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.

On Waiting with S. Stephen

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent, 2020.

The character of Advent is certainly captured by Saint Paul when he wrote to the church in Corinth in Greece: “As you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who will sustain you to the end.” In Advent we particularly find the sense of expectation. “Advent” the word is built upon the sense of arrival: arrival of the revelation of God on earth. This sense of the arrival of God’s revelation leads to another character of Advent, which builds upon the teaching of Paul to wait: and that character is captured in simply thinking about Blessed Mary, Mother of the Church, specifically thinking about Mary in the last month of her pregnancy. The sense of expectation for any mother eight months pregnant is often unbearable; how much more so for Mary, expecting the Son of God, the Saviour of the human race to be born of her virginity.

The Advent sense of expectation is found, too, in the witness of S. Joseph, who we can easily imagine waited on Mary, as husbands wait upon their wives this close to birth. Indeed, this is the sense of “waiting” meant by Paul: not passive thumb twiddling, but active love and care which for us is in our daily prayer and continues in our loving of God in the world and in the people we meet, for the Holy Spirit is in all things, all things having been made by Christ. Advent’s sense of expectation is also about making room in our hearts for God: making room in our hearts for the revelation of the mystery hidden for all eternity: the manifestation of God in human form.

Our loving Jesus directs us to “Watch therefore—for,” He says, “you do not know when the master of the house will come in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” And so Jesus adds, “And what I say to you I say to all: watch.” This sense of “watch” in the Church means to be alive, to be awake. Awake to the Gospel in our every day lives; awake to all things being held in God’s loving hands; awake to the Crucified and Risen One revealed in the opening of Scripture and the breaking of Bread; awake to God from Whom all blessings flow. Daily prayer is the work of God because through it God wakes us up to Him.

We are to watch—we are to be awake—because as Jesus teaches us about His coming: “Of that day, or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And He adds, “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.” I do not think Saint Stephen, holy deacon and martyr, knew when Jesus would come to him. But it is unmistakable that He did come to Stephen. Saint Luke records the witness of Saint Paul, who despite being enraged and gnashing his teeth against Stephen, saw Stephen to be full of the Holy Spirit, and so as he gazed in heaven, Stephen saw the glory of God, and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Jesus had come to Stephen in the same way as the Church saw Him go: witnessing to Christ in humility. Stephen had witnessed to Christ in his testimony before the adversarial council; Stephen also had witnessed to Christ in his ministry as a deacon, doing great wonders and signs among the people—both of which were done at all times with pure and unmitigated humility: serving the needy so that none are without the Gospel. Jesus had come to Stephen, so much so that Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen was poor in spirit, therefore he become awake to the kingdom of God. Stephen was pure in heart, therefore he saw God in His heavenly glory.

And because Stephen, through his life of humility, a life of prayer in accordance with Scripture, was awake, Saint Paul woke up. It took time, but the blood of S. Stephen was the seed of Paul’s conversion, and Paul undoubtedly remembered Stephen during his three years in the desert after his conversion, haunted by it, and pondering in his heart Stephen’s angelic witness, and especially Stephen’s beatific vision, the vision of heaven, the true vision of God. Through Stephen’s cry, Paul heard Christ. Living into Stephen’s cry, Paul entered into the Christian life of expectation. Living into Stephen’s cry, we too are always in Advent.

On Advent: Pondering with Saint Joseph

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2019.

As I have said, the character of Advent is in an important sense the character of the whole of Christian life. It is as the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent describes: we ask God to cast away the works of darkness, put upon us an armour of light, in this time when Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility—and then furthermore, that in the last day, when He (Christ) shall come again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

That is the character of Advent, and it is fundamentally the character of Christian life because we are facing the Cross knowing that through the Cross, Christ comes again in His glory for our salvation—through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Day-spring from on high visits us, guides us into the way of peace, guides us on the holy high-way of His commandments and teaching—all this through the Cross from which comes the Sacraments of heavenly life: the Sacraments which prepare and make straight the way to heaven—and so facing the Cross is facing the Mount of Olives, is facing at the same time the holy mountain of God where Christ is transfigured and where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where Elijah heard a still, small voice and knew God.

