Homily: “On Ashes”

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

It is important to understand that the great cloud of witnesses alluded to by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the cloud by the likes of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the great men and women of the Old Testament. The cloud that surrounds us in the cloud of their faith. It is the way we talk about God’s intimate presence—what’s called God’s immanence—and the response of faith to His immanent presence. It is always the recognition of God’s presence amid us that comes first, and our response second. God always acts first, His grace precedes our awareness. And what we call God’s calling to us is the very act of Him making Himself available to our awareness.

This is demonstrated unforgettably in the Book of Job, and the faith of Job is certainly a central aspect of the cloud of witnesses that surround us. In the book, Job is described as blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Despite living such a holy life, Job loses everything through interference by Satan that is allowed by God, and furthermore is afflicted in his person by Satan. And Job in his humiliation sat among the ashes. A long series of discussions ensue between Job and friends, about God and Who God is, and how He acts. And with respect to their arguments, Job remains in the right.

And then as the friends are rendered speechless by Job’s insight and reasoning, or at least they stopped talking, out of a whirlwind appears God. And how God answers the three men and Job is truly remarkable. It is an account certainly based on God’s power, but even moreso on God’s mysterious power—God has not only laid the foundation of the earth but done so as the morning stars sang together. He not only shut in the sea with doors but gave the clouds their garment. It is He that accounts for the inexplicable instincts of animals such as the eagle, the ostrich, the deer, the mountain goat, the horse. But He also commands the morning, and causes the dawn to know its place. It is a tremendous account of God’s majesty and His mystery.

It puts the four men and Job in their place. Job’s response is “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And all that Job lost is restored—his family, his land and animals, even more so than before. Job therefore is strengthened through it all, he is not made weak but stronger but this encounter of God. But this encounter nonetheless revealed something absolutely central to healthy faith and spiritual growth—and it is the recognition that we are creatures. It is the profound truth that we are created—it is God who hath made us and not we ourselves. God walks among us. God talks among us. God knows all our thoughts, desires, and secrets. But our relationship with God is fundamentally unequal—our creaturehood in the face of the Creator of all things visible and invisible is a truth of inexhaustible value in prayer, and it is the basis for the proper understanding of God and His divine holiness. It is the basis for peace and calm.

It is this question of who God is that is at stake in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which, in the words of one New Testament scholar, “speaks to something deep within the heart of every human.” The heart is where we encounter God and is the arena where God encounters us. It is in our heart that we do battle against temptations—for the heart is the seat of the will, the mother of our decisions and intentions. What happens inwardly in our heart in this battle between the conflicts that make up our human existence is lived out in our actions, our behavior, our words and deeds.

This is why it is often said that what we say we believe is less important than how we live our lives according to those beliefs. When Christian actions, broadly construed, are at great odds with stated beliefs, the term for that is hypocrisy. But when Christian actions are in accord with stated Christian beliefs, the term for that is holiness. But the lives of holy person and the hypocrite can look quite similar, as the that of the Pharisee and Tax Collector probably did from about fifty feet away. It is only by knowing something of their inner world of prayer, which Saint Luke gives us from the words of Our Lord Jesus, that we can discern that despite appearances, the differences between the Pharisee and the Tax Collect are great.

At root in this parable is the attitude towards God. Behind the boastful, love of self that we see in the Pharisee is a very ordinary view of God. This is a god that loves gossip, that loves bragging, that favors the elite, and favors the proud. And the teaching here is that the Pharisee is making God out to be exactly like himself: God in the image of man, and specifically, of this man. And the Pharisee is addressing God as if he and God are on the same plane, the same level—and even because the Pharisee’s words are little more that gossip, secretly the Pharisee inwardly thinks he can control God, and that is why he fasts and that is why he tithes, so that he can claim a holy specialness.

What the Tax Collector says in his prayer is equally illustrative, but notice how different it is. Not lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” None of the comparison of himself to others, none of the idolatrous self-love, none of the celebration of self-accomplishment seen in the Pharisee. Rather, the simplicity and truth of the Tax Collector expresses humility. The words of the Tax Collector are the words of Job. Both recognize the immanent presence of God in their hearts, and both are struck nearly speechless by His presence both mysterious and tremendous—fundamentally incomprehensible. Their prayer is the prayer of creaturehood—of ultimate humility.

