On being Possessed by God’s Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Purification, Baptism, and Peace

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of The Purification of S. Mary the Virgin (Candlemas), 2020.

There is no normal reason why Saint Luke should use the personal pronoun “their” to describe who’s purification is taking place. Mosaic law within Jewish custom specifies that the purification is only for the mother. And while in Jewish tradition, this ritual normally was understood to remove ritual uncleanness so as to allow a return to active worship within the community, for Mary the opposite pertained: she had experienced contact with an unfathomable holiness in the birth of God her Son, and so her purification was not to make clean what was dirty, but rather to make normal what was mystical. The same patterns applies to why the priest purifies the chalice after administration of Communion: the chalice is not dirty, for it was filled by the Precious Blood of Christ, filled with heaven. It is purified so as to return it to normal use, until which point it is taken again into the heights of heaven as a vessel for the Sacrament.

So why did Saint Luke use the word “their” instead of “her” purification? He understood what Jewish practice was, how purification was for the mother only. Luke wrote “their” because he always wrote with the eyes of his heart enlightened and transformed by Christ Crucified and Risen: for in such a view, in offering Christ to God she is offering His Body: and His Body is the Church; His Body is the members of the Church through baptism, because in baptism we are taken up into the heavenly reality permanently and engrafted into the divine Body of Christ. And so “their purification” is a moment of cryptic teaching by Luke, to be found by the people of God meditating upon the Gospel according to Saint Luke that through baptism we are purified: Mary’s return to normalcy after her contact with the ineffable allows us to be offered by her in the Temple because she knows in her Son’s body is all Israel, all the People of God. It is an extraordinary detail, Luke’s use of “their.”

Moreover, it is an extraordinary way that the old man Simeon responds to taking up Our Jesus into his arms and blessing God. I mean it is his words that are extraordinary, for his response is a petition to God, a request made to the maker of all things visible and invisible. This is Simeon’s petition: “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel.” It is Simeon who is having a moment of transformation: an experience where the eyes of his heart have been enlightened. And having been transformed, Simeon petitions God to let him depart in peace, according to the Word of God. Here he echoes Mary’s response to God at the Annunciation: she said, “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word”; Simeon repeats those very last words, “according to Thy Word.” An immediate experience of God that we recognize throws us into such humility that we become so obedient, so attentive to God that all we can say is “Let it be unto me according to His Word.” And of course, “His Word” is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God. And so Simeon’s petition really is: “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Jesus Christ, Thy Son and Thy Word.”

Brothers and sisters, see how this fully accords with the end of the Mass, the Dismissal. The priest says, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” It is as if those words of dismissal are a direct response to Simeon speaking for the congregation gathered at the Altar having been fed by the eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. Just as Simeon, we have beheld Christ, and we have received Christ, holding Him in our hearts because we are filled with Him. And because we are filled with Him, we are filled with His peace. Of course we depart in peace: Christ’s peace is in our bodies through the Eucharist—“Go in peace” more fully expressed is “You are full of Christ in your bodies: now go into the world and carry the fullness of peace with you everywhere you go”—for our eyes have seen God’s salvation which He has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to the true Israel, the people of God.