Advent means all these images come together in a symphony—and through prayer, obedience, and quietness, we are caught up in the adoration of a tremendous mystery of our salvation—Immanuel, God with us. God, Who will come again as He went away at His Ascension—and we are waiting, and the way we wait is the threefold Regula: through the daily official prayers of the Church, through the breaking of the bread, and through our everyday fellowship with each other and the world according to the Scriptures.

As we think of one hundred twenty disciples coming to grips with this great mystery as they worshipped in the Upper Room facing east towards the Mount of Olives, it is most fruitful to think about how deeply personal it all must have been for the disciples. The personal relationships each of the disciples had with Jesus before He voluntarily went to His death. The memories that each had, and as they were remembered through the Light of Christ’s death and resurrection, the meaning of the memories grew exponentially. The deeply personal aspect of true Christian life is dramatized by the Apostle Paul—his conversion a very personal moment, and he spent the rest of his life of teaching, preaching and writing to work out and come to terms with that moment in time of the thunderous light and voice of Christ persecuted—and how that moment was for Paul the Advent of Christ.

Let us also reflect on the deeply personal Advent of Christ in the life of Saint Joseph, Our Lady’s most chaste spouse. We know so very little, but what we do know is so very powerful. Joseph, we are told by Saint Matthew, found Mary to be with child of the Holy Spirit before they came together. He was unwilling to put her to shame, we are told—and this is an indication of his nobility and respect for Mary. He wanted to protect her from the shame she would experience from wider Jewish religious society of that day. Then an angel appeared to him. He had an angelic annunciation just like Mary had had. And in the dream Joseph is told that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

Why, though, are we told all this? It is not immediately clear why. Matthew immediately tells the story of the Wise Men from the East. Why all this about Joseph and his dream? How does it serve the story? I think the way is this: Matthew wants us to think about how the reality of Christ was deeply personal from the beginning. The reality of Christ was tied up into Joseph’s marriage with Mary and their marital relations on all levels. The reality of Christ was tied up into Mary’s ability to life in Jewish society, which is a deeply personal thing.

And there is an important detail that is often missed in this story from Matthew. When did Joseph learn that Mary’s child was of divine origin? When did he learn? We think it was during the dream, during his annunciation. But in fact, he learned earlier. Matthew says “before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” If the text ended at “was found to be with child” that would be one thing, and I think that is how this passage is often read. But it does not end there. Matthew adds: “of the Holy Spirit.” So from the first, in addition to all the ways I mentioned that the reality of Christ was deeply personal for Joseph was this additional way: that all this was of divine origin.

And so he went away considering all this, not because he thought Mary had committed adultery only to be corrected by the angel Gabriel. No, he considered all this—or in the words Luke uses so often about Mary, Joseph pondered in his heart—and what came out of this profoundly personal and mindblowing revelation was the determination by Joseph to be a staunch public defender and witness to the fact that Mary’s child was divine in origin—and therefore, Joseph becomes the patron saint of the Church, divinely ordered. Jesus, Joseph witnessed, was not made by human hands, but by divine hands. And the Church is the Body of Christ, and this Body like His is not made by human hands, but by divine hands. And this means everything of the Church is not made by human hands, but of divine hands—the Sacred Scriptures, the Liturgy, and also the Sacraments.

Brothers and sisters, let us know that as we approach the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, His Advent as a Child born of a Virgin, everything that surrounds us in these coming days likewise is not made by human hands, but all is the work of divine hands. Let us continue to pray as the young Church prayed, from the Upper Room toward the Mount of Olives. Just as the Church beheld in prayer the holy Mount of Olives, Joseph beheld in prayer Blessed Mary found with child. And so the character of Advent is found also in Saint Joseph, and he is permanent witness to the Church made without human hands.

