingdom of heaven to all believers. He opened the tomb not so that He could get out, but so that we might enter in: entering in by faith in Him, abiding in His words, that we might dwell in Him, and He in us. And abiding in us, fill us with hope, with peace, and with direction. He told the women to proclaim the Resurrection to the men. Let us be so emboldened to proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in our loving actions of accompanying the lonely—that the joy of Christ may be in their hearts. Amen.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Palm Sunday, 2019
We have entered today into a contemplation of the mighty acts of God whereby our salvation comes: an experience that we will spend the next 68 days reflecting upon—the Paschal mystery, the mystery of Our Lord’s Passover from life to death, from death to resurrection, from resurrection to ascension, from ascension to the coming of His Holy Ghost, and from the Coming of the Holy Ghost finally to the Eucharist, the primary means of His presence among us today. The portion of the liturgical calendar over those 68 days is today, Palm Sunday, through the feast of Corpus Christi, always on a Thursday, this year on June 20. This is the mystery of God, and within His mystery—a mystery that is transcendent of time and space, transcendent of our categories of thought, transcendent as once for all time, a mystery that being transcendent of time and space, has no beginning or end, but is happening right now and in all moments—all moments of reality have within them the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, pentecostal and eucharistic truth of Christ—all of Christian reality being made sacramental by God’s actions—within this mystery of God is the mystery of the Church, and the mystery of prayer, and the mystery of our spiritual lives.
When we proclaimed at the beginning of our liturgy, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” we joined the angels—for this is always their song proclaimed to God as the thousands and ten thousands of them are gathered around the heavenly throne. “Holy, holy, holy,” the angels sing, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Our liturgy indeed is a divine liturgy of the angels.
And it all begins with Jesus, riding on a colt. It begins with the King of all creation—Who was King of all creation at all moments in His life, the King walking among His creatures, the Light through Whom all creatures are made, the Light among the darkness, shining in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not—the King riding not on a magnificent horse-drawn chariot bedazzled and bespeckled with gems and jewels befitting a secular king, but riding in His humility. He enters in humility into the City that had been the center of His human existence from the beginning, because to Jerusalem His parents brought Him every year at the Passover; He memorably stayed back one year when He was twelve, to teach us all that the sacred house of prayer—for Him, the Temple; for us the Parish church—is where the truth of the Father is made known to us through His Son.
“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He taught Mary and Joseph, and through them, us. The mystery of this house, which is the mystery of the Church, is one in which we ask how we are a part of this house, indeed a member of this house, for as baptized people, we are members of His Body, the Church. And as Jesus entered as a horse, so too the beaten man in the parable of the Good Samaritan was brought to the inn on a horse—the wounds of the beaten man were physical and of the flesh: the wounds of Christ spiritual and of the soul, and soon to be physicaland of the flesh, as we. He knew He was entering into His death, by His Father’s will.
Saint Paul teaches us to have this mind among ourselves, which is ours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This mystery—which is all fact—this mystery we are always to have in mind among ourselves; when Saint Paul exhorts the parish at Corinth to imitate him in being stewards of the mysteries of God, the Apostle exhorts us as well. Our identity together is not through friendship, kinship, shared hobbies, life pursuits or interest in sports teams. Our identity together is entirely rooted in this man Who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross—Who in utter humility reveals transcendent righteousness and our salvation.
Throughout Lent we have prayed the Stations of the Cross at both of our congregations, and many of us in our own homes. At each station Our Lord becomes poorer and poorer, debased and deformed at each station so that by the end, He is unrecognizable. And when Saint Mary Magdalene meets Him at the empty tomb, His unrecognizability is taken yet further: He looks not like Himself but like a gardener; and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus walk the whole way there not recognizing Jesus with them. Our Lord chose for His human likeness to be deformed and removed so that He could be found again after His resurrection—found in many ways, but especially so that He could be found in the poor, the abandoned, the suffering—found in people today who are suffering in loneliness, the worst human disease.
