On the Publican’s Prayer of the Heart

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2021

We hear from Saint Paul an invitation to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Here Paul refers to our discipleship, our journey into deeper relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. A part—in fact a very significant part—of our running with perseverance this race is, as he writes just before that, realizing that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Paul here refers to both senses of the term “saints”: with a lowercase “s” meaning all baptized Christians; and the capital-s, which are the martyrs, confessors, and fully sanctified Christians whose witness to the Gospel of Christ is commemorated over the course of the Kalender (which one such feast in one week’s time: the Feast of Saint Mathias the Apostle).

And this is important because the Christian journey—the Christian race, which like any journey or race demands discipline to complete—is one we never do alone; there is no such thing as a private Christian, and it is impossible to be a Christian alone in an absolute sense. In our baptism, we are made members, one of another through and in Jesus Christ: and just as the foot has a living relationship with the shoulder, each member of Christ’s Body has a living relationship with all of the other members—meaning, we have a truly living relationship with Saint Mathias and all the capital-s Saints; and a living relationship with all the lowercase-s saints, and this relationship is entirely built on God’s grace and is impossible to undo. Our task with the Saints like Mathias, Mary, Joseph, Stephen, Theresa and all the others, is not to create a relationship with them, but to realize the relationship already given unto us—made available to us—in our Baptism. Baptism establishes our living relationship with all the Saints; learning to comprehend the relationship with the Saints we already have is our task: and all of the Saints are as alive to us as anyone alive today.

I mentioned a moment ago that the Christian race, the Christian journey, demands discipline. By “discipline,” the Church firstly means the life of daily prayer. Just as there is no such thing as a truly private Christian, and no such thing as not having a living relationship with the Saints, there is no such thing as a Christian life that only asks of us one hour per week of our time and attention. Paul’s teaching of discipline, and all the teaching of the Church about discipline, establishes very clearly that the Christian life is an every day religion—Sunday mornings, but also Sunday evenings, all the way through the week to Saturday evening (which is traditionally when time is set aside to examine one’s conscience and be aware of any sins committed recently). But that immediately raises the question, in the broad sense: in the life of discipline, where might one begin?

Just such a beginning is described by Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. We have in Our Lord’s teaching a very clear contrast: the wrong such beginning, and a right such beginning. The wrong beginning is demonstrated by the Pharisee, who in his pitiful attempt at prayer immediately compares himself to other people—embodying the sin of Pride. Not only does he regard himself as better than others, but he things he can thereby order God around because he thinks he can earn righteousness through his works of fasting and tithing. Now, of course, fasting and tithing are holy practices, but they should never be done with any idea that doing them earns us anything. Why do Christians fast and tithe? Most fundamentally, it is to give honor to God, because He is God and is owed everything.

Our Christian discipline should constantly be on the lookout for imitating the Pharisee, because Our Lord is showing He is well aware of a very common temptation in the Christian life. This is why after describing the Pharisee, Jesus contrasts him with the Tax Collector (often called the Publican). The Publican could not be more the opposite of the Pharisee—he looks at no one, stands far off, not even raising his eyes to heaven, meaning a stance of humility. And all he says is: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It is honest contrition, honest sorrow for sins, and honest petition to God Who always forgives the sins of the humble and contrite.

And brothers and sisters, it is always by the example of the Publican that the life of Christian discipline takes its fundamental root, and it is from the Publican’s example that the life of discipline grows. So much so this is the case that the most ancient prayer of the Church, after the Our Father prayer, is a prayer that includes the most and sometimes all the words of the Publican, along with words from Saint Peter, guided by teaching both of Saint John and Saint Paul. This ancient prayer is called the Prayer of the Heart, and also called the Jesus Prayer. There are variations on the wording, but the basic prayer is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on me.” Often it ends “…have mercy on me, a sinner,” just like the Publican’s prayer. This prayer—the Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on me—is not only a simple prayer with simple words, but it is the fundamental building block of Christian discipline.

