Homily: “On the Baptism of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 2019.

In many aspects of our society, we commonly use the expression, “heir apparent.” It is a way of speaking about a person, whether man, woman or even child, and how to understand their calling, their identity. Professional sports and politics perhaps most commonly demonstrate this way of speaking. For example, some observers suggest that the heir apparent to Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar—for many, the three best basketball players ever to play the game—might be someone like Lebron James. In professional soccer, many wonder what player may be the heir apparent to Mia Hamm. In politics, many Democratic observers spoke of President Barack Obama as the heir apparent of President John F. Kennedy; and on the Republican side we see hopes continue that a politician might follow in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan, as his heir apparent. The “heir apparent” means more than imitation: it means capturing the imagination of the wider world—indeed being a captivating and charismatic figure through whom progress is made, within whom all that came before is recapitulated, upon whom the hopes of all rest.

The significance of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is seen in this way. Saint Luke tells us the people were in expectation—they were looking for the Messiah, the heir apparent. Saint John Baptist insisted that despite the appearances by which is seemed he might fit the bill, it in fact was not him. And so God manifested the heir apparent in a dramatic revelation at the River Jordan. For when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.”

The Evangelists capture this moment in similar fashion, which is to evoke for us the Creation narrative of Genesis. The overtones are clear: the Spirit hovering over the waters, the showing forth out of waters, and the creative words of the Father. And Luke describes the heavens as being opened—such as they were opened at the death of Jesus when the veil of the Temple was torn above to below. The imagery and symbolism invites our imagination to stretch, and even explode—such as old wine skins would explode, unable to contain the new wine, because its fermenting demands a container that can stretch. In this season of the Star of Wonder, Luke wants us not to receive the revelation of Jesus being the heir apparent as information, but rather as a mystery we allow to form us, shape us, and call us to prayer.

Luke wants us to regard Jesus, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, as the “heir of all things.” And we can trace that in Scripture through the Father’s words, “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.” The Prophets had been telling such a one was to come. In Isaiah we hear verses among the most preached upon in Jewish religion: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” In the other of Isaiah’s so-called “servant songs,” the Messiah is described as quiet, restrained, and not a conquering hero or political leader. And this echoes the second Psalm: “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you.”

And commonly through Scripture, we hear of God speaking of a “Son” as vicarious representative of all of Israel. In Exodus, God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first born son.” In Deuteronomy, we hear “how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child.” In Jeremiah: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?” In Hosea, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I call my son.” And of course we have God telling Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” In Jewish tradition, Isaac was a mature man who chose to make himself be a sacrifice to God (before God spoke with Abraham) and so in Jewish tradition Isaac came to represent all of Israel, and the promised Messiah, therefore, the new Isaac.

And so in the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, let us hear this symphony of biblical symbolism, all coming together in focused concentration upon Jesus: the creation of existence, the revelation of the triune nature of God (Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit), His crucifixion, the prophetic strand of Hebrew spirituality involving the suffering servant who is God’s anointed and chosen representative of all people, who as high priest atones for their sins through His free-will offering of Himself and His life for the sins of all—He is the paschal Lamb of God. At his Baptism, as in the Eucharist, let us behold Him. And let us wonder at His star, His shining Light, as the first disciples did when they heard the words of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Homily: “On Epiphany and Mission”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Epiphany, 2019.

The Epiphany of Our Lord presents to us a most singular moment for our reflection. Its alternate name in our tradition is The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. That word, “epiphany,” means manifestation, the showing forth, the making evident, the becoming accessible. Christ had always been God; had always been the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Christ was always the only-begotten Son of God; the eternal Word of the Father, by Whom all things were made. So Our Lord’s Epiphany was not the making new of something that had not been present. Christ is always present to us, irrespective of whether we are aware of Him, or not.

And Christ was always present to the Magi, the wise men from the East. How was He always present? He was present as the guiding Hand, His anonymous Holy Spirit, amid their searches for wisdom and truth. As in the science of our day, the science of their day can always be understood as the search for truth, a seeking after the mind of God, a process to understand creation: to understand the workings of God, for He has made all things. To understand how He has worked in creation is to understand something important of Him. All that is good, all that is beautiful, and all that is true comes from God. And we always do well in our prayer life to remember that.