We made our Stations of the Cross, the fourteen of them around our church, not so that when we reach the fourteenth we would stop, but so that we would continue to make our stations of the cross in our lives. There are men and women and children in our county who today are suffering, and in their suffering, Jesus lives His passion. Each lonely person is a Station of the Cross, are we there? And people when they fall, because they stumble in their troubles, that is a station of the Cross—are we there, to help them pick up their cross as Simon of Cyrene was there? And the lonely people we see in our neighborhood—will we be the those who look and do not see? Let us look and see.
And as we make our Stations of the Cross, as Jesus taught His disciples they are to do—to love the least of His brethren—let us always have the joy we share at Jesus entering into Jerusalem—hosanna in the highest. All glory, laud and honor—this is our joy, for the joy that empowers of loving of the lonely is Jesus, and all we do, we do for Him. Because He did everything for us.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2019.
It is necessary to have in mind the context in Saint Luke’s gospel in which our loving Lord Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem upon colt, the road upon which He entered covered with garments in honor of Him, and the whole multitude of the disciples rejoicing and praising God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And yet approach the city Jesus wept over its condition—not its physical condition but its spiritual condition: a city made by God for His glory and worship, in a Temple made by God for that same reason.
This is why he then precedes to cleanse the temple, driving out the money-changers with the teaching, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” as it was when Mary His mother and Joseph is guardian found Him at age twelve sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions—if Jesus asks questions then we are to, as well—and all who Him were amazed at His understanding and His answer. And within the religiously collapsing Temple, Jesus taught and yet His authority was questioned by the chief priests and scribes—those, we must remember, were then only nominally religious and had sold out to Roman authority because—well, we know what money and power can do to people. Despite the jostling, Jesus fends off His foes, and then taught the parable.
“A man,” Jesus said, “planted a vineyard.” Although parables usually are to be freely interpreted and lived-with often with multiple meanings within the single parable, in this case we must start with the primary interpretation: that this man symbolizes God and the vineyard symbolizes Israel. These are strong and consistent symbols throughout the Old Testament: in Isaiah, to take but one instance, we hear: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.” And we hear similarly in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and the Song of Songs. In this long tradition, God creates a vineyard that He loves. He is sometimes angry at it, but in the end God always restores it. God’s mission with His people is always just that: restoring that, and who, He has made, that we attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Him, to the measure of the stature of fullness of Him.
Who then are the tenants? The word “tenants” suggests those who have a commercial interest in the property, not a personal or religious one. The tenants are described as quite distinct from “servant,” as well as the “beloved son,” and that is very important. Our Lord most immediately wanted to direct His parable against not Israel but those who would destroy it. Israel—God’s vineyard, is fruitful, but hostile tenants are preventing the harvest. And so Jesus says, the man “will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” We have, then, a critique of the corruption of the Temple by Rome and its Jewish collaborators—the chief priests, scribes, and their associates.
This is emphasized by Our Lord’s quoting of Psalm 118: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” This was a Psalm that was sung—all of the Psalms were originally sung, and remain best experienced through singing and chanting—at Passover as a way of rejoicing that Israel, the enslaved people, had become the cornerstone of a nation in covenant with God. Jesus fully stands in solidarity not with political Israel of His day, but religious Israel of His day. As He said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”
This is what God is doing when He is doing a “new thing.” God’s actions always have a dual characteristic—creating and restoring. Saint Paul said, “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come,” and yet in becoming a new creation, our personality remains, our uniqueness remains. Paul’s passion, and Mary Magdalene’s passion, were not extinguished when they were called and remade by Jesus, but rather rightly ordered to God. God is always remaking us more into who He created us to be, and Why He created us in the first place, and keeps in alive now.
And yet this dual character of God’s action takes on a poignancy when we think of the suffering that God allows to happen to Paul—who suffered the loss of all things, and let us hear in his words at somewhere a profound existential dread and grieving—what God allowed to happen to many of the apostolic men and women of the early Church—martyred for their love of Jesus—and what God allowed to happened to His Son, Jesus our Lord and Savior. Jesus knows that in the parable, He is the beloved Son, He is the heir—that He will be cast out of the vineyard and killed. Let us, who are soon to enter again into Holy Week and the mysteries of the Sacred Triduum, enter know into the mind of Jesus, telling a parable in which the central character is killed, and knowing it is about Him. And let us hear the final verse of our Psalm in just this way: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed”—our Lord in His passion—“will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves”—our Good Shepherd Jesus, carrying us remade on His shoulders with joy.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2019.
