On the Work of the Holy Spirit

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021.

One of the striking aspects of the gospel account according to Saint John is how in his account, the core disciples (which includes the Twelve, but also others including the holy women) are shown to recognize the divinity of Jesus during his ministry of preaching and teaching, walking about them, eating, drinking, healing, praying, and spiritually guiding. This is very different than the gospel accounts according to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, and Saint Luke. In those three, the core disciples, especially the men of the Twelve, do not recognize who Christ is, until after the Passion. Only when Jesus crucified and risen walks among them and shows them how to read Scripture do they recognize Him. For Saint Luke, for example, the crucified and risen Christ opens the scriptures and breaks bread, and He is recognized only then.

Such is not the case for John’s gospel, however. Immediately in John’s gospel, the first chapter, we have the strong declaration from Saint John Baptist: “Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” which John Baptist repeats a few verses later. That is a recognition that the disciples only began to grapple with in the end of the three other gospel accounts. Where those end, the gospel according to John begins. And, furthermore, it is from hearing John Baptist’s confession—Behold! The Lamb of God! (which, of course, is taken up into our eucharistic liturgy when the priest turns with the Blessed Sacrament, the words being proclaimed by the priest are the same as the words proclaimed by John Baptist, and with the same meaning—it is from hearing John Baptist’s confession that the Twelve disciples of Jesus began to come together. Initially it was Andrew who heard John Baptist and felt called. Then Andrew did the same to Peter, his brother, and Peter felt called. Then Jesus showed Himself in Galilee and said to Philip “Follow Me.” And then Philip repeated the pattern with Nathanael (who later name was Bartholomew) and he felt called. And with this, the initial quartet of four disciples was set (or, quintet of disciples, if you include John Baptist). All of this is so very different from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that it begs the question, what is Saint John after with this? What is the purpose behind the way he is telling the Gospel, even its very beginning?

What John is after is emphasizing the centrality of the Holy Spirit to being a follower of Christ. And we see this when we look at the verses that directly precede our Gospel passage today. Sandwiched in between the two proclamations by John of “Behold! The Lamb of God!” is his necessary preaching in which John Baptist says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.” John then adds, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” The emphasis in John Baptist’s preaching is a central teaching on the Christian faith: the teaching that it is the Holy Spirit at work whenever Christ is recognized. For it was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus truly came to John Baptist, when in Jesus of Nazareth John saw the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. It is the Holy Spirit Who revealed to John the correct interpretation of Jesus, He Who is the image (the icon) of the invisible Father. And the chain of calling that was outlined earlier is a chain of the Holy Spirit at work through John Baptist and through Andrew, just as the Holy Spirit was at work upon John Baptist at Jesus’s baptism.

This is why Saint Paul puts such strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit to the Greek Christians in Corinth. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” In context, this is part of Paul’s teaching about the high view of the human body in Christianity. But his teaching is all of a piece, and the whole of it is so breathtaking that it can only be taught in parts—and the whole of it is the sheer and unfathomable gift of the Holy Spirit to us. Through Him, the Holy Spirit, our hearts are transformed. Through Him, we are purified. Through Him, we are taught to pray. Through Him, we are led more and more, deeper and deeper, into the Truth Who is Christ. And, that the Holy Spirit is in our body, that our body is His temple. Let us continue to pray unceasingly, brothers and sisters, that just as Christ overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, the Holy Spirit overturns our sinful habits and replaces them with godly habits of obedience and works of charity according to the threefold Regula, that Christ’s House, His temple, which is miraculously our body, which is our heart baptized, may not be a den of thieves, but rather, a house of prayer.

On the Nativity of Jesus

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2020.

The nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is described in Saint Luke’s account of the Gospel, as we just heard. His taking the flesh of Blessed Mary is also described, though in far less detail, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel account. That the birth of Christ—which we not merely remember today but actually experience and participate in sacramentally and liturgically—received no mention from Saint Mark and Saint John (save very cryptic description in John’s Revelation), but a verse from Saint Paul, and nothing in the other of the apostolic writings bound up in the New Testament, is something to think about and ponder in our hearts as we celebrate this wonderful feast, so important and central to Christian religion, and so important and central to our lives in so many ways.

Now, I admit, this might sound like something only biblical scholars would find interesting. But this fact starts to become very curious when we consider the order in which the New Testament writing came in to the Church. Having a book called a “Bible” is a great gift but it also can obscure the fact that Paul’s letters—most if not all of them—came before any of the four Gospel accounts were written. Paul, as the primary teaching voice of the Church in the early decades, led in his apostolic teaching throughout the known world not with the birth of Christ but with His Death and Resurrection. He preached Christ Crucified and Risen time and time again. Paul, in all his letters (which are inexhaustible in richness for all time) gives us but one verse on the birth. It comes from Galatians chapter 4, and it reads: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Surely the Church in its worship life knew of the virgin birth! Surely the Church in its conversations and fellowship knew of Mary. But why was such a momentous occasion as the coming of God as a human baby not part of the apostolic writings for three or four decades after Christ’s Passion?