This is why the Church imposes ashes upon our foreheads. It is not a mark intended to evoke sorrow, to make us weak, or to focus inordinately on our mortality. Job was in ashes and he was empowered by God. The ashes are a mark of truth—that we are creatures. We are created. God’s power and majesty is inexplicable in human terms and yet this is a power we participate in by His grace, and indeed that we are to be agents of for others. Ashes are to give the same peace and calm to us that God gave to Job—a peace that settles us, a calm that pervades us, that comes through the right knowledge of who God is and who we His creatures are. And with that knowledge—with that peace and calm, and only with that peace and calm—can we rightly enter Lent, and allow the deepest truth of our creaturehood in the face of an unfathomable Creator to work on our hearts. We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentence.

Homily: “On Transfiguration and Fire”

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

In the book of the Bible called the Epistle to the Hebrews comes the memorable description: “Our God is a consuming fire.” The writer echoes the Book of Deuteronomy, which teaches that “The Lord your God is a devouring fire.” Fire of course is one of the elemental things. For ancient society fire was absolutely essential for survival not only for its heat but for its transformational power over food. Modern society, without needing fire itself all the time, replicates the effects of fire in our homes, in our buildings; many industries are built around the power of fire to produce goods. And so the transformational heat of fire remains as essential today to our society as it was in ancient societies.

There is something element also in the experience of fire. For those who have them, a fireplace can be a treasured location in the home where memories linger. And those who like to camp in the outdoors often order their day around the building of the camp fire—not only for cooking but for that campfire experience particularly after the sun goes down. I remember such a fire that would have been twenty-eight years ago—it was a bonfire at my high school during my senior year, during homecoming week. It was in the back areas of the school’s property, out where we had football practice. I had driven alone to the school, and arrived well after dark arrived. I was in high school, as I said, which meant I was perpetually tired and I do recall being rather drowsy on the drive to school. As I walked from my parents’ car in the parking lot back towards where the fire was, I remember how large it was, even from a distance. There were already many students, and presumably adults, gathered near and around the huge flames. I probably spoke with a number of fellow students and fellow football players, but I do not remember anything specific of what was said (although I have the sense that unrequited high school romance played a part). But that is irrelevant—the experience is seared into my imagination as one of the highlights of high school—something both of reality and of dream. Its presence in my memory and in my imagination cannot be shaken.

Jesus took with Him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. This is the final lesson of how Jesus manifested His glory that we have before we begin the season of Lent. For the Jewish religion, Moses had been the living icon of the God alive in Israel’s life. Moses had after all spoken with God, not only on the mountain but all throughout the years in the wilderness. And because of it the skin of his face shone, and the people were afraid to come near him. Only when he veiled his face could he speak with them, guide them, and keep peace and the right worship of God among them according to the two tables of testimony in his hand, the ten commandments—which also can be translated the ten words—of God.

Jesus, dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, now shows Himself—manifests Himself as brighter than all the stars and sun—as the true expression of God alive. Jesus is the true icon, or image, of the Father. Jesus taught His disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And Peter and James and John were not only seeing the Father, but they heard His voice. For a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” Listen to Him—because not only was Jesus speaking at that moment with Moses and Elijah, but it was always Him speaking with them during their lives, for Jesus is in Himself the expression of the Father; the Father’s Eternal Word. It was Jesus speaking with Adam and Eve in the garden. It was Jesus speaking—anonymously to be sure—also with Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and the rest. Jesus in His preexistence, His eternal divinity that was from before time.

And it is an existence fully revealed when we too see Jesus in our hearts as in prayer—Jesus, in His being at this moment, in prayer for us, for His Church, for all His creatures. Jesus, glorified at the Right Hand of the Father in heaven, with His wounds incurred on our behalf and for our sins and the sins of all people past, present and future—in prayer. In perfect relationship with the maker of all things visible and invisible—a relationship of perfect prayer. Perfect obedience, perfect listening, perfect harmony.

When we adore Jesus in prayer, He becomes dazzling white, His very being which is love becomes manifest to us as an all-consuming, all-devouring love. And so let us, as we behold by faith the light of His countenance, enter Lent strengthened to bear our cross—strengthened by our intimate closeness to very Love Himself—confront our own shadows that can only be clearly revealed when we are close to the Light. And in confronting our shadows, may we be strengthened to bear the cross of them—knowing that whatever our shadows may be, the more honest we are about them, the yet closer to God we become, and our lives are ever-more possessed by His love, and we are ever-protected by His loving hands.

Homily: “On Saint Matthias and Providence”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Matthias the Apostle, 2019.