And yet Christ was made accessible to the Magi in this moment, captured only in Saint Matthew. And He made Himself accessible to them for a singular purpose: that not only religious Jews, but Gentiles as well, would learn who is the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth—indeed, He who is beauty, goodness, and truth incarnate—that they, according to their own free will, might worship Him. That in following their scientific method to the source, they would freely fall to their knees in adoration. And let us also take to heart how Jesus chose to manifest Himself to the Gentile Magi: “And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary, His Mother.” To the Magi is presented the inseparability of Mary and Jesus. There is no mention of Saint Joseph, which would have caused scandal in ancient Jewish society. St Matthew’s intent is clear: where is Jesus—the Star of stars, the Light of light, Truth incarnate—where is Jesus to be found but in the arms of His mother?

Let us allow Jesus to be our light. Let Him be our lamp upon the spiritual realities, the inexhaustible Truth of our invisible God. Let us be assured that God comes to those who call upon Him in humility. He Himself came to us in great humility—a helpless Child wrapped in swaddling linen, the same linen He would be wrapped in in His tomb—as a permanent reminder to us of the need for humility, of vulnerability, of weakness—that by these God may embolden us, strengthen us, and lift us up.

Let us allow Jesus to be our light as He was the light for Moses through the Burning Bush. As he was the light for the Centurion at the foot of the Cross, a Gentile to whom Christ’s divinity was also made accessible and manifest: for when he saw that Jesus thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”—his heart filled with unspeakable light. As Saint Paul was so filled at His conversion: the thunder and light of Christ on His cross speaking to Paul: “Why are you persecuting me?”

In our communion hymn, the first and final verse contains this petition to God: “Star of the East, the horizon adorning, guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.” For a missionary Parish such as ours—our Mission of proclamation of Christ’s resurrection through adoring Him on His Cross—let us open ourselves in humility and vulnerability to be led by Christ’s Star to where our infant Redeemer is laid. We ourselves, like Blessed Mary, have through the message of an Angel conceived the holy Jesus in our hearts.

But a Parish with a sense of Mission does not stop there. We thank God that we are bearing Him in our hearts and mind, yet we must know that to fully grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ is to go to Him in the new places He is being born and reborn—to go to Him as He grows in the hearts of those Who need His love, strength and presence—a missionary Parish seeks to be guided by God to be with people who are not yet able to be guided by the same star as the Magi, because their hearts are heavy with loneliness.

Let us, then, be Christian Magi—men, women, and children wise in the ways of Christ—who allow ourselves to be guided to where Christ sets His star, where ever that might be. And when we come to Him in the lonely among us in Tazewell County—let us also like the Magi fall to our knees in adoration and offer our gifts. And what gifts are these? In the words of a beloved hymn:

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.

Homily: “On ‘In the beginning'”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, 2018.

Saint John begins his gospel with the words, “In the beginning.” Saint Mark began in a similar way, with the shared purpose of immediately evoking the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. That is what we might call a “narrative translation,” like any story might begin. Yet the Greek can also be translated in a more philosophical way, something like, “at the root of existence.” If we were to creatively stick those two together, the narrative with the philosophical, we would have something like “at the root of the beginning of being.”

Saint John intends both translations to be in the mind of his hearers. Why? He intends this in order to heighten our prayer: so that as we are caught up in the joy and wonder of the shepherds who heard the first Christmas Carol, sung by the angels, and then beheld the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes born to a woman, Blessed Mary, after a journey to Bethlehem, we are similarly pushed toward the spiritual and inward meaning, pushed toward mystery, for that is where even more profound meaning is seen—that is, pushed to imitate Mary’s own response to hearing of the shepherd’s experience that night out in the fields tending their flock by night: the response of keeping these things, pondering them in her heart.

Indeed, the whole purpose of the first two verses of his Gospel—In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without Him was not anything made that was made—is to throw us into adoration, to induce our imitation of Mary: because adoration, that is being like Mary, is the key to spiritual maturity. Adoration is the beginning of wisdom.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we heard Mary proclaim to her cousin Saint Elizabeth: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.” Her Magnificat, or in the words of one Anglican priest, “Our Lady’s Hymn” Mary’s hymn (which for two thousand years has been said, sung, or chanted at the end of the daylight hours as part of Evening Prayer and is beloved within Anglicanism) is a collage of praise and adoration texts from the Old Testament. Mary recapitulates all of the great women of the Old Testament, as we have seen; and she recapitulates Israel herself in being “Daughter Zion.” She assembled the verses of her Hymn from words of her forefathers, the seed of Abraham.