Saint Joseph, patron of the divine ordering of the Church, pray for us.

On Advent: Seeing in Depth

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Why would Saint John the Baptist have his followers ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” If we think that John himself was not sure of who Jesus was, would not this be at odds with the picture we have of John Baptist from Saint John’s gospel? It would be at odds. For in Saint John’s gospel, John the Baptist sees into the depth of Jesus from the first. At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is coming toward John the Baptist, and John responds, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” These of course are words we hear as the Sacrament is shown before us in Holy Communion. It is no more  apparent to normal vision that the bread that is held up is the Lamb of God—that it is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—than is it apparent to normal vision that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary (and, we can presume many thought, also of Joseph) was the Messiah, was the Chosen One of God, was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself. John the Baptist, in other words, had a clear sense of who Jesus was. John could see Jesus in depth. John had come for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. John was not the light, the scriptures reveal, but came to bear witness to the light.

So then what is this passage from Saint Matthew really about? The key to this passage are the words of Our Lord, “The blind receive their sight.” Those words, and the words that come after—the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear—those are echoed in our passage from Isaiah: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame man will leap like a hart (an older word for deer), and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.” These are symbolic descriptions meant to remind us that the Word of God is a transforming word—that the Word of God transforms our heart, transforms the whole way we look at the world, the whole way we look at ourselves, the whole way we relate with reality. Seeing in depth, like John.

Faith’s name for reality is God. But it often takes time for faith to name reality as God. Isaiah speaks of a highway called the Holy Way. This highway is the way Jesus has prepared for us that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways. Those who walk the Holy Way do so through prayer—certainly through specific prayers we say, but even more so through a prayerful way of regarding our existence. Our eucharistic canon speaks of this: that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto God. This means being “eucharistic,” for the word “eucharist” means giving thanks. Why be this way? Because, as we sing a moment after that, Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. Growing into our recognition of that truth is how we walk the Holy Way spoken of by Isaiah. Jesus sent the followers of John Baptist back to him with the good news of God revealed in Christ. Carrying the words of Christ with them as they walked back to John Baptist meant those words of good news began to lodge in their heart—and so their walk back to John Baptist became a pilgrimage. They walked the Holy Way in some sense, because walking the Holy Way means seeing all of reality in more depth, seeing in more truth.

The Lord sets the prisoners free; we heard the Psalmist say: the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Seeing only the physical world is from the Christian perspective to be blind to the invisible truth of God. As the Apostle Paul taught, Christ is the image of the invisible God. Christ is that image of the invisible, not only in His physical person, but in His actions, and in His words. And in what is spoken about Him in the scriptures. As  I have said, Advent takes its root in the first chapter of Acts at the Ascension of Jesus, when the 120 disciples learn from angelic revelation that Jesus, Who was taken up into heaven, will come in the same way they saw Him go into heaven. It was this revelation that fully opened the eyes of the 120 disciples to the invisible God revealed in Christ crucified and resurrected. It was this revelation that opened the eyes of the 120 disciples to see the Mount of Olives transformed from dry, desert land into the Holy Mountain of God—always to be looked towards to find God in His coming, and therefore God in His actual presence.

And thus the whole passage of Isaiah is transformed because the hearts and minds and eyes of the early Church had been transformed by the reality of Christ crucified and resurrected. The wilderness and the dry land of the Mount of Olives became in Isaiah’s words, “glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing . . .  They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” This seeing in depth by the Light of Christ who is crucified and resurrected and walks with us on the Holy Way is what prayer means: the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread that we may know that He is everywhere and in all places—that wherever we may be in the desert streams of living water may break forth.

On Advent: Facing East in Hope

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

The basic disposition of Christian life, which begins in Holy Fear of God—awe and wonder at His majesty—is further captured when we speak about the nature of Christian hope. Saint Paul wrote that everything of the Scriptures was written that we might have hope. He also speaks of God as the God of hope, and desires that the God of hope fill His disciples with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit all disciples may abound in hope. So the basic disposition of Christian life is found not only in hope, but has the character of abounding in hope.