The parable of the prodigal son is the third of four parables told by our Master, our Lord Jesus. The occasion for his teaching with these parable was the fact that tax collectors and other sinners were drawing closer and closer to Jesus so that they could hear Him. Christ’s message is an infectious one—His teaching is magnetic; even His presence draws people in who are walking in darkness because He is the true light, which lighteth every person who comes into the world. It is only by our intimacy with Jesus that we are able by grace to cut through our delusions and gain true self-knowledge.
Because tax collectors and other sinners were drawn to Jesus, Saint Luke tells us that Pharisees and the scribes murmured. And not only did they murmur (which in and of itself can be sinful, because of the harm it can cause within the Christian community), but we know what they said: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus was ruffling the feathers of proper society of His day; He was breaking social conventions—He was hanging out with the “wrong people,” those people. That He was receiving them means Jesus was truly present to them, listening to them, honoring their dignity (because they were made also in His likeness, He was honoring, we must remember, His presence in them), and seeking to serve them—because Jesus came not to be served but to serve. That He ate with them indicates to us true and complete fellowship—to eat with others means companionship and total welcome. Fundamental to the attractiveness Jesus exudes is His hospitality.
That Jesus was so lavish in His giving of Himself in love was the teaching He wanted to impart to His disciples. Each of the four parables teaches about love—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the dishonest steward: all about love. But this is most dramatically brought out by the parable of the prodigal son.
The father in the parable is so eager to love his son gone astray that when the son even was at a distance, the father came to Him. He ran and embraced him and kissed him. He did not scold him, or harbor a grudge against him, or make the son jump through some hoop before sharing his love. He just loved him and ordered a feast with the fatted calf be held in honor of his return. Let us run to the lonely in our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces; run to them and embrace and kiss them with our presence, our attention, our selfless care.
The prodigal son is also an example of love, we must also see. He too is also eager to love, but his ability to love selflessly is buried under his sin and shame at having wasted the gift that he was given. Instead of using the gift he was given for the glory of God, he used it toward idolatry. And so his love for his father is first expressed as a selfish love for himself, so that he could live at least at the level of his father’s hired servants. His father does not care—and indeed our heavenly Father does not care either: God can work with any kind of desire for Him, even if it is first expressed as selfish desire—and slowly turn a selfish heart into a selfless heart. Whatever kind of contrition we might have, bring it to God; give it all to Him.
And other son, he is jealous. He loves his father out of pure duty—but pure duty is not enough. We must love for the joy of loving. The other son must learn joy by the grace of God, and perhaps the father’s extravagance towards the first son is intended also as a lesson to the second son—much like Jesus’s extravagance towards tax collectors and sinners was a lesson in loving intended not only for them, but for His disciples watching Him, that they would learn how to love.
Mother Teresa taught the world that this is what Jesus came to do: to teach us how to love. In order to love others in the example of Jesus, and that example is described in the Bible, and as that example is replicated in the lives of the Saints—in order to love we must realize how profoundly we ourselves are loved by God. Our lives are always in His hands—and is daily, ongoing love for us goes as deep as keeping us in existence moment to moment, breath by breath. He loves us like a mother loves her son—like Mary loves Jesus. No matter how often we have sinned, we turn to God and we are loved by Him—He receives us and eats with us: so much so that He gives Himself to us as the true bread which giveth life to the world.
And in knowing how much we are loved, we are able to love others with the joy that we are loved by Jesus. And so let us again imitate the father in the parable, who is the image of God’s love for us: let us run to the lonely men, women, and children among us in Tazewell County. Let us bring out best selves to them: and make merry and be glad.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Second Sunday in Lent, 2019.
We ask of our loving and glorious God in our Collect this week something quite appropriate to this season of penitence: We ask Him to be gracious to all who have gone astray from His ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast fast to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of His Word, Jesus Christ His Son. We are asking for God’s action in them, in us. We are asking for God to act first, and He always does. It is God who decides when a person can bear the weight of self-awareness of their sins. There are times in our life, even long stretches, when we are unable to bear the weight of self-awareness, of truth, of the reality of what we have done contrary to God’s will. Perhaps knowing it was wrong at the time, but in the subsequent flux and turning of life, have forgotten, or repressed our wrong actions, our wrong deeds, whether done or not done, said or unsaid. This is perhaps why those in the occupation of psychologist might never be unemployed.