We see one of them in our lesson from Isaiah, the first verse, in our translation: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” This not only tells us that Mary knew well her Bible, and that she had meditated on the book of Isaiah, but something yet more profound. This whole passage is speaking of the New Jerusalem, the Jerusalem coming to be with the coming of the Messiah: and so the profound thing is this: Mary herself symbolizes the new Jerusalem. She symbolizes the City of God, for in the City of God dwells God; in the City of God is His garden; in the City of God is His throne, and on that throne sits God Almighty. On the lap of Mary, sits Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

“And the Word because flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Let us ruminate upon this verse. God took on the flesh of His mother, as all babies take their flesh from their mother. And here we can recognize a yet more startling fact: when we speak of the Body and Blood of Christ, that Body and Blood came from Mary, and her body and blood came from Anne, and all the way back in the line of mothers!

“He dwelt among us,” is sometimes translated, in literal fashion, as “He pitched His tent among us,” or as some translations have it, “He tabernacled among us.” Inside the Tabernacle near the Altar is Jesus; inside the womb of Mary is the eternal Word of God. Every tabernacle is an immediate symbol of Mary; and when we worship the Precious Body housed within it, we likewise venerate Our Lady.

“Full of grace and truth.” All of divine reality is disclosed by Jesus, and all of its beauty. Mary was named “full of grace” and after she said Yes to God, she became full not only of grace, but of Truth Himself. And what grace, brothers and sisters! That we have beheld His glory—the glory of reality Himself, revealed in such holiness as few if any words could possibly grasp, save the words of Our Lady harmonizing with Isaiah: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.”

Brothers and sisters, Christ is the light inside each and every one of us. Each and every person ever born, past, present and future, to be sure—yet He burns still brighter in those reborn in Him: not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but reborn entirely through the action of God in baptism. Let us continue to ask God to help us grow into the stature of Jesus: that as the world continues to receive her King, our hearts, having prepared anew making room for His coming can receive the light of light—that the peace and love we know through Christ and only through Christ can be shared with those in Tazewell County who have never known such peace, never known such love—or if they have, have forgotten what it feels like to experience peace and love.

Homily: “From Darkness to Light”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2018.

It is a genuine pleasure to be with you all this evening on the great feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christmas is a time so full of grace and love in so many ways, a time with friends and family, a time for singing hymns and carols. The heart of Christmas beats full and alive, and every year the heartbeat of Christmas—tonight, over the next twelve days, and even on through the winter—makes us glad indeed that the joy has indeed come to the world—and as was proclaimed at the beginning of Mass: the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man. Hail Mary, full of grace, indeed. And hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.

The feast of Christmas finds us this year, as it does every year, trying to walk in the footsteps of Our Lord, Him always being our helper. Indeed the Christian journey as a whole is a path of peace led by Jesus Christ from our world all the way to heaven. And yet in some sense, we the baptized are already there, having been grafted at baptism into His Body, and His Body being at the Right Hand of the Father. Already there, and also not yet there.

Our walking as Christ’s followers in the Parish of Tazewell County and our two church congregations has been, if I may boldly say, quickened by God’s providence, His leading hand over the last year. And that has happened in at least three ways. The first is that we have been led into a liturgical celebration that is unapologetically traditional in orientation and style. We have embarked on a devout experiment with traditional orientation, with both the Priest and the People facing the same direction—the Cross, so that at every liturgy we ask God to allow us at the foot of the Cross, to be taught by Him as He taught Blessed Mary, Saint John the beloved disciple, and others. And our devout experiment involves the use of sacred English within what younger Episcopalians call “Rite I” and what the more seasoned among us call 1928 Prayer Book. The words indeed are rich.

Why we have done so leads into the second way our footsteps have quickened. The ministerial leadership of this Parish—what we call our Parish Council, made currently of 18 members of our Parish—has discerned a clear missionary purpose for our Parish, and this Christmas finds us knee-deep in developing its shape and implementation. That purpose is simply stated: God is calling us in our Parish to serve the lonely among the wider communities of Tazewell County. And we have been inspired by the teaching of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who said that the wealthy countries of our world, despite their material wealth, not only have poverty in their countries, but in her estimation, they have a deeper poverty than anything she found in Calcutta. It is not a poverty with respect to not having money. Rather it is a poverty with respect to loneliness, and not having love. And so I ask you all for your prayers for our Parish ministers, and indeed our whole Parish—that all of us may seek and serve Christ in the lonely around us. We began to face the Cross during our Mass so that we would be emboldened to face Jesus on His cross in the hearts of the lonely people in Tazewell County. That they would know Christian love.