Allow me to be bold: it is my firm view that all Christians should be taught the Prayer of the Heart, and be shown how to be able to say it all day, every day, in moments that allow it to be prayed—said out loud, or said silently, before falling asleep and when first waking up; in quiet and reflective moments whenever these appear. All Christians should say the Prayer of the Heart—this most basic prayer taught by our Lord as the prayer to gain what is most basic and essential to Christian discipleship: humility.

On the Transfiguring Name of Jesus

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

As our prayer moves into the season of Lent, Saint Peter wants us and all the Church to know that the experience of Christ transfigured was for him, James and John truly first-hand. They were eyewitnesses to the majesty of Jesus Christ. Just as during the Eucharist, the priest holds up the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” the Father held up His Son Jesus to these three apostles and said, behold, “This is My beloved Son.” And then to make clear what the Church is always to do, the Father adds, “Listen to Him.”

And we must always listen to Him, for we know that Our Lord need only speak a word, and our soul shall be healed. Just as Peter writes of having a prophetic word made more sure, we have that same prophetic word: and the word is, “Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on us.” This word is our rock; this word is our castle; this word is our guide; this word leads us; this word is our defense against the temptations of the world.

Saint Peter continues his teaching to us by saying, “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” He means this as to our daily personal devotion, our prayer in private. In our personal prayer, Peter with all apostolic authority advises us that we will do well to pay attention. How often our attention is not on Jesus, Who is Light beyond all light, indeed through Whom all physical light comes into being? Jesus is a lamp, Peter says—a lamp shining in a dark place. Imagine being in a dark place and not using a lamp to make your way? But this is exactly what we do when in going about our lives our attention is not on Jesus and His ineffable glory. When our attention is elsewhere, when we are distracted by the countless things that distract us, we are like a person in a dark place, who turns away from the very light that guides them and gives direction to their journey. When we choose to put our attention elsewhere, we are choosing confusion, we are choosing our suffering, we are choosing to be lost.

Our Lord knows our temptations. He knows the human condition, having Himself become human for our sakes and to truly reveal Himself to us. He knows there is a war in our hearts for our awareness—awareness of God’s presence, and the Devil who uses any means necessary to keep us from looking at the uncreated Light of Christ. The Tempter turns anything he can into enticement to give up our attention to Christ and turn not towards God but away from God. Food, which we need for nourishment and fellowship, can be turned by the Tempter into temptation; means of communication (especially smart phones) which often are necessary means to exchange information that needs to be exchanged with others, can be turned into an endless source of distraction, and even means to give into hate, anger, and lust (which we all know can also come from the television; a smart phone being really a miniature television).

Again, Our Lord knows we face temptations; He allows temptations to exist because overcoming them with the help of His grace makes us stronger in faith, makes us more aware of how totally dependent upon God we are, and how lost we can be without Him, when in our dark place we turn away from the Light. But just as after the overshadowing cloud and the voice of the Father, all that remained for the three apostles on the holy mountain was Jesus only, so also all that remains for us on day to day is the Holy Name of Jesus. Let us this Lent, brothers and sister, renew our commitment to the Holy Name of Jesus. Let us say His Holy Name every day, more and more following the Apostle’s teaching to pray unceasingly.  For with His Holy Name comes His Light and Salvation; with His Holy Name comes His strength; comes His fair beauty; comes His protection; and with His Holy Name comes comfort for our heart—that our heart is not hardened and arrogant, but open and receptive to the Light we need every moment of our life, and in every breath.

On the Fever of the Passions

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

The healing of Saint Peter’s mother-in-law must have been a pretty big deal to warrant its coming down through the decades of oral tradition after the Passion of Christ all the way to Saint Mark. Many biblical scholars suggest Mark’s gospel dates from the early 60s; some even as late as the year 70. Even at the earlier date, we are talking about 30 years of oral preaching and teaching about a healing of a fever. It seems like a rather mundane problem to have—which is not to diminish how serious a high fever can be from a physical perspective, of course. I mean that, this episode is one of the first healing miracles of Jesus, and it is a healing of a woman, which is significant for a reason I will mention in a moment.