Let it not be said that the significance of the Nativity was not taught in the decades before the story of the Nativity was written down. We hear not about the Nativity directly but about its significance from Saint Paul’s epistle to Titus today: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us.” Certainly this can be interpreted as applying to being born of Mary in Bethlehem, announced to the shepherds by the angelic choir, “Glory to God in the highest!” But the language of Paul’s teaching here is primarily not the Nativity, but, its significance for our lives. Paul’s teaching about how our Saviour appears in our hearts and minds—how He is born in us, that we may grow up in stature according to His image in us. Paul continues: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,” [note: this is baptismal teaching!] “which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Paul, as he so often does, is pointing to the baptismal life of Christians who participate in the day to day liturgical and devotional ferment of the Church. Paul is as much reflecting on Christ’s appearing to us within the life of the threefold Regula as he is about Christ’s appearing to Joseph and Mary and the animals.

The reason the specific account from Luke and Matthew showed up later, long after Paul’s letters, Peter’s letters and the rest, is not that it was unknown until Luke and Matthew wrote about it, but rather because the story of the birth of Jesus fermented in the life of the Church’s prayer and was interpreted in light of the Cross, in the light of Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself to die. The Church needed, in other words, to grapple with the end before it the true significance of the beginning could be revealed. The details in Luke bear witness to this. The baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths—wrapped like a body prepared for burial, and the images and icons of the Church bring this out strongly. He was laid in a manger—this is an eating trough, where food and water is placed for animals is where Christ was laid. Why? Because He offered Himself as flesh to be eaten sacramentally: we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and so He was placed on the manger, which takes on the symbolism of an Altar. And why all this? Because there was no room of them in the inn—because Christ came to Jerusalem for Passover on a donkey only to be killed there but a few days later, because there was no place for Him in their hearts, yet. Yet—until all was finished on the Cross, Christ having ascended the Cross and asked the Father to bestow upon the Church the Coming of the Holy Ghost.

As Christians, we begin in the Cross, and only then find the unspeakable beauty and wordless profundity of the Nativity. Brothers and sisters, continue these twelve days of Christmas to put the Lord’s nativity in your remembrance, meditating on the paradox of it all: that God shows Himself as a baby, that this Child was born in purity in order to die and forgive the darkness and sin of the world—indeed that God came to the world as a wee baby that He might be born in our hearts day by day in our prayer.

On Rejoicing with Ss Stephen and Paul

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

This Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudate Sunday.” Gaudate is Latin and it translates simply as “rejoice!” in the sense of a command or exhortation, or, more accurately, spiritual direction. This Sunday, the third of Advent, takes on that name because “gaudate” is the first word in the Introit for the Third Sunday of Advent. “Rejoice” shows up twice even in the first half of the first sentence in the Introit. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.” In this Advent season when the ever-present possibility of Jesus coming to us at any moment in our lives—amid any breath, amid any thought, amid any turn of circumstances—when the nature of Jesus is emphasized that He is the Coming One—the particular dimension of the “coming” nature of Jesus is emphasized to us by the strong invitation to rejoice. As the Introit says: Rejoice, for the Lord is at hand. Our Lord is ever at hand; He is always standing among us, to borrow the phrase from S. John the Baptizer: always in our heart. How could we but rejoice in this knowledge?

As is almost always the case, the Introit comes from Scripture; in this case, comes from S. Paul and the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Philippi. The spiritual direction to rejoice Paul also provides in his first Epistle to the Church in Thessalonica, which we hear today in the Liturgy. To them and to us, Paul says it clearly again: “Rejoice always.” And he adds, “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Christians often wonder, and I might add wonder rightly, what it means to follow the will of God. To ask that question is actually to ask the two types of questions, both of which are really the only kinds of questions necessary to ask to grow in the Holy Spirit and love of Jesus. To ask what it means to follow the will of God first asks “What does it mean when we say in the Our Father prayer ‘Thy will be done’?” Jesus teaches those words to us; the first question asks, “What do these words mean?” But also there is the second question, which is, “given that meaning, what shall we do?” These two questions (“What does it mean?” and “What shall we do?”) are the two questions asked by the people to S. Peter and the other apostles on Pentecost. The Church ever grows out of asking those two questions, and obeying how God answers them in our hearts.

Paul provides the basic starting point for the meaning of following God’s will: to rejoice always, to pray constantly (or, in older translation, to “pray unceasingly”), and to give thanks in all circumstances. Always rejoice; unceasingly pray, everywhere and in all places give thanks—being in the school of the Lord (which is what it means to be a Christian disciple) begins here. It is God’s will that His disciples always rejoice, unceasingly pray, and everywhere and in all places give thanks. To be a Christian is to express our love for God in these activities or dispositions of rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks.