The third way our footsteps have been quickened is through our walking in the season of Advent through the primary themes of Advent: death, judgement, hell, and heaven, what are called the Four Last Things. Thank God for the Light of Christ among us during our walk, as we indeed were a people walking through darkness. Reflecting on death and hell in particular brings us to the knife-edge of our choices, and whether in even our mundane choices in life, as well as how we choose to be in relationship with others, how we choose to act and speak, we are doing so for the glory of God, or for selfish gratification.

And yet, we are a people who walked in darkness but have seen a great light. To us a child is born; to us a Son is given. God has known us from our mother’s womb, knit us together and covered us with His clothing as He did for Adam and Eve. Our lives have always been in His hands, and despite the disobedience of His people, time and time and time again, He has called us into covenant with Him. We have walked through the darkness of Advent so that our actions are not works of darkness but works of light.

And even more so: we have walked through the darkness of Advent so that having cleared our hearts and made room for His coming, we would be able to find the God who appeared as a Child—a child as small, as vulnerable, as helpless as any child, yet whose whole life was lived for us, and whose first cries for His mother’s breast struck mortal fear among the fallen armies of Satan from one end of the earth to the other. And we walked in the darkness so that dismounting from the high horse of our enlightened reason, our false certainties, our intellectual pride, our selfishness, we might truly find God in Mary’s Child—find Him, like the Shepherds; sing of Him, like the angels; and offer our lives to Him, as His disciples. Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous. And may we in these days of Christmas give thanks to His holy Name.

Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 4: Heaven”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2018.

Home is where the heart is. That proverb apparently stems from a Roman author who lived about the time of Jesus: Pliny the Elder, and so it apparently is about two-thousand years old. And it is a proverb that we immediately sense has truth to it. When we are home, we can find rest—literally the rest of sleep, but also mental and emotional rest; or if our lives have anxiety, at least it is being at home where we often can best confront what makes us anxious. When we are at home, things make sense. When we are far away from home, especially after a spell of time, what do we want but to get home. Home is where we rest after our vacations.

One of the often unsettling aspects of the Christian life is that our sense of home is altered radically. Radically, in its literal meaning: at the root, or to the root. It is changed radically, and permanently. And it happens at our baptism. As the waters of baptism dropped down upon us the heavens from above, our sense of ultimate home was relocated from the here and now as can be perceived by our senses to the eternal present of heaven: invisible, spiritual, beyond time and space. In the words of Saint Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” As I have spoken about the tension of Advent we can also speak about the tension of our own identities as baptized people: we are both already at home being incorporated into the Body of Christ at Baptism, and we are not-yet there. The waters and holy words of Baptism are the voice and tangible presence of God Almighty’s voice which sweeps us up at that moment into permanent relationship which is rightly analogous to marriage.

I will readily admit there is a simplicity to this teaching that for many if not all of us can be difficult to fathom. At Baptism we are grafted into the Body of Christ’s Church, and His Body is in heaven. So baptism stretched us into heaven—but what gets in the way of this simplicity of all this? It is our conscience, not pure in Christ but impure. How do we purify our conscience? A time-tested way is to meditate upon the Four Last Things.

With Death what was said is that we die daily to ourselves as we seek to offer what is most precious to us all to God on His Altar at the foot of the cross—the action of doing so is the baptismal life, and our model is the woman (probably Saint Mary Magdalene) with the alabaster jar and her expensive oil of pure faith. With Judgment what was said is that it is the revelation of truth when we are close enough to the Light of light to see more clearly our shadows—this in some sense is the baptismal life with a greater degree of maturity and sobriety, and a model here is Saint John the Baptist who taught that “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” And then with Hell what was said is that the choice to follow Jesus Christ in His footsteps of peace stem from our openness, when confronted with the judgment of Christ, to have the humility to ask, “What shall we do?”—there is yet a greater degree of baptismal sophistication which is paradoxical because asking such a question seems so elementary, but it is more sophisticated because our works are not done for ourselves but for God—and our model or guide here is Saint James, who taught: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” These, then, are three of the Four Last Things.