Of course, God knows when we are ready. Our Collect is not trying to persuade Him to do something—to bring them again with penitent hearts back to Jesus, which means giving them penitent hearts in the first place, which means making them aware of their sins—we are not trying to persuade God to do something He would otherwise be inclined not to do. God always wants repentance, and He is always working and battling in our hearts for our hearts—the heart is the depth of one’s being, where a person decides for or against God. The heart is where the good angels of God battle against the fallen angels of Satan for our attention, for our obedience, for our devotion.
It is not attempts at persuasion, then, but rather our telling Him we are ready for our sins to be revealed—that our community, our Parish is ready for them to be revealed. For implicit in this Collect is the claim that our Parish life—our total life around the Cross through daily Prayer, Eucharist, and devotion to God’s creatures according to the sacred humanity of Christ revealed in Scripture, the threefold Regula or threefold pattern of total Christian life—our Parish life itself is ready to bear the burden of the knowledge of sins committed by individuals or by groups small or large within us.
This is where the story of the paralytic brought to Jesus by four men by lowering him through the roof takes on profound significance. It was not the faith of the paralytic that Jesus saw as much as the faith of the four men—this faith Jesus saw (belief acted out) and seeing the faith of the four men, Jesus healed the sins of the paralytic. Through the faith—the belief in God acted out through our corporate prayer life according to Regula—of our Parish, God heals the sins of those unable of their own to come to Jesus. Prayer, real prayer, is that powerful. The prayer life of our Parish has the real potential, if it is strong and regular enough, to show faithfulness to God such as to heal the sins of people unable of themselves to come to Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, we are able to proclaim to God that we are ready to bear the burdens of the weight of self-knowledge of any sins we have committed—that is to say, proclaim the Collect authentically—not only because we are increasingly regular in our daily prayer, our reverence for the Eucharist, and our participation in the sacred humanity of Christ, but because, like Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration—like Moses after receiving the Ten Commandments—we are filled with the light of Christ Who revealed His glorious nature in the Transfiguration that the verse of the psalm “The Lord is my light and my salvation” became very real. That the truth of the verse, “You, Lord, speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek” are direct instructions from our Master as to how to act, what to do.
Yes, because we are so close to the Light, our shadows become clearly delineated, even in haunting, and unsettling ways. But we are also close to the Light! Let us be strong and made stronger in our self-awareness, in our vulnerability, in our bleeding, in our abandonment of the needs for security, for approval, for control—strong and made stronger, not by our own efforts, but by the Lord Who holds His children in His hands and dresses our wounds, pouring His healing oil upon our wounds—and in so doing, showing us His beautiful and tender face—His face of goodness, love, and strength beyond measure.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The First Sunday in Lent, 2019.
I ended my sermon for Ash Wednesday with these words: “We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentance.” The Church has entered Lent in dust and ashes, not as a sign intended to make us unnecessarily sorrowful or weak; not to force us to focus inordinately on our mortality—rather as a sign of our creatureliness in the face of a Creator Who is both tremendous and mysterious in His power—wholly other from us yet walking, talking, and dwelling among us—His nature being that of boundless love Who guides all things with His hands and causes the dawn to know its place and gave the clouds their garments, Who possesses us that we will be agents of His boundless love, and proclaim through our words and deeds God’s heavenly peace—that frees the captives and ennobles the poor and downtrodden—a heavenly peace that shines from the glorious cross and which transforms ordinary reality into sacramental reality—a universal message for all people that is captured in the simple yet radiant image of Mother and Son: because God chose to reveal Himself to the world in the arms of Mary.
This and so much more makes for the overwhelming way God manifests His glory. And the Church has taught, because it was revealed by God directly, that her members need to be overwhelmed by the mysterious tremendousness of God—not once, or twice, but constantly, all the time, even every day, and multiple times a day if possible. Because being overwhelmed by God is what called holy fear, and time and time again we find in the Scriptures the teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And therefore it is the beginning also of repentance, and it is necessary for a holy Lent.