This is the orthodox teaching of the ancient and young Church; and it is found in our catechism in the Prayer Book. To the question of “What is the Christian hope?” the Prayer Book says, “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” This is why we speak of “hope” as a “virtue” or “life habit” (along with Faith and Charity). Hope is a way of living with confidence in newness and fullness of life. But not just for its own sake, but rather always as a means to the End of Days, the eschaton, living also in such a way as to await the coming of Christ in glory: await the coming again when, in glory, Christ will judge both the quick and the dead.

This puts us squarely two-thirds of the way through the Nicene Creed. At that moment in the Creed, we profess that Jesus has ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. That is where the Church lives, in the present moment: at the 2/3rds moment in the Creed. This moment is a moment that has lasted nearly two thousand years—a long moment; and it might last two thousand years more, or two million. Living our lives that we may heed the warnings of the prophets to repent and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

That is Advent. Advent is about the in-between period of the Ascension of Christ and His Second Coming. To inhabit Advent is to renew our Christian life—to live in hope with our bodies and our prayer oriented toward the Second Coming.

And as we saw last Sunday, this was established in the first days of the Church. The “holy mountain” that Isaiah and the prophets speak of through the Scriptures, and which Moses prayed upon for forty days before receiving the Word of God, came to be seen as the “Mount of Olives” which was to the geographic east of the Upper Room Church, where all Christian worship took root and began. From the Mount of Olives Jesus ascended, and angels told the 120 disciples that Jesus would come again in the same way as they saw Him go into heaven. This confirmed the promises made to the patriarchs and prophets, which the young Church saw after the scriptures were opened to them by the Crucified and Risen Christ as He appeared to the Church from the first moments of the first Easter on throughout the forty days until His Ascension, and as His presence has continued to guide the Church ever since and teach us how to find Him in the scriptures. The Cross is the light.

It was looking together to the east, from the sacred space of the Upper Room to another sacred space which was the Mount of Olives, that facing east got tied up with facing the rising sun and facing the cross. Facing the cross represents all of it, for the Light of light, the Sun of Righteousness, the day-spring from on high rises from the glory of the Cross to visit us and to give us rest. As we repent our sins and confess them to God—which Advent is a traditional time to do, along with Lent—we are purified that again we can face eastward to the Cross not only with our bodies but inwardly with our hearts. When our bodies and our hearts align to face the glorious sun of the Cross is when our path is made straight. The bitter words Saint John Baptist had for the Pharisees and Sadducees stemmed from the hypocrisy of their words not matching their actions: their bodies and hearts were not aligned but were crooked.

The virtue of Hope is what makes His path straight. By properly aligning our bodies and our hearts toward eastern Mount of Olives, which is to say, as one people facing the Cross by which we are redeemed, we learn how to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, awaiting the coming of Christ—this is what gives us stillness; this is what gives us rest in our bones; this is the source of health in our soul. Brothers and sisters, let us continue steadfastly to repent of our sins that we can be filled with the transfiguring Light of Christ.

On Praying East toward the Mount of Olives

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday of Advent, 2019.

In last week’s sermon we saw that only when we are still can we know God. This is how we come to know the King of kings and Lord of lords: through the stillness of our mind that through the holy scriptures recognizes His heavenly presence in the world. We develop this stillness by constantly with the help of God putting ourselves at the foot of the Cross in our prayer. To be truly at the foot of the Cross of Christ—the Cross of Him crucified and also the Cross of Him resurrection: not two crosses, but one Cross, for the one Christian Cross is an icon of both suffering and majestic glory—to be truly at the foot of the Cross is to be still.