It is a fairly iron-clad rule of the New Testament that what is included in the four Gospel accounts is not mundane or unremarkable, but rather what is included is included for a very specific purpose: that is conveys spiritual knowledge about Jesus Christ and how He is the Messiah and Eternal Word of the Father; and on a practical level this means that what is included in the Gospel accounts of Jesus has spiritual meaning for us that feeds our desire to be transformed by the Holy Spirit—transformed heart, and thereby a transformed life. The Gospel details from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are included to, in the words of our Collect, set us free from the bondage of our sins, that we might receive the liberty of that abundant life which the Father manifested in His Son Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

So, we must ask, given this iron-clad rule, might it be the case that the fever described by Saint Mark might indicate something more than Peter’s wife’s mother having a temperature higher than 98.6 degrees—that the image of her having a fever represents not a physical condition, but one spiritual?

It turns out there is plenty of support for just that interpretation, and it shows up early in the life of the Church (the early Church being generally referred to as the “patristic era”). A great voice of the Church, Saint Jerome, for example, interpreted the fever as intemperance. In traditional moral theology, “intemperance” refers to lack of moderation or restraint, and an excessive indulgence of any passion or appetite. More recently, the term is used to refer to an addiction to intoxicating beverage (that is, to alcohol), but in the Church it means an addiction to anything at all. The Venerable Bede, another great patristic voice, interpreted “fever” in the same way, and also included under its category addiction to sexual gratification. Many other voices could be cited here.

Now, we do not know (because Mark does not specify) which particular form of spiritual malady Peter’s mother-in-law possessed. For Mark, it is not an important detail to include. What is important, however, is that whatever the specifics, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. And of course, we all are sick, from time to time: spiritually sick. Being unable to exercise restraint over some sort of addiction is something every human being suffers from, at least from time to time. Addiction to television, addiction to cell phones, addiction to gossip, addiction to control, addiction to victimhood; but also addiction more broadly: addition to anxiety, to judging others, even to family (putting family before God), addiction to politics is a prevalent one today, addition to laziness; and, of course, addiction obviously to food, as well as addiction to things we normally speak of as addictive (drugs, alcohol)—these are part of the normal human condition of being fallen, and the Church generally calls these “passions” and what is named in our Psalm as “prison.”

And what spurs our giving into our passions (our addictions) are, in the language of the Church, of course demons. We should note in this passage that Mark uses the word “demons” four times in this passage. When sick, look for demons. Within the Christian faith, being sick has everything to do with our inability to exercise restraint against our common human impulses and human addictions: that is, unable to resist temptation dangled before our eyes like the serpent dangled the fruit of the paradise Tree in front of Adam and Eve. Being sick, in short, results from giving into our passions.

And yet, it is to provide healing from our human weakness that Christ came as the Light that lighteth all human beings. That is what we see right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: immediately we see Jesus healing, and in our passage today, Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And again, Mark means “spiritual healing,” and that is indicated by the fact that as the fever left her, after Jesus “lifted her up” (itself a signal of spiritual healing), she served them. Now, it is easy to overlook the significance of this act of serving, but in the Greek the word is of the same root as the term we today use for an ordained Deacon. Older English translations often use, “the fever left her, and she ministered unto them,” which is closer. Ministering is the activity, of course, of Jesus: and the significance I mentioned earlier of this episode involving a woman is that this woman, Peter’s mother in law, after being healed of her spiritual fever, of her spiritual “passion” (meaning addiction), is the first person in Mark’s gospel to imitate Jesus. Jesus came that His disciples would imitate Him. To be healed, which is what salvation means, is not just to receive relief (or absolution) from Jesus from our sinful temptations, but it is to lead a different way of life thereafter—to walk from henceforth in Christ’s holy ways. It is to lead a transformed life with an illumined heart, guided by grace.