A good way to think about Lent—not the only way but a good way—is that it is like the walking down from the mountain that Peter, James, and John did with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It did not take them forty days to reach the bottom; maybe it took them forty minutes. But even as an analogy, why is this period of time a good way to think about Lent? It is because their shadows had been revealed in crisp detail, because that is what happens when we are close to the Light. Too often we think we have to struggle to find our shadows, digging tirelessly through our mind, our memories, to uncover our hidden sins—the Transfiguration story sets things properly: put ourselves close to Jesus, close to His Word, as close as we can to the Cross—and then in humility, abandon ourselves at His feet, that through our surrender, we listen. God will reveal to us our sins as we are able to bear the load of them upon our shoulders. God will handle that: our job is to sit at His feet like Mary Magdalene and listen.
It is a very curious thing that despite what must have been an astonishing experience beyond words—Jesus brighter than the sun with Moses and Elijah on His right and left—the Evangelists do not give us any details of the reactions of Peter, James, and John after the experience. It is another instance of what I have called “holy silence” by the evangelists where we would think detail would be abundant. How did these three disciples process this experience? We get an important clue from Saint Mark, and we see it when James and John ask to be on Christ’s right and left in His glory—ask, that is, to be just like Moses and Elijah were. It seems like a desirable place to be, and it is an understandable, and frankly admirable, thing to request of Jesus—and Jesus, far from admonishing them, simply says that such a request is not for Him to grant, but the Father. And perhaps Peter and John, after the Coming of the Holy Ghost later, winsomely chuckled about their request, admirable as it was for the time: because after all who ended up being on Christ’s right and left but the two robbers crucified with Jesus.
In an understandable way, nonetheless James and John (and we might presume Peter as well) did succumb to a temptation—such as Jesus was faced with in the wilderness when the Devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory . . . If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” It is the temptation to prideful ambition with a dash of Envy thrown in, based fundamentally on a very human need for approval. And Jesus, in answering the Devil’s temptation, gives us the remedy whenever we might face such temptation to authority and power: the Scripture “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” We are to allow ourselves to be prostrate at the foot of the Cross as our service to God, and wait for Him to speak with us and tell us what to do. God in His Providence has all things in His hand, including a plan for us, and it is in His interest to make known to us His plan for our lives: our job is to come to Him in humility, surrender, and openness so that we can listen and learn how God approves of us, loves us, cares for us.
We are told by Saint Luke that the Devil addressed Jesus as “the Son of God.” Biblical scholars tell us that the term “Son of God,” despite how it rings in our ears, did not ring in the ears of the early Church the same way—it would have meant not the Second Person of the Trinity but rather the official representative of the historic faith of Israel—the significance of which might be startling: the Devil probably did not know quite who Jesus was. He addressed Our Lord by saying, “If you are the Son of God” something like “If you are a Prophet like Moses and Elijah and Isaiah.” Jesus, therefore, chose to go into the wilderness so that He could use the experience to teach more effectively His disciples the key aspects of overcoming the primary temptations in mature Christian life: the temptation to need security (the first temptation: magic for food in the stones turned to bread), to need approval (the second temptation: adulation by all), and to need control (the third temptation: commanding the angels to save Him from His fall).
In our lives, we face these temptations in every day ways, and in serious Christian life, they are heightened: the need for security, the need for approval, the need for control. But it is by meditating only on God’s holy words in Scripture that we can overcome these temptations. Because when we meditate on God’s holy words, we find Jesus. And when we find Jesus, we again realize that His boundless light is closer to us than our own breath.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2019.
It is important to understand that the great cloud of witnesses alluded to by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the cloud by the likes of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the great men and women of the Old Testament. The cloud that surrounds us in the cloud of their faith. It is the way we talk about God’s intimate presence—what’s called God’s immanence—and the response of faith to His immanent presence. It is always the recognition of God’s presence amid us that comes first, and our response second. God always acts first, His grace precedes our awareness. And what we call God’s calling to us is the very act of Him making Himself available to our awareness.
