On Repentance

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2021.

Our Lenten journey today reaches its halfway point. We have three Sundays in Lent under our belt, and three more to go before we celebrate Holy Easter, and the eternal life made available to us through the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The word that begins our Mass today is “rejoice,” and this is always the word that traditionally begins the Mass on this the Fourth Sunday in Lent, popularly known in the western Church as “Mothering Sunday.” Rejoice, the verse from Isaiah reads, “all ye that have mourned.” And what are we mourning for but for our sins: the sins that we have committed, we mourn for, wishing we would not have committed them. And indeed we mourn that we commit sins at all, and we mourn that we seem unable to not commit sins. This is captured so poignantly by Saint Paul is last week’s Epistle, when he wrote to us saying “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” and “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The reality of this hits us like a ton of bricks. Paul’s lament is our lament. And it seems there is little if anything we can do about it.

The reality is there in fact there is only one thing we can do. And that one thing is, we can repent. This is Jesus’s first teaching in Saint Mark’s Gospel account: Our Lord says, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the first teaching of Jesus after His Baptism in the River Jordan is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” All of which is echoed by Saint Peter on the Day of Pentecost, on the day when after nine days of liturgical prayer and fellowship the womb of the Upper Room went Boom, and the Holy Spirit pouring forth from the 120 disciples of Jesus Christ, when his first teaching after his Pentecost sermon was “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” There is almost nothing we human beings can do about the muck of our sinful lives. Yet the good news is that the one thing we can do—repentance—is so powerful that by doing so, God’s grace transforms our mind and emboldens our heart.

The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia.” And it means a transformation of the mind, through which greater clarity and insight are obtained. Before repentance means anything else, it means great understanding. When we repent, we turn our selves around, from facing away from Him to facing toward Him. And the Church was her members to be very clear as to what it means to face toward God, and specifically Who is it that we are facing when we repent. When we repent, we turn to Him who, in the words of the Apostle, is rich in mercy. Him Who out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. When we repent, we face Him Who has raised us up with Him, and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And when we repent, we face Him Who desires more than anything else to show us the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.

And when we repent, let us always know, and never forget, that it is not towards us that God’s wrath is directed, but rather towards Satan, who ever presents to us the endless temptations which we so struggle to overcome, and often find ourselves giving in to. His wrath at our sins is towards the Devil; His tough love at our sins is towards us. Tough love—because He knows we are fully capable of growth in His Spirit, and fully capable of progress in the life of the Spirit whereby we commit fewer sins and express our life of prayer with more consistency, clarity, and fullness of heart.

After all, as Paul teaches us, we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. And what’s more, He gave Himself for us on the Cross, that we might receive Him in the Sacrament and be fed by Him, that our mind might week by week by transformed by the knowledge of Who our Savior is, what He has done for us, and what He always desire to do for us. Let us rejoice as we repent, brothers and sisters, for the Kingdom of heaven truly is within our heart.

Living Baptismally, pt 14: On the Upward Call of God in Christ

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 22), 2020.

Flowing out of our liturgical life—the Liturgy of daily Office and Mass Sunday by Sunday and the appointed Holy Days—is our Personal Devotion: our loving of God and neighbor in our day to day, and in our neighbor loving God; seeking and serving Him in all people and doing so according to the Crucified and Risen Christ revealed in Scripture. Personal Devotion is anything we do that is done for the greater glory of God, and for greater intimacy with Him. Studying Scripture and giving to the poor are the classic expressions of personal devotion, but it also includes an innumerable spectrum of activities that bring beauty and goodness into the world: a spectrum ranging from tending a garden and arranging flowers to being a responsible citizen to private prayer and meditation, to reading about the lives of the Saints, to donate time, talent and treasure to a charitable organization, to serving the lonely, to being a good listener, a good husband, a good wife, a good parent, a good teacher, a good person when that adjective “good” always means “loves God” before it means anything else.

“Personal devotion” is described in the New Testament, in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, as “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship”—the activity of studying the apostolic proclamation of Christ which is captured in Scripture, and living out that proclamation in Christian community where love for all abounds, and hospitality our primary characteristic. In the overall Christian life, personal devotion flows out of the Liturgy of Office and Mass, and is anything we do in this world and in our lives out of a desire to love God and love neighbor.

