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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: “On Christ the King”

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

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

Homily: “On the Desolating Sacrilege”

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

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

Homily: “On Communion of the Saints”

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

Our Collect speaks of God having knit together His elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of Christ. All of those words are important, are meaningful and quite significant, and what they direct us to is not only a good and sound prayer on this solemn feast of All Saints, but the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints which is spoken of and confessed in the Apostles’ Creed, which captures the baptismal faith of the Church, originally used, and still used, on the occasions of people received the Sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of incorporation into Christ’s Body.

I want to elaborate on those words of the Collect for All Saints Day, and do so with all of us sharing an image in our minds as we proceed. Read more “Homily: “On Communion of the Saints””

Homily: “On Simon, Jude, and the Theology of Man”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, 2018.

Simon and Jude were apostles and martyrs to Persia, the lands of modern-day Iran. Simon’s symbol is a book with a fish upon it, symbolizing a fisher of men through the power of the Gospel. Jude’s symbol is a ship with full sails, symbolizing an avid spreader of the Gospel over great distances. Besides that we know next to nothing about them, which in itself is a curious fact that I think has significance about which I will speak at the end.

Our Collect captures what is most important about them: that they were faithful and zealous in their mission. And we ask today their intercession that we may with ardent devotion make known to others in Tazewell County the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Parish Council is discerning and developing a missionary plan to serve the lonely in Tazewell County, and having examples in our mind can inspire us and our efforts.

“Apostle” and “Martyr” are terms we often hear, but perhaps their fullest significance does not always come across. Read more “Homily: “On Simon, Jude, and the Theology of Man””

Homily: “On Stewardship”

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

One of the primary themes of Saint Mark’s gospel is creation. It is Mark’s argument that Jesus of Nazareth initiates a new creation, and is Himself the new creation: that the new creation is embodied in Him. We see this in even in the first words of Mark’s Gospel. Those first words are: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,”  and scholars have shown that this was an intentional move by Mark to immediately bring to mind the Book of Genesis, which starts in the same way. Last Sunday we heard the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking about divorce in the time of Moses, and Our Lord began His response by saying, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” And at the end of Mark’s Gospel, Mark describes the women at the empty tomb as full of astonishment. That is a translation of a Greek word, the root of which is our word “ecstasy,” and it is the same word that the writer of Genesis used to describe Adam when God fashioned Eve from his rib, and Abraham when God was making a covenant with him, both moments of new creation. Read more “Homily: “On Stewardship””

“On Freedom and Being Created Male and Female”

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

God has given us a great deal of freedom. That much is clear in the descriptions of God’s activity in the first three chapters of Genesis. You may eat of the fruit of any tree in the garden, God told Adam, which is the biblical expression for, have at it, enjoy yourself. Of course this is not an unqualified freedom, for there is one tree forbidden to eat from: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet accounting for it all, on balance there remains a wide latitude given by God. And so the question immediately is for us: What does it mean for God to give us all this freedom? And, furthermore, we learn that in the pinnacle of His creation, God created us male and female. This is described very clearly and with emphasis by the author of Genesis. So, why did God do this? And might these two be related somehow—wide freedom along with humanity created male and female? Read more ““On Freedom and Being Created Male and Female””