There are times when I just do not know what I will be making for dinner. When the regular dishes do not have that spark, well, one just starts with whatever ingredient you want to base your cooking around, and go from there: a little of this, a little of that, and so on. Sometimes one finds oneself at the grocery store, not knowing what one plans to make for dinner. And this can be dangerous, especially if at that moment you are hungry. But you walk through the aisles of the grocery store—produce, dairy, meat, and the boxed goods—waiting for inspiration. Waiting to be reminded. Waiting even, well, for a sign.

When we hear from Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles that the company of persons gathered in the Upper Room (about a hundred and twenty) cast lots to determine who would replace Judas in the college of the twelve apostles, and we learn that “casting lots,” though a well-attested biblical practice throughout the Scriptures, is something along the lines of rolling dice or playing the lottery, hoping the ping-pong balls come out with the right numbers—when we learn this, we are tempted to regard the early Church as superstitious or naïve. Yet we should resist this temptation, for we often leave important matters—such as what’s for dinner—up to something we call “chance.”

The company of one hundred and twenty—constituting what we can regard as the first parish—had a strong belief in the Providence of God by means of the Holy Spirit. And they had good reason for this belief. The things that Jesus said would happen had happened and were continuing to happen. This was a group of people fresh off an astonishing series of events: the Ascension of Jesus, preceded by a whole host of resurrection appearances by Jesus in His glorious Body that Scripture insists was an objective reality, and that after His resurrection after gruesome and utterly deflating death on the Cross, which was immediately on the heels of a public show-trial that was little more than a riot in the public square, and this after He had instituted the Eucharist as His permanent gift of unfathomable love—and of course this preceded by His three years of public ministry in which the hearts of each and every one of the one hundred and twenty people in the Upper Room Parish were cut to the heart time and time again—changing the direction of their lives and focusing their lives toward a singular shared purpose of unity with God for eternal life.

Furthermore, their prayer life together in the Upper Room Parish was one that broke open the Scriptures—that they found Jesus everywhere in the Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings. They found His guidance in the Psalms, as we hear Saint Peter proclaiming (and this is a subtle but unmistakable indication that in those nine days in the Upper Room, they were praying the Psalms through what we call the daily Offices both Morning and Evening). They remembered Jesus’ words of teaching, and shared them together that the fruits of profound hidden meanings might be found, and the guidance as to what to do next discerned.

They remembered, as Saint John recorded, Jesus say, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” They remember how much Jesus said He would possess them, as a vine possesses all its branches. And here again we see the biblical basis for the stark words of our Collect last week—that we can do no good thing without God—as a branch can do nothing that leads to growth or fruit without being part of the vine. The positive expression of that is Jesus’s strong teaching to abide in His love: abide in His words, His actions, His life, His person. Savor them, and allow ourselves to rest in them.

The Upper Room Parish also remembered that Jesus taught that “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.” And before His Ascension He again promised the coming of the Holy Spirit—that they would be plunged into the reality of the Holy Spirit (because “plunging” is what the word “baptism” means). We see this happening, because in Luke’s telling, what follows on the selection of Matthias by lots—meaning allowing the Holy Spirit to make evident His wish; this was no partisan election or straw poll; they asked the Holy Ghost to show everyone whom He wanted to replace Judas—what follows on this is the Coming of the Holy Ghost not only as evident to them (because He had already come to them numerously in private and small-group ways) but as a public reality evident to all of Jerusalem—a staggering explosion of spiritual energy that continues to empower everything that we do.

It is rightly said that the Kalendar of the Church teaches the faith. Through our cycles through the seasons—Advent into Christmas into Epiphany—we have learned how Jesus manifested the glory of His being the Eternal Light of the Father. Our tour through the Saints also teaches the faith—for we see through their lives how the Gospel is lived out. In the case of Saint Matthias, we know precious little about him and his ministry—the strongest evidence is that he later travelled to lands in and around present day Turkey and planted Christian communities. His symbol is a bible and a sword—so he was faithful to the Scriptures and he died from martyrdom. His primary teaching for us is found in how he was selected, because it indicates the level of trust and surrender to the Providence of God through His Holy Spirit that the Upper Room Parish had, and that we should have as well. Allowing God to show us what to do as a Parish is how we demonstrate our surrender to Him, our total dependence upon Him. And according to the pattern of the Sacred Scriptures, abandonment of our selves to God anf surrender to His Providence is not an option, but rather necessary for the spiritual health of a parish.

Icon by the hand of Aidan Hart.