Heaven, the fourth of the Last Things, is wrapped up into the other three, and indeed, the Christian conceptions of Death, Judgment, and Hell are all predicated upon Heaven. Heaven is where rest, service, and worship are all one. And we see that in Saint Luke’s account of the Visitation of Blessed Mary to Saint Elizabeth. Mary, always our primary example of how to follow Jesus as His disciple, makes her first action after the  Gabriel’s message quite fruitful: out the door of her home she does on what was probably a five-day journey the purpose of which was evangelization: Mary proclaimed the Gospel to Elizabeth. For those five days, the redemption and salvation of the world was known to Mary and Mary alone. We do not know what the specific words of Mary’s greeting were—probably they were “Peace be with you,” which was customary. Elizabeth heard the greeting of peace from Mary, and the babe (Saint John) leaped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. These are strong images that suggest that both Elizabeth and John were at this moment baptized—after all, she is filled with the Holy Spirit, which means John too is likewise filled. They both are full of grace.

And Mary’s song—what one Anglican priest called “Our Lady’s Hymn”—proclaims is the immediate presence of heaven through God’s action in her, which she accepted: her “Yes” to God. The whole world has become full of joy, full of grace as it was for Noah and his family after leaving the Ark. Heaven was shining forth through Mary—her voice, her presence, her song.

Heaven, then, is where our heart is. And our heart is truly in heaven when we have by God’s grace, Him always being our helper, we cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light—that having inwardly digested the Sacred Scriptures, as Mary and Elizabeth had, we can embrace and hold fast the pure joy shared by these two women at the news of the advent of their Lord.

Let us pray: O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirits, that I may conceive the holy Jesus in our hearts, and may bear him in our minds, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 3: Hell”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2018.

Without saying so from the pulpit on the first two Sundays of Advent (largely because our liturgical changes have provided plenty enough to get our heads around), I have conceived all four homilies during this season as constituting a sermon series. The theme is the Four Last Things. The Four Last Things are Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven, and these are a traditional way to recognize again the tension within the air of Advent: the already and not-yet tension that permeates the whole of the Christian life as well as this season.

These Four Last Things are found in Christian tradition when there is reflection upon the mysterious ambiguities involved when the Christian journey as a whole is considered through the threefold Church—the journey that begins in this life through baptism (what’s called the Church Militant), and continues through the end of our somatic life into the next stage within the Church Expectant (the intermediate state often called Purgatory), and finally reaches its culmination in the Church Triumphant (often called heaven). The Greek word for “last” is eschaton; the study of the end is eschatology; and main themes of eschatology—death, judgment, hell, heaven—are therefore “the four last things.”

They are four mysteries: or more accurately, these constitute four dimensions on the single mystery of Baptism and being incorporated through baptism into the Body of Christ: being made one body with Him. As Saint Paul wrote to the church at Corinith: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one.’ But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” “The two shall become one” is biblical language referring to marriage, and so Saint Paul in his letter provides perhaps shocking teaching that baptism is a form of marriage: that when we are baptized, we become married to God, a marriage is indissoluble, can never be undone, is permanent throughout the journey of the Christian life through the three states of the threefold Church.

What we said about Death and Judgment was based again on the teaching of Saint Paul: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Death gives way to life. Embracing our Baptism as mature Christians involves a continual process of letting go the things we love, and offering them to God. Who we are—our identity, our values, what we love—is only truly revealed by the light of Christ. Judgment, then, is not punishment, but the revelation of truth when we are close enough to the light of light to more clearly see our shadows. Christ’s presence—real and actual presence in the Tabernacle, on the Altar, through the Scriptures, and in each one of us through Baptism—convicts us, reveals to us who we are, and therefore purges us of what is old, in favor of what is newly being created in us by grace. If you take a class in acting from Tom Hanks, or Judi Dench, the creative wisdom conveyed by their presence and experience acts to reveal the student’s inexperience and shine a light towards the path better acting. So much so with Jesus and His light of judgment shining upon us who through our baptism are dying to self.

Saint John the Baptist taught that “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Here is speaking of one of the Four Last Things: he is speaking of Hell, of being cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus spoke of Hell as the place of eternal fire, where the fire never goes out. John the Baptist teaches that without bearing good fruit, trees with be cut down and thrown into this fire of Hell. The most pregnant example of Hell in the New Testament is that of Judas Iscariot, who after betraying Jesus, “bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. Obviously Judas did not bear good fruit.