This is demonstrated unforgettably in the Book of Job, and the faith of Job is certainly a central aspect of the cloud of witnesses that surround us. In the book, Job is described as blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Despite living such a holy life, Job loses everything through interference by Satan that is allowed by God, and furthermore is afflicted in his person by Satan. And Job in his humiliation sat among the ashes. A long series of discussions ensue between Job and friends, about God and Who God is, and how He acts. And with respect to their arguments, Job remains in the right.
And then as the friends are rendered speechless by Job’s insight and reasoning, or at least they stopped talking, out of a whirlwind appears God. And how God answers the three men and Job is truly remarkable. It is an account certainly based on God’s power, but even moreso on God’s mysterious power—God has not only laid the foundation of the earth but done so as the morning stars sang together. He not only shut in the sea with doors but gave the clouds their garment. It is He that accounts for the inexplicable instincts of animals such as the eagle, the ostrich, the deer, the mountain goat, the horse. But He also commands the morning, and causes the dawn to know its place. It is a tremendous account of God’s majesty and His mystery.
It puts the four men and Job in their place. Job’s response is “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And all that Job lost is restored—his family, his land and animals, even more so than before. Job therefore is strengthened through it all, he is not made weak but stronger but this encounter of God. But this encounter nonetheless revealed something absolutely central to healthy faith and spiritual growth—and it is the recognition that we are creatures. It is the profound truth that we are created—it is God who hath made us and not we ourselves. God walks among us. God talks among us. God knows all our thoughts, desires, and secrets. But our relationship with God is fundamentally unequal—our creaturehood in the face of the Creator of all things visible and invisible is a truth of inexhaustible value in prayer, and it is the basis for the proper understanding of God and His divine holiness. It is the basis for peace and calm.
It is this question of who God is that is at stake in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which, in the words of one New Testament scholar, “speaks to something deep within the heart of every human.” The heart is where we encounter God and is the arena where God encounters us. It is in our heart that we do battle against temptations—for the heart is the seat of the will, the mother of our decisions and intentions. What happens inwardly in our heart in this battle between the conflicts that make up our human existence is lived out in our actions, our behavior, our words and deeds.
This is why it is often said that what we say we believe is less important than how we live our lives according to those beliefs. When Christian actions, broadly construed, are at great odds with stated beliefs, the term for that is hypocrisy. But when Christian actions are in accord with stated Christian beliefs, the term for that is holiness. But the lives of holy person and the hypocrite can look quite similar, as the that of the Pharisee and Tax Collector probably did from about fifty feet away. It is only by knowing something of their inner world of prayer, which Saint Luke gives us from the words of Our Lord Jesus, that we can discern that despite appearances, the differences between the Pharisee and the Tax Collect are great.
At root in this parable is the attitude towards God. Behind the boastful, love of self that we see in the Pharisee is a very ordinary view of God. This is a god that loves gossip, that loves bragging, that favors the elite, and favors the proud. And the teaching here is that the Pharisee is making God out to be exactly like himself: God in the image of man, and specifically, of this man. And the Pharisee is addressing God as if he and God are on the same plane, the same level—and even because the Pharisee’s words are little more that gossip, secretly the Pharisee inwardly thinks he can control God, and that is why he fasts and that is why he tithes, so that he can claim a holy specialness.
What the Tax Collector says in his prayer is equally illustrative, but notice how different it is. Not lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” None of the comparison of himself to others, none of the idolatrous self-love, none of the celebration of self-accomplishment seen in the Pharisee. Rather, the simplicity and truth of the Tax Collector expresses humility. The words of the Tax Collector are the words of Job. Both recognize the immanent presence of God in their hearts, and both are struck nearly speechless by His presence both mysterious and tremendous—fundamentally incomprehensible. Their prayer is the prayer of creaturehood—of ultimate humility.
This is why the Church imposes ashes upon our foreheads. It is not a mark intended to evoke sorrow, to make us weak, or to focus inordinately on our mortality. Job was in ashes and he was empowered by God. The ashes are a mark of truth—that we are creatures. We are created. God’s power and majesty is inexplicable in human terms and yet this is a power we participate in by His grace, and indeed that we are to be agents of for others. Ashes are to give the same peace and calm to us that God gave to Job—a peace that settles us, a calm that pervades us, that comes through the right knowledge of who God is and who we His creatures are. And with that knowledge—with that peace and calm, and only with that peace and calm—can we rightly enter Lent, and allow the deepest truth of our creaturehood in the face of an unfathomable Creator to work on our hearts. We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentence.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 2019.