This is what Saint Paul is teaching us today, when he says “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s guidance is to seek a robust personal devotion based on how the Holy Spirit calls each of us personally—that is, according to our personal characteristics, temperament, life situation, background, gifts; in short, according to our personality. We are all members of Christ’s Body, members one of another in Him, but we never lose our personality, our uniqueness, our story—we do not lose our identity, but what is transformed is the horizon of our identity. In our baptism, our commonwealth, our citizenship, is stretched to heaven. This is a citizenship that begins in the Cross, and all of reality becomes cross-shaped. Reality is cruciform, that is, of the form of the Cross.

This is why when we confess our sins in the Liturgy we express our desire for mercy and forgiveness, that we may delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. We must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform, reality in the form of the Cross. This is why we receive Eucharist, why we receive Holy Communion—for we must be accustomed to reality which is cruciform. This is why we celebrate the Liturgy of Office and Mass according to the Kalendar—for doing so accustoms us to the Cross. All temptation we face is ultimately a temptation away from the Cross, and turned away from the Cross, we are enemies of the Cross in Paul’s guidance. To be an enemy of the Cross is to live in purely worldly ways, to live as if our only citizenship is this world, and to order our lives around the values of this world—of wealth, of power, of possession.

True Christian spirituality, as Saint Paul teaches along with all of the other Saints, is based on our heavenly citizenship through Baptism—and indeed as Paul teaches to the Corinthians, in being a steward of the sacramental mysteries of Christ. When we live that way—summarized as Liturgy with personal devotion—we are living in the vineyard of God prepared for us. When our devotion to God flows forth from liturgical prayer, we are living in the Kingdom of God given to us—given to us to be stewards of the Sacraments, stewards of sacramental mysteries, stewards of God’s vineyard the bears the fruit of eternal and everlasting life; fruit that come of our hands, God ever working through our hands, through our words, through our deeds—fruit of beauty and goodness, that others may taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ that in our personal devotion, we bear such fruit.

Trinitytide: On Living Baptismally, part 1

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday after Trinity (Proper 6), 2020.

The Feast of Trinity Sunday being a celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, and even moreso a recognition of the gift of baptismal life given through it, it likewise follows that the Sundays after Trinity invite us into the mystery of living baptismally, the practical aspects of partaking of the divine nature as baptized men, women, and children. As Michael Ramsey has said, “The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism.” Our scripture today presents us with two fundamental aspects of baptismal life, as we begin this season of Trinitytide.

The first comes from Paul the Apostle, who teaches us that God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. And he teaches that this is a saving action in us, saving us as we grow in our love for Jesus through receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and becoming more and more deeply conscious of the presence and action of Our Lord in all the phases of human life and of our own life. In other words, Paul locates our salvation in the Cross, which for him is the icon of the process of sanctification in our lives, that is, of becoming more and more open and conscious of God’s presence.

The second come from Our Lord Himself, who is recorded by Saint Matthew has teaching us that we are to carry around in our bodies the infectious peace of Christ to be shared with all in whatever house we enter, and any relationship we have, from the briefest acquaintance to the most intimate friendship. “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” is our dismissal at Mass and directly echoes our Lord’s command to spread peace to the world—that we are agents of Christ’s peace.

Thinking about these basic teachings of the Church might lead us to ask the very kind of questions the Church asked Saint Peter on Pentecost: How? How does this work? and how does Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf lead us to be able to carry around the heavenly peace of Christ wherever we are in likewise offering to the world on behalf of Christ, Who acts through us? Or put most simply: what is the relationship between the Cross and our everyday Christian life?

Let us again take on the approach of Elijah, who was told by God to a cave. And in the cave, Elijah watched as a great and strong wind broke in pieces the rocky mountains, then after the wind an earthquake, then after the earthquake, a fire. And Elijah realized that God’s voice was not in the great wind, was not in the earthquake, was not in the fire. His voice was only heard as Elijah went to the edge of the cave and heard a still small voice. And it was a voice that asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

It is a question pertinent to our situation. The events of the last several months have brought us to just that kind of fundamental inquiry, has brought us to the very basic roots of what it means to act like Christians. Our faith is being tried in the fire; our patience is being tested amid the endless storm; all of which lays bare our habits of devotion. We are the Body of Christ, Saint Paul unhesitatingly teaches us, yet we the Body of Christ have scarcely with one another shared fellowship, and the habit of fellowship—the habit of being together—is the primary means by which the baptismal doctrine of the Church becomes real. When we are sharing fellowship, the doctrine that we are members one of another can be seen and lived and we can hear the still, small voice of God together week in and week out; but without such fellowship, our isolation places a huge impediment in living out the teaching of Paul that we are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.