Homily: “On the Sacred Humanity of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Mass of Christian Burial of Nancy Swayne, 21 February 2019 at Saint Paul’s Church.

There was such joy when the first Christians gathered in community in the first church in Jerusalem. This was the Upper Room, where Jesus taught about Eucharist, later instituted the Eucharist and washed the feet of the eleven apostles on the night before He died. It is where Jesus appeared to the apostles in the evening of Easter Sunday, and it is where the early church after the Ascension of Jesus learned how to worship, learned how to live in community around the cross, and learned what it was like to be fully human and share a full humanity with one another—for this is why God became man: that through the gift of Jesus, formed by His outlook upon reality, our fallen humanity (so prone to missteps, misguided behavior) can participate in the sacred humanity of Jesus.

The sacred humanity of Jesus is fundamental to the Gospel of God—fundamental to the Good News that Jesus taught and lived in His life, resonantly echoing the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. The sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards the world—that all things are not only made by God, but made through Christ: and so it affirms that all creatures both small and great are endowed by God with His gift of existing, and are to be used and beheld for the glory the give to God, the maker of all things visible and invisible.

The sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards people—that Christ in some profound sense is present in all persons, whether Christian or not: and so the sacred humanity of Jesus reveals to us the dignity in all persons, and that all things good, true, and beautiful in all persons are of God, no matter the form, shape, or appearance. To recognize this truth is the deepest meaning of the commandment to love thy neighbor.

And the sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards death, an attitude toward the inevitability of life leading to the end of our earthly, bodily life. It is an attitude awake to sorrow and pain, not avoiding sorrow and pain but embracing it as Jesus embraced sorrow and pain on the Cross—knowing that the power of God overcomes death, overcomes sorrow and pain, and transforms them into new depths of love.

Because our redeemer liveth—and we know this is true because He has been changing hearts of people from one end of the earth to the other for two thousand years, with no end in sight—we know that our lives and our humanity, baptized into His life and His humanity, are already stretched into heaven with Christ. This is the gift of baptism: that we begin to participate in the heavenly realities in the here and now. Death in Christianity does not mean the end of our relationship, but the beginning of a changed relationship with our sister Nancy.

The most important and central truth we proclaim today is found in the first words of our liturgy today, chanted during the procession to the Altar: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” The rest of the liturgy both here and at Prairie Haven simply expands upon that truth, and makes that truth our prayer: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life. Can we doubt that part of the reason for Nancy’s uniquely warm and infectious smile stems from the fact that the spark and light of Christ filled her and she saw that spark and light of Christ in each person she met? And can we doubt that the ability of her smile to fill our hearts in but a moment she now is sharing not only with us but with the dearly departed in paradise—in only the way Nancy can? I not only do not doubt this for a moment, but I firmly believe that it is through her smile that she is singing the praise of Jesus in His house, and will continue to do so in His arms, for ever.

Homily: “On Teaching and Healing”

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

Because our mortal nature is weak, our Collect has it, we can do no good thing without God. That is a truth that we may not think about in such stark terms. — that we can do nothing good without God. Does it confront us, this truth, and cause us to flinch or raise our eyebrows? We can expand that theology and say still more: not only can we not do any good thing without God, but we cannot do any beautiful thing without God, nor can we do a true thing without God. That all that is good, beautiful and true of this world comes from God is an iron-clad law, and happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord.

What this truth expresses is the reality of our baptism. In baptism we are buried with Christ in His death, and we are reborn in baptism in Christ’s resurrection. We are born: not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. The grace of God possesses us—we have said yes to God as Mary said yes to Him through Gabriel, and our mortal nature passes away, and our glorious nature, which is Christ in us, takes over—and we become people who are walking in His light, delighting in His ways. When we see this, when we allow this to be our identity, when we conceive in our hearts the very same Christ who Mary conceived in hers, we fall into awe, we tumble into wonder, and we leap for joy as Elizabeth and John the Baptist leapt for joy at the presence of Our Lord through His Mother.

Yet we do not always recognize our true identity with such simple clarity. We sometimes do not see ourselves as a child of God. Rather we see ourselves as troubled, as wounded, as unlucky, as beat down. We see ourselves as far from God, and far from His grace. With full reverence because we tread now on holy ground, let us in this holy space, a space filled with the presence of God in numerous ways, let us allow ourselves to see such self-identifications in the way Saint Luke characterizes those who came out to hear Jesus teach—as troubled with unclean spirits.

