On the Angelic Life of Prayer

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2021 (Fr Dallman’s last homily)

What contrast we see in our two Lessons today. And it is a contrast between the two homelands of Jesus. In Saint Mark’s account of the Gospel, we have an image of Jesus returning to Nazareth, His homeland in terms of His humanity, born of Blessed Mary and guarded by Saint Joseph. And while His home itself was full of grace, meaning the Holy Family in their domesticity, the homeland of Jesus now, His having returned after His Baptism with His public ministry, shocks Him. Nazareth we learn has little to no active faith in God: “They took offense at Him,” Mark tells us. And although they were astonished at His teaching, Mark adds “He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His Hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” The sick had faith, but no one else. The rest were not listening with faith, but listening with eyebrows raised, and maybe a number of them were dozing off in boredom that results from lack of faith. When we are not full of the Holy Spirit, we instead can become full of unholy slumber (the slumber of no faith being what Paul means by being dead).

The contrast between this scene and the scene described by Saint John in Revelation chapter 4 is could not be more stark. Around Jesus in Nazareth are the spiritually dead, but around the throne of the Lamb are not merely the spiritually alive but indeed the spiritually illumined: the spiritually enflamed. It is an image of angels worshipping at the throne of God in heaven. These are not dead creatures as are in Nazareth, but “living creatures” in John’s description: living creatures giving glory and honor and thanks to Him Who is seated on the Throne, Him Who lives for ever and ever. And we know Who this is, going all the way back to the beginning of Saint Luke’s Gospel, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that the Child she had conceived in her heart before she had conceived Him in her womb would be called Jesus, and that “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.” It is this Kingdom over which Jesus reigns on the throne that John described. Not a community dead like that of Nazareth, but so illumined and alive so as to be able to be seen in prayer by John. The truly disciplined in prayer—daily, sustained, focused, singularly attentive, humble and open hearted—are already participating in the heavenly community through their disciplined prayer; and so while perceiving the heavenly reality directly in this life is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to very few, it is a gift given to those in the Church, especially those, like Saint John, who are likewise given the gift of description, that others through him might be able to taste it.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I present today this contrast between the two communities around Jesus—the spiritually dead Nazareth, the spiritually enflamed around the heavenly throne—in as stark terms as possible for a reason. For these two images, these two icons, illustrate in a helpfully black and white way the choice all Christians are given from the moment of our Baptism in the regenerating waters of the font: do we want to live in Nazareth, or do we want to live in heaven? Being Christian is not saying we believe in the Creed, but living like we believe in the Creed. At Pentecost cost, responding to the question “What shall we do?” Saint Peter told the community to be baptized and then start living in a certain way, and that way was, and is, the way of prayer that began in the Upper Room after the Ascension of Jesus. Belief is important, but how we live is far more important. In Nazareth when Jesus came to give spiritual direction, He found (for the most part) a way of life based on skepticism, people who came to see a performance, not be healed. They are not interested in turning themselves from the crooked generation of the wider world, but being that crooked generation, that wants magic tricks, and not to be taught humility, not to be taught that strength only comes through weakness (which is the mystery of the Cross). And it is this way of life, the Nazareth way, that leads to parishes dying, and parishes closing. Parishes close because enough people stop praying.

As Christians, do we want to live like the Nazarenes? Or do we want to live like the angels? And how do the angels live in heaven? They are in constant prayer. They never cease to sing “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And they cast their crowns before the throne—meaning, they give up themselves as living sacrifice in pure humility—and sing “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for Thou didst create all things, and by Thy Will they existed and were created.” Now we cannot live like angels in most ways, nor are we supposed to. But we can live angelically in one way: we can live prayerfully, we can live in and through our prayer. And the way to do so is to make Mary’s words our own: Be it unto me according to Thy Word, every day. The way to do so is to make the words of the Tax Collector our own: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner. The way to do so is to imitate the Apostle Paul and offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. And the way to do so is to, without fail, attend with repentance and faith regularly and without fail the services in the local parish. The Altar here, the Altar at All Saints’ is the same Altar around which the angels gathered in John’s Vision. The same song the Angels sing in John’s vision is the same song they sing around this altar. Which is why, at every Mass, we say: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name, evermore praising Thee, and say: “Holy, holy, holy.”

Brothers and sisters, the secret both to spiritual health Christian individuals and in spiritual health in Christian parishes is really this simple: imitate not the skeptical Nazarenes; rather, imitate the Blessed Mary, the Tax Collector, the Apostle Paul: imitate the Angels – live angelically – always in our life seeking, and trying, to pray constantly.