That one bread we partake of is Christ. He is our daily Bread. It is Him, and Him alone, that we are to feed on if our habits of faith, hope, and charity are to be ardent and resilient. And, as I said last week, the most reliable way to feed on the Word of God is through prayer with the Psalms. As Alcuin taught the Church one thousand, two hundred years ago, as well as today, through prayer in the Psalms may be found the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ the Eternal Word of God. In the Psalms can we find guidance as to our question of the relationship of the Cross to our Christian living?

In Psalm 100 we find the strong and direct teaching on that. “Know this,” the Psalmist proclaims, “The Lord Himself is God.” Christ is our Lord, and His manner of revealing His divinity to us centers on the sacrifice of the Cross. The Psalmist continues: “He Himself has made us, and we are His,” and here is direct baptismal teaching, because through the Sacrament we are made part of His Body, and begin the process of being made and transformed into Him; we are His, as baptism is really a form of marriage to God. “We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” We might ask, what is His pasture? Is it the world around us. How can it be with all the sin and evil abounding in the world? Instead, where is the Lord’s pasture but heaven? Our food is the heavenly Bread, which we feed on as His sheep. Baptism seals us indelibly with the pledge to be able to participate in all the heavenly realities—is a seal that promises us that we are Christ’s sheep feeding in His pasture.

Brothers and sister, what a gift! His presence is a heavenly presence, His gates entered with joy because His gates are the gates of ever-lasting freedom and joy. “God’s faithfulness endures from age to age,” because God Himself is eternal, the maker of all things visible and invisible, and beyond the conditions of time and space. When we are baptized we begin the process of being remade into the image and likeness of Jesus, thereby transformed even at the start into His Body, beyond time and space. He Himself makes us—He makes all the members of His Body work and live as His Body.

And so, to answer our question, how does Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf lead us to be able to carry around His heavenly peace? Because having destroyed death by His death, Jesus has removed not physical death from us, but the need for any fear of physical death. By His death He has destroyed death. Which is to say, through baptism we are alive in Christ Who is ever-alive. We are living in Christ Who is ever-living. Our joy in Christ is precisely due to this fact. Christ died that we might enter into His ever-lasting life through faith in Him that we hold fast. This knowledge brings peace. And having this peace, what can we do but share it with all we know and all we meet. How can we be but joyful in the Lord, and invite joyfulness in all the lands? How can we but serve the Lord with gladness and come before His presence with a song, participating as we are in the divine nature and always in the hands of our loving Good Shepherd?

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.

At the Foot of the Cross

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Christ the King), 2019.

We ask in our Collect today that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule. Rightly understood, this Collect expresses concisely the Christian understanding of the fallen world and why we Christians are in the world with an apostolic mission. To a sinful world we are to bring a way of life centered on the glory of the Cross; a way of life empowered by our knowledge of Christ both crucified and resurrected. The knowledge of Truth—that is to say the knowledge of Christ Crucified and Resurrected—is knowledge that is lived out; is knowledge that is embodied and enacted; is knowledge that must, if it is true knowledge of Truth Himself, be expressed through a general attitude or disposition toward all the world, and as the premise of all our relationships in the world with God’s creatures, especially our relationships with the human ones. It is this ennobled way of life that is the true meaning of “Christ’s most gracious rule”—Christ’s most gracious way of life; Christ’s most sacred humanity.

The world is full of disorder and disharmony, our Collect rightly declares. The image of God that remains in all people is obscured because their likeness of Him is defaced by sin, by evil doings in the phrase from Jeremiah. The flock has been scattered. Instead of surrender to the way of life anchored in Truth Himself, separation from that way of life—and this separation is sin properly understood—is what causes a life of darkness: a life of spiritual darkness that cannot see the uncreated Light Who reconciles all creatures to Himself and Who leads us not into temptation but out of the darkness of evil and toward salvation.