Being troubled by unclean spirits is not a rare or uncommon thing for followers of Jesus, but a common and normal condition, and the same is true for us. It is through the meddling of the unclean spirits led by Satan, who is known as the prince of this world, that we forget who we really are. Each of us is a child of God, a member of His Body, who live and move and have our being in Christ’s Resurrection, here and now, and more abundantly to come. Yet we fall prey to temptation to forget this self-identification, to forget this name for ourselves, to forget the grace that at all times empowers us. We forget that the very reason for our being biologically alive and not erased from existence owes entirely to God’s grace. Everyone alive right now, from the most saintly to the most satanic, is only alive by God’s grace. We keep that fundamental truth in mind, and the claim that we can do nothing good without God in our Collect becomes almost obvious.

The pattern Our Lord demonstrates to heal people from the work of the unclean spirits, to cure them of the condition by which they forget their true identity and accept a lesser, false identity, is that He teaches them. This is the next dimension revealed about the Light who is Jesus in Saint Luke’s telling—the close connection between the ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching. When Jesus teaches “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” any identity the poor and downtrodden among Him had as poor and downtrodden is transformed—again this is the truth captured in Our Lady’s hymn, Mary’s Magnificat: He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humbled and meek.

By His teaching about Who He is, He teaches about Who those are that follow Him, the identity that have in being a disciple. Finding out who we are—profoundly who we are in our core—that we are like trees planted by the streams of water that flow directly from the holy mountain of God into our roots—this is the Gospel. We can imagine that 120 people gathered in the Upper Room after Christ’s Ascension all finding out together their true identity as children of God living in Christ’s Resurrected Body is part of what blew the doors off the place with the mighty wind of God. Finding out that no matter what our economic or social status might be—into what conditions we have been thrown, no matter what our givens might be—that we each are a child of God already living in heaven and growing into the stature of Christ who is in heaven bleeding gloriously from His cross the blood and water of the Sacraments we receive—that Christ is resurrected and He in part lives His resurrection through us—this and only this is true happiness; this and only this is true goodness; this and only this is true beauty.

Homily: “On the Lord Possessing Us”

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

Through this season that began with The Epiphany and has continued in the Sundays afterward has been revealed the dimensions of the Light of Christ. This is the most obviously didactic portion of our liturgical calendar. It is almost as if each Sunday provides a lesson about how Jesus is the Light, and what it means to understand Him as the Light.  We have been seeing the Light from different sides as it were, and learning about its nature.

At the Epiphany (something like our first “lesson”), the Christ Child was revealed to be a God presented to us by Mary (through her we meet Him), and that He is a universal God, for Gentile and Jew alike—and a God who changes the direction of our lives when we truly encounter Him, because the Magi departed to their own country by another way than they had come. At His Baptism (our “second” lesson) was revealed the public nature of His ministry as well as the essence of God as being Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Through our “third” lesson at the wedding in Cana was revealed a God who works in partnership with His mother, Mary who intercedes on our behalf, and a God whose actions are sacramental: He works with outward and visible signs such as ordinary water and transforms them so as to be vehicles of His inward and spiritual grace. The “fourth” lesson, the conversion of the Apostle Saint Paul, we learned that He manifests Himself as Christ Crucified and Resurrected: in His glorious Body but ever on His cross, that from it may be procured innumerable benefits—and so there become the sense that within the Light that shines gloriously is Christ gloriously on His cross, to convict us and to change the direction of our lives because of it.

And then in the “fifth” lesson, in the synagogue, when Jesus preached on Isaiah’s words about serving the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Christ revealed another fundamental aspect of Himself: that He is not a political, conquering military hero but of the prophetic strand of Jewish religion, indeed the Suffering Servant and Messiah of the Remnant.

So the Light, brother and sisters, has grown ever brighter. The Light we expected would come in Advent came as a delicate and vulnerable Child to the joy of the world, and that Light has grown brighter and brighter—not merely so that we cannot miss it, but that this Light will draw us ever closer to it, as Peter, James, and John were drawn close to the transfiguring Light of Jesus on the mountain.

What, then, of the Light is revealed to us today? Jesus was teaching the people from a boat—bringing to their minds the image of the Noah’s ark, indeed that He is the ark of salvation, and His words calm the turbulent waters, bring peace to the crisis of the storms of our lives, that our anxieties can rest in His presence and know a great calm.