This is what Paul saw in S. Stephen. This is what worked on Paul’s heart—a heart that started out hardened like the heart of Pharoah against Moses and Aaron, but was cut open by the witness of Stephen, both in his life of preaching and serving the poor as a holy Deacon, as well as in his testimony before the council, an episode that concentrated all the power God was working through him into a confession of faith that so unsettled Paul—explosively unsettled he who was consenting to the brutal stoning and death of Stephen—that when it finally hit him, Paul was knocked to the ground and the process of Christian transformation which was seeded by Stephen’s witness (the real meaning of “martyrdom”) was made evident on the road to Damacus, and then in his baptism when he received his sight, and then in the three years alone in the desert understanding what it truly means for Jesus to be the Coming One, and what Paul should do as a result.

Brothers and sisters, being a humble people means rejoicing always, praying unceasingly, and giving thanks everywhere and in all places. This is our testimony; and as we give it, we do so through the intercession of Paul, through the intercession of Stephen, through the intercession of Teresa of Calcutta and all the holy Apostles, Martyrs, and Saints. Giving our testimony is how we follow God’s will, for to do such in our lives demands humility before the Father Almighty, and Christ always shows Himself as the Coming One to those who are humble.

On Preparing with S. Stephen

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

“Now in the time of this mortal life in which Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” are the words of the Advent collect, traditionally said every day in Advent, through the morning of Christmas Eve. These words teach us the very purpose of Advent. The purpose of Advent within the overall Christian life is to ever remind us that the very nature of Jesus is that He is the Coming One, and that His Coming is seen, and is only seen, through humility: His humility, and ours. The Church speaks of Jesus as the Coming One, both in terms of His Coming at the end of days, when He comes to judge both the quick and the dead, in the words of the baptismal creed—but also His coming to us at any time, “like a thief,” in the words of Saint Peter. Here we speak of the coming of Jesus to us in prayer and in our devotion; in the Liturgy and in our personal study of holy scripture; here we speak of the coming of Jesus in works of charity and mercy that we give or receive; here we speak of the coming of Jesus in terms of our contrition, our sorrow for our sins, Jesus coming in those moments of intense and concentrated repentance when we turn to Him and ask for His forgiveness and His Unction. Overall, we speak of the coming of Christ during this life in the words of Saint Peter: that He comes as we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

We also speak of His Coming to us as we face our mortality, even as we face our death, and here the example of Saint Stephen the holy deacon and martyr ever teaches us that if we are strong in faith, the humility shown before God can be an occasion of the most glorious visions being revealed to us: for as Stephen was about to be stoned, he not only said “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” but he also was moved to imitate Jesus in Our Lord’s extreme humility, asking God to forgive the sins of those about to kill him.

The importance of Stephen’s example to the universal Church—how Stephen’s life summarizes what the aspirations of all Christians should be—is affirmed by the fact that the feast of Stephen comes immediately after Christmas. Our Lord is born in holy nativity, we celebrate; and on the first next day, the 26th of December, we celebrate Stephen and his holy martyrdom. The Church in our Kalendar teaches that Christ is truly born in the hearts of Christians when their lives take on the character of martyrdom: of giving witness to Christ in word and deed, which is expressed in the Liturgy when we say, “and here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” All of that could read “and here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, as martyrs,” and the meaning is the exact same. “Martyr” simply means “witness,” and we can only give witness to Christ if we present ourselves before Him as a living sacrifice, which is not only the example of Stephen but all the Apostles, Martyrs and Saints.

And it is the example of Saint John Baptist. His life given over to Christ, John was thereby able to give witness to the Gospel and tell the world to prepare the way for the Lord. Living his own life on the knife’s edge, for he was soon beheaded because of the witness he gave—one of the marks of the true Gospel is that preaching it stirs up the world and is against the grain of the norms of wider society— John preached “after me comes He Who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” He then adds, “I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John Baptist thereby spoke to the ever present reality of Christian witness: the sense of expectation in our lives, day to day. Yes, Christ will come at the end of days to judge both the quick and dead; but He comes at any moment to us, the revelation of the mystery hidden for all eternity shown to us through the opening of Scripture and breaking of Bread—and this should unsettle us, this should confront us, even convict us. Our Collect asks God, after all, to give us grace to heed the warning of the prophets and forsake our sins. Stephen, John Baptist, and all the Saints are praying that we take this seriously. But not out of punishment, but rather that the ways of our hearts may be made straight, that the sins of temptation may be purged from our hearts and room thereby made for the Coming of Christ into our heart, that He may grow ever more in our hearts—that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

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.”