The image, the icon, of the Cross is too arresting not to be still. There is no getting around the Cross—at least for Christians. There is no getting past the Cross for other, more important matters or things to think about. Everything for Christians is not around or past the Cross, but at the Cross: at the foot of the Cross, like Blessed Mary, the Beloved Disciple John and the other holy women. At the Cross, we can by grace go through the Cross, the more we participate in the sacred humanity: the more, in the words of Saint Paul the Apostle, we put on the Lord Jesus Christ: be of His mind, be of His eyes, be of His heart: the more we participate in His sacred humanity—which He lived and died so that we could do by grace—the more the fear of the Lord that we experience momentarily or occasionally grows into a disposition of life. When, at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we pray that it is meet, right, and our bounded duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto God the Father, we are speaking about a disposition of life: a disposition of giving thanks; and we recall that the word “Eucharist” itself means “thanks-giving,” and so we are seeking a eucharistic disposition, a eucharistic attitude toward all of life. But how do we develop one?

The young Church of the Upper Room and the immediate years following remembered that Jesus’ teaching was often tied up into the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives lies to the east of the Temple, to the East of the Upper Room as well. Saint Matthew records that on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave the teaching of how vital it was to watch for the coming of the Son of man. That is a teaching about stillness in prayer, about a still of mind that has cleared out the mental muck and made room in our mind for prayer, for deep attentiveness to scripture; has made room that He may continue to be born in our hearts.

The young Church also remembered that it was on the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascended to the Right Hand of the Father. Just before He ascended, He told them to return to the Upper Room and wait for the promise of the Father, the coming of the Holy Ghost. They were sent to do so, and this is what made all 120 of the Upper Room parishioners “apostles” whether or not they were the 11 or 12 men: because they were sent by Christ with an important mission to reveal trinitarian prayer which the Church calls the threefold Regula, or pattern, of daily Office prayer, Eucharist, and personal devotion. Then He ascended, and in ascending those present heard angels say He would come in the same way as they saw Him go into heaven.

Thus the Mount of Olives came to be seen as the place where the Second Coming of Christ would occur. It became the holy Mountain, and toward this holy mountain the young Church directed themselves and their bodies in prayer. It happened to be in the geographic eastward direction; but it was a theological direction primarily, one rooted in scripture. The prophet Zechariah, in the 14th chapter of his book, spoke that the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day His feel shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem to the east. The Mount of Olives became in a sense a new Holy of Holies, in a sense a new Temple. There was a clear hope for the Lord’s return to the Mount of Olives. It became the highest of mountains: not because the ground physically swelled up, but because through the scriptures opened by Christ, it reached to the heavenly places. It became the new Horeb, the new Sinai. Whereas Moses received the Ten Commandments there, the Church received the summary of the Law through Christ: to love God utterly and to love neighbor utterly, that this is not two loves but one love. At the new holy mountain, the Church found the key to receiving the Holy Ghost; indeed, receiving the Christian reality and experience.

Brothers and sisters, the season of Advent is the season of joining into the prayer of the early Church with an emphasis on the Coming again of Christ on the Mount of Olives. We pray in here in our church as the young Church prayed in the Upper Room: united in one direction toward the Cross, toward the theological east of the Mount of Olives, which is the meaning of the central Cross in worship; which is the meaning of our prayer; which is the meaning of our lives offered to God in holy sacrifice.

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 Beholding Our God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017.

We have asked Our Lord Jesus Christ in our Collect today to give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus our Redeemer. That is, the grace to take seriously the words of Isaiah who sings in the highest register, “Behold your God!”; the grace to forsake sin—the separation—between ourselves and God through our daily prayer, a habit that absolves us of the common, low-intensity sins we commit, because daily prayers prepares Him room so that heaven and earth can sing in our hearts; and the grace to greet with joy the God of all creation as He comes into our bodies as the consecrated bread of life and spiritual drink, and still more into our hearts, words, and deeds, for He is speaking peace to His faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to Him.

“Joy to the World” exquisitely captures all the Advent themes of expectation, hope, joy, and acceptance of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Read more “Homily: “On Beholding Our God””