And in teaching from the boat, He told Saint Peter to put out into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. He did this from His divine sense of humor (for He surely knew they had caught no fish the night before), and from His wisdom, for the laws and workings of nature are not abstract and cold but are controlled by God, made by God, and made by God from His love—all the laws and creatures of the world are made aware to us that we may recognize God’s glory in them.

The key aspect is that it is not Jesus who caught the fish, but Peter and James and John (the same three who witnessed the transfiguring Light of Jesus on the mountain). But they were shown a sign—in other words they saw the Light in a particularly penetrating way that convicted them and drew them yet closer to the Light. And it worked: Peter being astonished was driven to humility (perhaps overly so), to contrition, and to adoration of God. He was like Gideon, who heard God say to him, “Peace be to you.” They were moved to adoration, to worship.

And thenceforth, God moved them. In the verses after our first lesson, we learn that God’s spirit took possession of Gideon as he went forth into battle. And He took possession of Peter and the other Apostles, to lead them into becoming fishers of men. We often think of “possession” in negative, evil terms: so and so person is “possessed by the devil,” and the like. But possession has a quite positive aspect as well: we are possessed by God, and there is no greater sense of our being possessed than our baptism, when our bodies become one with His Body. What we must do is recognize that we are possessed by God, and allow our lives to be ordered by this fact.

This is why, brothers and sisters, we face the cross. We come to the Cross naked and honest about our dependence upon God, and our sinful ways despite our desire to love God, love neighbor, and do His will. And on the Cross we meet Jesus, Himself naked and honest, nailed to the Cross out of love for us—that we can hear His words of peace that passeth all understanding, and be possessed by His spirit to have His grace empowering all our works, as He empowered Gideon, as He empowered Peter and the Apostles. We face the Cross so as to be sent from the Cross so possessed by His heavenly peace that we can bring that peace to the lonely among us in Tazewell County, that they can be healed by His peace.

Homily: “On Christ the Messiah for All”

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

Among the prophetic words spoken by Simeon in the Temple when forty-day-old Jesus was presented in the Temple according to Jewish religious law, and also Mary presenting herself for purification in likewise custom, were these: “For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles.” The Church continues to chant and pray these words every evening as the light of the day begins to fade, in part as constant reminder that the light of Christ is a light of revelation—the Light in which darkness is no longer darkness, for with Christ the night is as clear as the day. The man Simeon is regarded in ancient Church tradition as being one of the seventy biblical scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek.

The image of this old man beholding baby Jesus and recognizing in Him He through Whom all things have been made—and recognizing in this moment the fulfilment of all that the prophets had told—is too much for words. Better to sing the words daily and allow the image to work on our imaginations like water works on rough rocks making them smooth. By the time of the Ascension of Jesus to the Right Hand of the Father, the only person still alive from that event in the Temple thirty-three years prior was Mary, and it is surely her who told of this and many other stories of Jesus to the early Church, helping to fire their imaginations and hearts with the divine, out-pouring spark.

In those words from Simeon is a message that Jesus is universal: that the salvation brought by Christ is a universal salvation, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles—more than for Jews only. (But of course, to their glory.) The early Church needed this teaching because even after the death of Jesus, and probably for decades still after His death, the Church had a hard time letting go of the idea that the Messiah would be a political hero. That expectation had been ingrained within the Jewish religious culture for centuries, and to great extent it was a reasonable expectation when the idea of “messiah” was considered within Jewish political history and reality. If the Temple was going to be fully rebuilt, the occupiers of the Temple (the Romans) would have to be overthrown. And that would take a political revolution. They were not just going to give control of the Temple away. It had to be taken by force.

Jesus often taught that He was no such messiah, and it was always a message poorly received by His Jewish audiences. Such is what we hear in our lesson from Saint Luke. What kind of Messiah is He? It is to be a prophetic messiah—“Today this scripture (which was from Isaiah) has been fulfilled in your hearing,” He preached. Jesus is situating Himself and His ministry in the prophetic line. This is directly after proclaiming these words from Isaiah: ““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Not a political hero, but a Messiah who announces good news to the poor, blind, captive, oppressed—and, lonely.

And then Jesus brings to his audience’s mind the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Their healing ministry, Jesus reminded everyone, was not to the Jews in need but to the Gentiles, and even a small group. His ministry was universal salvation, offered freely to Gentiles. This was the first time in Luke’s Gospel that this aspect of Christ’s mission was revealed, and it was nothing short of scandal. That He was for all, not just for them. And after Christ’s Ascension, I have little doubt that such scandal lingered in people’s imagination. It took Blessed Mary again being a Mother to the Church and telling them that her Son’s ministry has been universal and for all since the beginning. God revealed this to Simeon, she would have told them. Yes, He is our King, for Gabriel told me that “the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.” He is our King, she assured them, but He is also their King, the King of all, the King of kings and Light of lights.