And although we are not Judas, this reflection might cause us to wonder whether what we do in our lives can be considered good fruit. The stakes after all seem pretty high. No good fruit, and it is eternal, unquenchable fire. Saint James, in his biblical book, refined the teaching of John the Baptist: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. . . . For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”

The stakes, thrrefore, are high. Any eschatological reflection on Hell reveals that quickly. John the Baptist wanted his followers to take their spiritual lives very seriously. It is why he used this stark language—truthful indeed, but uncompromisingly stark. And notice the people’s response—three times in our passage from Saint Luke: “What shall we do?” It is the same question the people asked Saint Peter after his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. There are only two kinds of questions in the Christian life: What does it mean? And here we have the second: What shall we do? The clear emphasis here is “do”—on behavior, on action, and not on status in life, wealth, social class, biological sex, race and ethnicity. It is our actions, our behavior, that keep us on the journey to the Church Triumphant in heaven; it is our actions, our behavior, that derail that journey and portend the fires of Hell.

This emphasis on the question “What shall we do?” seen throughout Saint Luke’s writings is in fact good news: very good news. Biological sex, race, ethnicity—these are impossible to change; status in life, wealth, social class—these can change but it is not easy and many fail through no fault of their own. But behavior, actions—meaning at the root, our choices, because actions flow from the choices we make—not only are these not impossible to change, but we begin to change our poor choices every time we turn to God in prayer: every time we recognize the true Light of the world: every time our pride gives way to honest and sober humility.

And so, as so often is the case, our Collect is perfect: Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 2: Judgment”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2018.

We reflected last Sunday, the first of Advent, on the fact that there is a certain tension to Advent—the tension of already and not yet. The Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ is already here—Jesus and His kingdom with His Rule, with His saving pattern of life He demands of His disciples has indeed come, has been revealed to us, our baptized bodies within the Body of Christ are temples of His Holy Spirit, and through the saving pattern He taught—daily prayer in the Offices, the Eucharist, and devotion to the Sacred Humanity according to the Bible and the gifts we each are given—the Church perpetuates His mission, perpetuates His kingdom, perpetuates Him. All this is true of the here and now.

And it is true that the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ has not yet reached the end of its manifestation. Jesus, as we say in our Creeds, will come again to judge the quick and the dead. “Will come again” adds a dimension to our whole way of thought: the dimension of time and of God’s action deferred until some point in the future (or, at least, oursense of future, because it appears that to God, past, present, and future are seen by Him in a single glance. So this tension of already and not yet in fact is the air we breathe, the world of God’s action that we inhabit. As baptized people, who by God’s gift of baptism, have died to sin that we rise with Christ Crucified in His resurrection, the baptismal life itself inhabits the tension of Advent, at all times. Advent is the air that the baptized breathe every day.

The preaching of Saint John the Baptist captured the tension of Advent. Through him, the people of God began to breathe Advent air, in this sense of it being ordered to Christ, Who for John the Baptist had both come already (remember, in the womb of his mother, John the Baptist leapt after hearing Blessed Mary speak—the sound of her words, and the words themselves,undoubtedly full of grace with the presence of God Who Himself was in her womb),and Jesus had yet to come. The hymn “Joy to the World” which we sang last week and will sing again next week, is roughly analogous to the overall content of John’s preaching. In the hymn, fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy. For John, “Prepare the way of the Lord . . . Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth.” It is the same imagery, it is the same action of God, And it was in Baruch, as well: “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground.” Why? “So that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” So that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways. In John the Baptist, in Isaiah, in Baruch: it is the same Gospel, the same Good News. The same action of God.

What is, then, this action? The Christian term for this is judgement. The making low of mountains and hills, the filling up of valleys, the straightening of the crooked, the transformation of the things of our reality—fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, and everything else—from mere objects observed into occasions of God’s transcendent presence which means wonder and joy to the world—this is the action of God’s judgment.

Too often we think of the word “judgement” and think “sentence of condemnation.” We get this from the secular meanings of judgment, whether in a court of law or in the court of public opinion, or the opinion of even a small group of people—who judge a person and pronounce upon that person in a way that reduces their standing, manifests a sense of inferiority, and all in all is a negative thing: “don’t judge me, man,” is the cliché that pulls all of that together neatly.