Brothers and sisters, as we continue to approach Lent with the knowledge of the new light of Christ shining in our hearts, let us understand that if we say we have no sin (that is, no passions), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins (our giving into passions), the Father is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

On being Possessed by God’s Presence

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Purification of S. Mary (Candlemas) 2021

All of the episodes of our Lord Jesus Christ recorded in the New Testament are memories. This is especially the case for the four accounts of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ recorded by S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, and S. John. Their accounts were not written down until several years, even several decades, after Our Lord’s Ascension and the Coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. How the episodes got to be in such a place as to be written down, is that the accounts of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s life was proclaimed and preached in worship by the apostles of the Church. The stories and episodes we have of Jesus come down to us as the apostolic preaching of the young Church. It perhaps is characteristic of our modern mindset to downgrade memories, to regard memories as inferior to, what, documentary evidence—today, it seems something did not happen unless it is captured on a cellphone camera and distributed virally on Twitter.

Yet this really is a modern attitude—among the first voices of the young Church to refer to the four Gospel accounts is Saint Justin Martyr, one of the apostolic voices who entered into greater glory in the year of Our Lord 165. Justin Martyr referred to the four gospel accounts as “memoirs.” This is important for us to always keep in mind—the episodes of Our Lord captured authoritatively in Scripture are not equivalent to documentary footage captured by a camera; but rather, they are superior in that these are the definitive accounts of what the Church remembers of Jesus insofar as the episodes recounted have the power to transform our hearts from a heart of sin to a heart of obedience to Christ.

The term a contemporary theologian today uses to describe the Gospel accounts is that the four accounts reflect “scripturally mediated memory.” The episodes of Jesus, including His Presentation in the Temple with the meeting of Simeon and Anna of their, and our, Lord and Saviour, detail how the Church remembered Jesus in a living way as revealed in and through the opening of Scripture as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Day. To the two disciples on that road, and to more of the disciples that evening in the Upper Room, Jesus gave the key to interpreting what we call the Old Testament, Himself being the key because the Scriptures at all points speak of Him, and are spoken by Him. Jesus shows us that it is He who said, “Let there be light,” it was Jesus Who asked Adam, “Where are you?”, it is Jesus of whom Isaiah prophesied would be born of a Virgin, and so on and so forth.

And it was Jesus of Whom the prophet Haggai spoke—indeed, Jesus Whom Haggai heard speak. It was Jesus who told Haggai that He would fill the House of the Father with glory—a glory greater than the former glory that filled the Temple, that filled the Tent of Meeting to Moses. It was in this new Temple, Jesus told Haggai, that peace would be given. The peace, indeed, that passes all understanding; the peace that keeps our hearts and mind in the knowledge and love of God; the peace pronounced and truly given to the ten disciples in the Upper Room which were among the first words spoken by Christ as He appeared in His glorious Resurrection, saying “Peace be with you,” and breathing upon them “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

And it was this peace, told to Haggai, the peace Who is Christ, Who was held in the arms of old man Simeon who had been waiting for the redemption of Israel, and longing for the fulfillment of hopes only on this day did he rightly understand. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word,” said Simeon as he held in his arms the Eternal Word of God. Just as a lesser glory filled the Temple of Solomon, Jesus when presented by Blessed Mother Mary is seen as the fullness of the holy uncreated Light of the Father Who would be the Light to give light to the Gentiles, and the Light to be the glory of Israel.

Simeon, Anna, and us are given possession of this Light presented by Blessed Mary—given in our Baptism whereby our body becomes the Temple of the Holy Ghost—a Temple truly fit for His Presence. Brothers and sisters, let us continue to receive the heavenly Light through our religion: that is, through our daily prayer, our assisting at the eucharistic Mass, and in our devotion to the sacred Humanity of Christ in our relationships and activities day by day. Our religion is to mean to us nothing less than what it meant to old Simeon: salvation by being possessed by the Presence of God.