Brothers and sisters, let us be heartened by our universal God, as the Magi themselves acknowledged when they came to pay Him homage. Let us not keep our loving and gracious God to ourselves, but follow the star of Christ as He leads us to the poor, the lonely, the dispirited, of Tazewell County. Through our ministry called by God, the hearts of the lonely will be warmed. God’s presence has made us holy—through His word, through His most Precious Body and Blood—not so that we can hold onto Him only for ourselves, but that lonely people in Tazewell County can find Him through us.

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, 2019.

It is not always recognized that after Saint Paul saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round him and those who journeyed with him; after he had fallen to the ground and heard a voice saying to him in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And after Paul learned that this was the voice of Jesus speaking—Jesus whom Paul was persecuting—and then heard Jesus bestow upon Paul his true vocation—to be one who opens the people’s eyes, that they may turned from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus—it is not always recognized that Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert trying to get a handle upon what just happened.

It must have been hard to say! Like Blessed Mary’s annunciation from Gabriel, this was an annunciation to Paul—the power of the Most High also overshadowing Paul. Mary pondered in her heart the meaning of her Son, and the meaning of her vocation. Likewise Paul spent three years in the desert—three years, we can reasonably say, in a wilderness of prayer, a wilderness of mystery, a wilderness of what must have been profound existential crisis. To say that Paul’s whole world was flipped upside down does not begin to describe his situation. As he said, he who once persecuted the Church is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. And then uncertainty of what to do next. How could he possibly know?

One of the open secrets upon praying with the Bible, and especially with the New Testament, is that when we come upon moments strangely void of description, we are not pass over them, but pray into them—pray with our faculties of imagination, within the fellowship of the living Church and its theological tradition, seeking to penetrate the mystery, to find life revealed amid the silence. Such is the case with the life of Jesus, completely undescribed from day 40 of His life through age 12, and then from age 12 to approximately age 30 at His baptism in the River Jordan. Such also is the case with the life of Mary, of whom the biblical writers of the New Testament report quite little. Another is the hours of prayer spent by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Bits are described, but what was His prayer like between the few words we are told? Another is the nine days in the Upper Room by Mary, the other women, the Apostles and disciples totally 120 people. We are told they with one accord devoted themselves to prayer. What did this prayer look like?

With Paul’s initial conversion moment, we have another such moment. Paul himself prayed into the silence and mystery of it for three years, and indeed the rest of his life. Perhaps the primary mystery is this voice he heard. Who is this voice? Paul himself immediately wondered. He identifies the voice as that of Lord, of someone he must respect. It is a voice that first identifies Himself through the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This Lord is a persecuted Lord, one actively being persecuted. And the voice answers Paul’s question, “Who are you, Lord?” by saying, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

Now the human mind attaches images to invisible things. What image would Paul attach to this voice of Jesus being persecuted? It is not clear that Paul ever saw Jesus in person, whether in Our Lord’s public ministry or as He hung, nailed upon the Cross. He would have heard of Jesus’ crucifixion, at the very least from the testimony of Saint Stephen before his stoning. He certainly heard enough from other sources to decide to actively persecute the early Church.

Yet the image that most likely came to Paul’s mind, whether in the moment or over the course of the subsequent three years, was Jesus on His Cross. The image of Jesus crucified, when He was most persecuted. And this fits as well when one considers the whole of Paul’s writing. There are two primary emphases in his writing as a body: take Baptism and the other Sacraments seriously (so much so that he teaches that healthy parish life is built upon stewardship of God’s sacraments; what the voice of Jesus means by “sanctified by faith in me”), and in all things face the cross. Face the cross—as a parish church in worship; face the cross—as a community in mission; face the cross—as a person seeking to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (that is, with adoration and humility).

The Cross for Paul is an inexhaustible image, the central icon of Christian life. For Paul, all leads to the Cross (as it did in his own life from birth to the road to Damascus), all come forth from the Cross (as he famously taught, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and again, “We preach Christ Crucified”). Life for Paul is always a cross-shaped life.

And so how do we know that we are truly being taught by Paul? It is when we find ourselves through the Liturgy and through our prayer life, drawn into the mystery of the Cross—its horror, and its glory. That’s its horror humbles us, and its glory throws us into adoration, into praise, and into thankfulness.