Now, as is so often the case of vocabulary used both by the secular world and the Christian Church, the Christian understanding of judgement expands upon the secular meanings, not erasing the secular meaning but uncovering a more profound depth of revelation. Yes, in the case of sins committed, particularly sins of malice which are deliberate, premeditated, and committed consciously contrary to God’s will, God’s judgement is severe and unbending—left unconfessed, the consequence of that sin upon a person is a live lived in hell, both in this phase of life and into the next. Perhaps not permanently, but hell nonetheless until his or her examined conscience through the grace of God calls to contrition and confession.

But God’s judgement, in the fullest sense, is much more than this. And the best way I think to understand is through an experiential example. Imagine, in your own main area of interest—say a hobby or activity you do—that you find yourself in the presence of the person or persons whose performance in that activity reaches the highest level of accomplishment. So, if you are a golfer, imagine being in the presence of Arnold Palmer. If you are a painter or artist, imagine being in the presence of Michelangelo. Or even being in the presence of a true and genuine teacher, of music or some other subject, or simple a teacher of life.

When we are in the actual, tangible presence of such mastery, our own weaknesses or lack of skill within that activity are made quite manifest, but it is hardly a completely negative experience. In fact, it can be a very positive—humbling, but positive—experience. Being in the mere presence of greatness, to say nothing if we receive any kind of guidance or advice or teaching from such a master, somehow has the effect of improving our own skills, or if not that, at least opening up new horizons for us, that will time and effort your skills would improve. You might have to practice that tip on putting you heard from Arnold Palmer for years before you get it, but after you do—well, all of this is analogous to God’s judgement. Held up to the light of light, standing before the light that knows no darkness, being Moses on the mountain—yes, we see our shadows the closer we are to the light, but we are also closer to the light—closer to the joy of our salvation, closer to such beauty and such truth that, like Moses, we begin to glow, and become light to the world.

Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 1: Death and Expectation”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent, 2018.

The action of God Almighty, of Jesus Christ, King of the universe is afoot. Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals Himself in glory. Our Lord teaches that there will be signs in sun and moon, and stars—the roaring of the sea and the waves: heaven itself shaken. The prophet Zechariah spoke of the valley split in two, in such way that reminds of an earthquake. Let earth receive her King, indeed. Let heaven and nature sing: while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy. All of these mighty acts of God are acts of Him casting away the works of darkness—because just as every visible thing is under the charge of a holy Angel, the good angels of Light, there lurks close to every perceivable thing—every creature whether animate or inanimate, visible or invisible—there lurks close by an unholy angel of the darkness. The holy angels invite us to praise God from whom all blessings flow, and to regard the creatures of this earth as made by Him with the purpose of each creature to give glory to God. The unholy angels of darkness, on the other hand, seek to tempt us into self-centeredness, tempt us to use the creatures made by God for selfish benefit, not God’s glory: ever-tempting us to pride, not humility. Read more “Homily: “On the Four Last Things, Part 1: Death and Expectation””

Homily: “On Christ the King”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Christ the King, 2018.

Christ is our king. We know that because prominently displayed in both our churches is not only Jesus on the Cross, but Jesus on the Cross as King. Christus Rex is the proper name. Christ is victorious over Satan, victorious over sin, victorious over death—and in His victory He gives us the food of celebration of the victorious cross in the Eucharist. Evoking the realization that Christ is King is the only purpose of Saint Mark’s gospel, and all the gospels—that in the most complete understanding of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, is divinity—Jesus is truly man, and truly God. He is divinity definitively revealed. That as King, He shall reign for ever and ever, His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; His kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed. Read more “Homily: “On Christ the King””

Homily: “On the Desolating Sacrilege”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity (Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.

There are times in parish life when our sense of living it is fairly simple and straightforward: love God, love neighbor through the threefold pattern of daily Offices, Masses on Sundays and holy days, and devotion to the Sacred Humanity flowing from our Baptism. This is Saint Luke’s account, stemming from the Upper Room, a kind of proto-parish. Yet there are times as well in parish life when our sense of living it is the opposite of all that: complicated, confusing and full of uncertainty—often through divisions within a parish, factions, in-fighting, and the like. This is Saint Paul’s account of the church at Corinth, which we can see also as a proto-parish. Parish life is both simple and complicated. Read more “Homily: “On the Desolating Sacrilege””