And so God became Man in order to attend to the world full of evil doings. And the way He attended to it was to die on a Cross. Heaven was no longer far away or unreachable. With God on a Cross, dying for our sins, to remove our sins, to remove our separation from the true way of life, heaven was no longer far away or unreachable: heaven is found by being at the foot of the Cross. Our King is found when we are at the foot of the Cross and behold Him, when we look up and behold His kingly power. Our kind is found when we are at the foot of the Cross and look up and behold that the righteous branch of David loves us from the Cross and loves us to the end. Being at the foot of the Cross demands our stillness—of mind, of thought. There is no other way to be at the foot of the Cross but to be still, for in being still, then and only then can we truly behold the loving Jesus on the Cross out of His inestimable love for us—only when we are still can we know God.

This is why all of the epistles of Saint Paul are really about being at the foot of the Cross beholding Christ suffering for us—all of his letters are about Christ’s free choice to suffer for us, and the glory that comes of this unfathomable action. The image of the invisible God, in whom all things are created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, all things being created through Him and for Him—He Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together: He who is the head of the Body, the Church; the beginning, and in Whom is the fullness of God—the image of the invisible God is Christ in extreme humility. The image of the invisible God is our Lord treated like a criminal. The image of the invisible God—Whose Name is “The Lord is our righteousness”—meaning, “The Lord is our right relationship with God”—is Jesus scoffed at, spat upon, and mocked Who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” From His extreme humility comes His extraordinary forgiveness, that this is what Saint Paul and all the apostles teach as the source of strength, endurance, and joyful patience.

Brothers and sisters, let us in all this be stirred up. God’s thoughts are always thoughts of peace and not affliction, despite the sinful ways of the world, sinful ways that killed our Lord. Only the heavenly peace of Christ overcomes death, and overcomes sin. And in our King, this is accomplished.

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 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 Boasting in the Cross”

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

We come upon one of the more poetic and lovely Collects of our Calendar, one that is perfectly situated in time. Grant us, Lord, it begins, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly. And of course, for us, the heavenly is not the far away and remote, but the Kingdom of God which has come near, and has come intimate, through the Cross of Jesus Christ. The heavenly is the deeper dimension of our reality as we live and move and have our being as baptized Christians—very members incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ, Christ who is Himself in heaven, and we are members of Him Who is in heaven. We ourselves—you all and me, in our actual lives in the here and now—are sacraments of Christ’s presence. We are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. This is nothing to boast about. As Saint Paul’s teaches in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Let him who boasts boast of the Lord.” Perhaps all of us could take this very positive teaching of the Apostle more literally and seriously: a daily remembrance that God has baptized us, and made us part of Him.

We find the twelve disciples of Jesus boasting as well. Read more “Homily: “On Boasting in the Cross””

Homily: “On Failure in Mission”

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

Failure is part of the every day situation of our lives. Every person experiences failure on a regular basis, sometimes every day. There are things we want to do, things we want to accomplish. There are ways we want to act, things we want to say, ways we want to be known and accepted. We feel that we need these things, we might even feel called to them, and have been preparing for them for some time. Our hopes and dreams may have been deeply embedded in these desires, even financial livelihood or personal accomplishment.

And yet, we fail. Read more “Homily: “On Failure in Mission””

Homily: “On Beholding Our Mother”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Good Friday, 2018.

In this Holy Week, we continue to follow Him through the mysterious events of the final days, hours, and minutes of His blessed life. We continue to minister to Him through our service—our worship, our prayer, our fellowship, our openness. And having continued with Him in the Garden of reality beyond time and space, we have come to the foot of the cross. Standing by us are Mary, His mother, Mary’s sister (also named Mary), and another Mary—Mary Magdalene. A holy trinity of Marys caught up in the glory of the Holy Trinity through Jesus Christ—a glory so strong and indestructible that He having loved us so much already, loved us to the very end: loving us with the last words, His last commandments, from the Cross, emptying Himself with the teaching that we will need to continue His ministry and live out the new commandment He gave on the previous night—a commandment of servant ministry that loves each member of the community like Christ Himself and celebrates the Eucharist which makes actually present again He who through whom all things have been made.

It is that threefold commandment which the Church at Pentecost began to live out by means of the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers. All of the Christian life—the threefold commandment of servant ministry, celebrating the Sacrament of His Real Presence, and love for brother and sister—was revealed on the night before He died. Read more “Homily: “On Beholding Our Mother””