Homily: “On the Wedding at Cana”

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

For those of you who have made wine in the home, or known friends or family who have, you know as I do that it is a rewarding process that requires not much talent but a great deal of patience. Patience, I mean, from the very beginning: in allowing the yeast to start bubbling, and then patience to basically do nothing for months at a time as some mysterious process called fermentation does its magic. Probably this is why the German theologian Martin Luther is reported to have said, “Beer is made by men; wine by God.” One is supposed to wait at least three years before drinking the wine; as winemaker, however, it is expected that you sample along the way. Quality control. But there really is something to waiting. The taste of a three year old wine is in fact quite different than it was at the beginning, but at the same time, over those three years, the true taste of the wine does progressively show itself, little by little.

Jesus has shown Himself to be the Light of the world through a series of showings, little by little, we might say reverently: first to a small group of people and then to increasingly more and more people in larger groups. If we may go back into the Sacred Hebrew Scriptures, He first showed Himself to the Patriarchs and Prophets—showing Himself as a voice Who spoke of a messiah coming to be, and for Isaiah, a suffering servant. To blessed Mary, He showed Himself through an Angel, and then to Elizabeth and John the Baptist in her womb, He showed Himself through the voice of Mary, and it was both through her voice and an Angel in a dream that He showed Himself to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. Then it was to a group of shepherds in the fields through one and then many angels singing “Glory be to God on high.” Then it was to Magi and their train of people from the East through a star, and then Simeon and Anna in the Temple (which we celebrate in two weeks at Candlemas), to Herod and all Jerusalem through the voice of the Magi as well as the Temple religious authorities, the chief priests and scribes interpreting the Scriptures, then to the rabbis in the Temple when He was twelve-years ago, then at His Baptism in the River Jordan, revealing at the same time the identity of God as Holy Trinity. Jesus had always been the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, by Whom all things were made. But it was only in the fullness of time that He allowed Himself to become known, little by little, to those who were prepared.

The marriage feast at Cana is another showing forth of the Light, a manifestation of His glory. Specifically the whole event is a sign, a sign of mystery to invite reflection upon that mystery which leads to an encounter with His divinity; the first of His truly public signs, and it enkindled the faith of the disciples of Jesus. It is a kind of preamble to His public life. Cana was a small village, not far from Nazareth, and tradition has it that Cana abounded in flowers, thereby having a pleasant, rural beauty. It is a sign performed before a larger gathering lasting a week or more.

The Mother of Jesus noticed that the wine would not suffice for the duration of the wedding feast. Wine was the heart of such a banquet, and in the Sacred Scripture, win is a symbol of exuberance and intoxication of the divine life. With disarming simplicity and natural spontaneity, she turns to Him and says, “They have no wine.” Mary is the one person at the feast who realizes who Jesus is, and a very large quantity of wine would be needed: in other words, nothing short of a miraculous intervention was needed. She intercedes on behalf of the whole gathering, indeed represents them before the Lord, bringing their needs to Him. And of course He listens.

“O woman, what have you to do with me?” Too many people hear that as Him being critical or even harsh. Jesus is being none of that. Rather His expression is idiomatic for His day for something along the lines of “Okay, let’s do it.” And given their entire 30 years of intimate communion together, Mother and Son, filled with great moments of sublimity, reverence, and probably domestic miracles within the home of Mary and Joseph—there is a tenderness, a playfulness, even humorousness to this moment—“What have you to do with me?” can only be answered by saying, “Why everything, my Son: for You are my Lord and my God, and an Angel first told me about You!” “O woman, what have you to do with me?”, brothers and sisters, is one of the most hilariously ironic moments in Scripture. She has everything to do with Him, and they both know it.

For us, the way to interpret this event at Cana is twofold: both literally and spiritually. Literally, we have a miracle performed by Jesus stemming from Mary’s motherly care for two young spouses: for Mary not know intercedes for them before God, but also teaches them: “Do whatever He tells you,” words she has taught the Church ever since. And spiritually, the wedding at Cana signifies the marriage between the Eternal Word and humanity in Mary and through Mary, changing the ordinary into something immeasurably more exciting. And our Lord works His signs here, and always, not by changing the containers, but leaving them as they were. Whether it is through His miracles with bread and wine, or with the Old Testament and the Psalms, or with us in our Baptism: the container remains the same, but by His grace we are given treasure that reaches into heaven.

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!”