On Light in the Darkness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the 4th Sun. after Epiphany (Septuagesima), 2021

The season of Epiphanytide is the season of the uncreated light of God showing forth in, through, and by Jesus Christ, Who therefore is our Lord and Saviour. It is a season of great mystery, and all the episodes that outline this season possess in them this sense of great mystery—the holy Nativity, when Jesus is born of Mary in Bethlehem; the holy Circumcision when Jesus is eight days old; the coming of the Magi from the east bearing gifts that bespeak of the Child’s kingship, holiness, and death; the holy baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan which sanctifies all water and affirms Christ’s solidarity with all human beings. Likewise the feasts during this time speak to the great mystery of the uncreated light of God showing forth in Jesus Christ—the testimony of S. Stephen and his stoning; the holy Innocents, murdered by Herod; S. John the Evangelist and his mystical understanding of Christ; and the Conversion of S. Paul the Apostle, from the chief persecutor of the Church of Jesus Christ to her greatest public advocate. Running through all of this is the mystery of God causing a new light to shine in our hearts, a light which can give knowledge of God’s glory in the face of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, if we have the humility to truly seek His face.

We hear today of S. Mark’s account of Jesus’s first exorcism. It happens in a synagogue in Capernaum, after Jesus and His disciples had entered the space, and after Jesus taught the gathering, which included both His disciples as well as other Jews who were probably hearing Him for the first time. The holy Evangelist tells us that Jesus spoke with authority, and not, he tells us, as the scribes. Mark had already recorded the very first teaching of Jesus after His baptism in the River Jordan; that teaching is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” And Our Saviour adds, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Then Mark records Jesus encountering Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee, and His teaching to them was “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of Men.” But in the synagogue, Mark does not specify Jesus what Jesus taught there. So we can very plausibly assume that His teaching in the synagogue was of the same character. The message is that God is present, to turn to His presence in humility, and by continually turning to Him others can be saved because through us the world knows the kingdom of God.

This is what it means to seek the Face of Christ—that in knowing God is present (in the world, in creatures, but preeminently in our hearts), in humility we turn to Him, with faith that doing so gives the health of salvation to us, and through us to the wider world.

Yet what Mark also records provides us with a very important dimension of seeking the Face of Christ. And that important dimension is seen in the man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit; that is, the man who is filled with a demon, is possessed by the Devil. Christ’s presence called out the demon, unclean spirit from the man. This happens for us, as well. Christ’s presence, which includes His presence in the proclamation of the Gospel (what we do in Mass, for all of Mass, including the reading of Scripture, is a proclamation of Christ’s presence right here), calls out the demons in those who hear the proclamation—which of course is the case, because when Light comes into darkness, what is in darkness comes into the Light.

We see this in the testimony of Stephen, for despite seeing his face as angelic and hearing Stephen testify to the presence of Christ, Paul (then Saul) nonetheless was first provoked to sign off on the stoning of Stephen, as well as continue for some time his persecution of Christians, and do so with great zeal. The face of Christ in some sense showing forth in Stephen’s face and the voice of Christ from Stephen’s voice, the Light of Christ shined upon Paul’s heart, a heart possessed by demons, and in the process of being sanctified, firstly came out the unclean, evil spirit.

Brothers and sisters, we must always be prepared for this in our discipleship. In seeking His holy Face, in being committed Christians, we must know that the shadows in the darkness of our hearts at some point will be exposed. Their exposure will bring discomfort, and possibly some degree of emotional pain and tremor—after all, what we have repressed, to use the psychological term, is often wounds of hurt, humiliation, and loss. It is difficult to confront these, yet this process is the same as what it can feel like to examine one’s conscience before making a sacramental Confession. As the light of Christ shines in our hearts—or more accurately, as we let His Light shine, as we open ourselves to Him in humility and surrender—the dark shadows have no where to go but out. But let us also be assured, brothers and sisters, that this is all in the loving hands of the Father, and that as painful as it may seem, not only will Christ’s light truly bring peace to our previously unsettled heart, but that the world will in some sense see in us the effects of purification, this purging of the darkness from us—and that the saving Light of Christ transforming our hearts serves also to draw others to the Gospel, to the Light, to true health in Jesus Christ.