In the book of the Bible called the Epistle to the Hebrews comes the memorable description: “Our God is a consuming fire.” The writer echoes the Book of Deuteronomy, which teaches that “The Lord your God is a devouring fire.” Fire of course is one of the elemental things. For ancient society fire was absolutely essential for survival not only for its heat but for its transformational power over food. Modern society, without needing fire itself all the time, replicates the effects of fire in our homes, in our buildings; many industries are built around the power of fire to produce goods. And so the transformational heat of fire remains as essential today to our society as it was in ancient societies.
There is something element also in the experience of fire. For those who have them, a fireplace can be a treasured location in the home where memories linger. And those who like to camp in the outdoors often order their day around the building of the camp fire—not only for cooking but for that campfire experience particularly after the sun goes down. I remember such a fire that would have been twenty-eight years ago—it was a bonfire at my high school during my senior year, during homecoming week. It was in the back areas of the school’s property, out where we had football practice. I had driven alone to the school, and arrived well after dark arrived. I was in high school, as I said, which meant I was perpetually tired and I do recall being rather drowsy on the drive to school. As I walked from my parents’ car in the parking lot back towards where the fire was, I remember how large it was, even from a distance. There were already many students, and presumably adults, gathered near and around the huge flames. I probably spoke with a number of fellow students and fellow football players, but I do not remember anything specific of what was said (although I have the sense that unrequited high school romance played a part). But that is irrelevant—the experience is seared into my imagination as one of the highlights of high school—something both of reality and of dream. Its presence in my memory and in my imagination cannot be shaken.
Jesus took with Him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. This is the final lesson of how Jesus manifested His glory that we have before we begin the season of Lent. For the Jewish religion, Moses had been the living icon of the God alive in Israel’s life. Moses had after all spoken with God, not only on the mountain but all throughout the years in the wilderness. And because of it the skin of his face shone, and the people were afraid to come near him. Only when he veiled his face could he speak with them, guide them, and keep peace and the right worship of God among them according to the two tables of testimony in his hand, the ten commandments—which also can be translated the ten words—of God.
Jesus, dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, now shows Himself—manifests Himself as brighter than all the stars and sun—as the true expression of God alive. Jesus is the true icon, or image, of the Father. Jesus taught His disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And Peter and James and John were not only seeing the Father, but they heard His voice. For a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” Listen to Him—because not only was Jesus speaking at that moment with Moses and Elijah, but it was always Him speaking with them during their lives, for Jesus is in Himself the expression of the Father; the Father’s Eternal Word. It was Jesus speaking with Adam and Eve in the garden. It was Jesus speaking—anonymously to be sure—also with Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and the rest. Jesus in His preexistence, His eternal divinity that was from before time.
And it is an existence fully revealed when we too see Jesus in our hearts as in prayer—Jesus, in His being at this moment, in prayer for us, for His Church, for all His creatures. Jesus, glorified at the Right Hand of the Father in heaven, with His wounds incurred on our behalf and for our sins and the sins of all people past, present and future—in prayer. In perfect relationship with the maker of all things visible and invisible—a relationship of perfect prayer. Perfect obedience, perfect listening, perfect harmony.
When we adore Jesus in prayer, He becomes dazzling white, His very being which is love becomes manifest to us as an all-consuming, all-devouring love. And so let us, as we behold by faith the light of His countenance, enter Lent strengthened to bear our cross—strengthened by our intimate closeness to very Love Himself—confront our own shadows that can only be clearly revealed when we are close to the Light. And in confronting our shadows, may we be strengthened to bear the cross of them—knowing that whatever our shadows may be, the more honest we are about them, the yet closer to God we become, and our lives are ever-more possessed by His love, and we are ever-protected by His loving hands.
Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Matthias the Apostle, 2019.
There are times when I just do not know what I will be making for dinner. When the regular dishes do not have that spark, well, one just starts with whatever ingredient you want to base your cooking around, and go from there: a little of this, a little of that, and so on. Sometimes one finds oneself at the grocery store, not knowing what one plans to make for dinner. And this can be dangerous, especially if at that moment you are hungry. But you walk through the aisles of the grocery store—produce, dairy, meat, and the boxed goods—waiting for inspiration. Waiting to be reminded. Waiting even, well, for a sign.
When we hear from Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles that the company of persons gathered in the Upper Room (about a hundred and twenty) cast lots to determine who would replace Judas in the college of the twelve apostles, and we learn that “casting lots,” though a well-attested biblical practice throughout the Scriptures, is something along the lines of rolling dice or playing the lottery, hoping the ping-pong balls come out with the right numbers—when we learn this, we are tempted to regard the early Church as superstitious or naïve. Yet we should resist this temptation, for we often leave important matters—such as what’s for dinner—up to something we call “chance.”
The company of one hundred and twenty—constituting what we can regard as the first parish—had a strong belief in the Providence of God by means of the Holy Spirit. And they had good reason for this belief. The things that Jesus said would happen had happened and were continuing to happen. This was a group of people fresh off an astonishing series of events: the Ascension of Jesus, preceded by a whole host of resurrection appearances by Jesus in His glorious Body that Scripture insists was an objective reality, and that after His resurrection after gruesome and utterly deflating death on the Cross, which was immediately on the heels of a public show-trial that was little more than a riot in the public square, and this after He had instituted the Eucharist as His permanent gift of unfathomable love—and of course this preceded by His three years of public ministry in which the hearts of each and every one of the one hundred and twenty people in the Upper Room Parish were cut to the heart time and time again—changing the direction of their lives and focusing their lives toward a singular shared purpose of unity with God for eternal life.
Furthermore, their prayer life together in the Upper Room Parish was one that broke open the Scriptures—that they found Jesus everywhere in the Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings. They found His guidance in the Psalms, as we hear Saint Peter proclaiming (and this is a subtle but unmistakable indication that in those nine days in the Upper Room, they were praying the Psalms through what we call the daily Offices both Morning and Evening). They remembered Jesus’ words of teaching, and shared them together that the fruits of profound hidden meanings might be found, and the guidance as to what to do next discerned.
They remembered, as Saint John recorded, Jesus say, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” They remember how much Jesus said He would possess them, as a vine possesses all its branches. And here again we see the biblical basis for the stark words of our Collect last week—that we can do no good thing without God—as a branch can do nothing that leads to growth or fruit without being part of the vine. The positive expression of that is Jesus’s strong teaching to abide in His love: abide in His words, His actions, His life, His person. Savor them, and allow ourselves to rest in them.
The Upper Room Parish also remembered that Jesus taught that “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.” And before His Ascension He again promised the coming of the Holy Spirit—that they would be plunged into the reality of the Holy Spirit (because “plunging” is what the word “baptism” means). We see this happening, because in Luke’s telling, what follows on the selection of Matthias by lots—meaning allowing the Holy Spirit to make evident His wish; this was no partisan election or straw poll; they asked the Holy Ghost to show everyone whom He wanted to replace Judas—what follows on this is the Coming of the Holy Ghost not only as evident to them (because He had already come to them numerously in private and small-group ways) but as a public reality evident to all of Jerusalem—a staggering explosion of spiritual energy that continues to empower everything that we do.
It is rightly said that the Kalendar of the Church teaches the faith. Through our cycles through the seasons—Advent into Christmas into Epiphany—we have learned how Jesus manifested the glory of His being the Eternal Light of the Father. Our tour through the Saints also teaches the faith—for we see through their lives how the Gospel is lived out. In the case of Saint Matthias, we know precious little about him and his ministry—the strongest evidence is that he later travelled to lands in and around present day Turkey and planted Christian communities. His symbol is a bible and a sword—so he was faithful to the Scriptures and he died from martyrdom. His primary teaching for us is found in how he was selected, because it indicates the level of trust and surrender to the Providence of God through His Holy Spirit that the Upper Room Parish had, and that we should have as well. Allowing God to show us what to do as a Parish is how we demonstrate our surrender to Him, our total dependence upon Him. And according to the pattern of the Sacred Scriptures, abandonment of our selves to God anf surrender to His Providence is not an option, but rather necessary for the spiritual health of a parish.
Icon by the hand of Aidan Hart.