On the Conversion of S. Paul

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle (observed), 2020.

Today we are celebrating the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, it being the patronal feast of title for our church [in Pekin]. It is truly a celebration of the whole Church, because so much of the life of the Church has come in being because of this moment when, at midday, Paul along the road to Damascus on yet another mission of persecution saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around him and those who journeyed with him. And when everyone had fallen to the ground, Paul heard a voice speaking to him which said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Why are you kicking against the goads?” To which Paul responded, “Who are you, Lord?” and then heard, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.”

And Jesus clearly states His purpose with Paul again by saying that through Paul’s ministry the Jewish and Gentile people “may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” It is this moment from which so much of the life of the one Church of Christ has grown, and continues to grow. This heavenly vision altered the course of human history immeasurably, and we Christians will for all times savor the mystery of this moment, live in the mystery of this moment, and be guided by what the mystery of this moment continues to reveal to us, that we can witness to the mystery in our lives in the world.

Our Collect affirms the sturdy belief of the one Church of Christ that the preaching of Paul cause the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. This is why it is so fitting to keep this holy day during the season of Epiphanytide. For it is during this season in particular that in reflecting upon the mystery of the Word made flesh (the broader theme of the Nativity of Christ, not only of Blessed Mary but also how Christ is born in our hearts) we give thanks that our heavenly Father hast caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of the Father’s glory in the face of His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord. Celebrating the Conversion of Paul fits perfectly in this because, just as in Paul’s heart Christ was born through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the words of God deeply heard, we too have the beginning of Christ being born in our hearts at our Baptism at which the Holy Spirit moved over the waters of the baptismal font along with the words of God.

Yet our baptism must never be thought of as a one-time saving event, which remains efficacious no matter how sinfully we live our lives afterwards. Our salvation is not a transaction that happens at our baptism; rather, baptism is the beginning of the process of salvation (the name for which is sanctification), an ongoing journey in which we grow into deeper relationship with Jesus and, through Him, deeper relationship with the Father all by means of the Holy Ghost. We see all of this dramatized in Paul’s life. The Pharisee Paul knew the Scriptures very well, yet he could not properly interpret them. He had a relationship with God, but only barely. It was not until the holy Deacon and Martyr Saint Stephen was on trial did Christ begin to soften Paul’s hardened heart. In Stephen Paul saw the face of an angel, and in hearing Stephen’s testimony, Paul not only heard the proper interpretation of the Scriptures—in which page after page Jesus is found if one knows how to look—but also heard Stephen’s account of the heavenly vision Stephen was given. Paul’s heart softened still more, despite signing off on the stoning of Stephen. The seed planted in Paul’s heart by the blood of the martyr Stephen finally popped forth with its fragrant bloom as Paul was along the road to Damascus. And now Paul knew Christ, because Christ knew him, and shortly afterwards Paul received the Sacrament of Baptism, and began to preach the faith he once tried to destroy.

It is the movement of the Spirit in Paul’s heart that for us and for the whole Church is such an example. From incorrectly knowing the Scriptures to preaching in unfathomably profound ways about it once Paul truly knew Christ—which was catalyzed by Stephen’s witness, when Stephen undoubtedly was given to words to say by the Spirit of the Father, words Stephen proclaimed being on the edge of death, words so pregnant with transformation that Stephen’s murderer became the primary Apostle of the Church in her first decades.

Brothers and sisters, let us constantly have Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance, that the icon of it may quiet our minds and through that stillness, increase our awareness of the power of God to transform our hearts the more we open ourselves to Him in humility, and abandon ourselves at His feet, that we day by day might also hear the still, small voice of God.                   

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.