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””

Homily: “On the Transfiguration of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 2018.

God’s glory has been revealed on the holy mountain. To Saint Peter, Saint James, and Saint John, the beloved Son of the Father was transfigured before them, His garments glistening, intensely white. Indeed He showed Himself forth as Light from Light. They thought it was the culmination of their lives on earth. They were in awe that this was the end time, that this was God’s final kingdom. “Exceedingly afraid” means filled with awe and wonder, filled with holy fear. “Master, it is well that we are here,” Peter said. They were not frightened, not incapacitated, nor struck mute: they were being stretched: stretched in their thinking, their perception, their entire reality, and they would never return to their former consciousness. When you encounter God, you can never return to who you used to be. Read more “Homily: “On the Transfiguration of Jesus””

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part one”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

Our Lord tells Nicodemus that “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Our Lord hung on the Cross, nailed to it, as the true Victim, as God’s love for us, that we might be saved by His love. It is for this reason that everything in the Church’s life and prayer revolves around the Cross, itself an inexhaustible source of grace. As is well known, Jesus spoke seven sentences from the cross as recorded in the Gospels. These seven sentences are called “The Seven Last Words of Jesus,” it is a common tradition to devote preaching and reflection to these Seven Last Words on Good Friday services. I will be doing so today and over the remaining Sundays in Lent, tying these Words into the appointed Gospel readings and the ongoing life within the Parish of Tazewell County.

The first word uttered by our most compassionate Jesus, as he hung on the cross, was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” There can be no more dramatic demonstration of the centrality of forgiveness to the Christian life than this first word. Jesus is asking His Father to forgive the actions of His murderers, to overlook their deeds. Jesus knows that His Father always hears Him. He is saying: Look, Father, at the love of Thy Son, not their behavior. Through the Son’s plea, indeed through the Son Himself, those who were responsible for nailing Jesus to the Cross are made present to God the Father, and God the Father made present to them, through Jesus. Forgiveness has everything to do with presence—and particularly with the presence of Jesus.

That forgiveness is central to the Christian life is demonstrated by how it echoes throughout the Mass. By plainly reading of the words of the Mass, forgiveness shows up explicitly in four places, and it is worth noting them now. There is a fifth location where forgiveness is prominent, perhaps its most prominent moment, that is somewhat hidden and does not appear in the plain words of the liturgy, but is directly alluded to; this fifth location we will look at later in Lent.

The first instance of forgiveness is in the General confession of sin which begins the Mass. Amid our confession of sin—of separation from God—as a body, we petition God to “Have mercy on us and forgive us.” We ask this so that we might again delight in God’s will and again walk in God’s ways. We have lost something of Christ’s immediate presence, a presence that guides and leads us in our lives, a presence that directs us in our journey. And the Priest responds: “Almighty God have mercy on you and forgive you.” When we ask for forgiveness as a body through the means that the Church provides us, our separation is removed—God is most willing to do that, most willing to restore and renew His presence and availability to us.

The second instance where forgiveness shows up is in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This Creed took final form in the fourth century through a council of Christian bishops east and west, and so it is seen as one of the most ecumenical fruits the Church has been given by God. Here forgiveness is seen in a different light than it was in the Confession. Here it is connected to baptism. Baptism is permanent; it can never be undone nor can it be re-done. Being baptized in some sense permanently removes a certain kind of separation from God, and likewise through baptism God is made more present in the person who is now incorporated into the Body of Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, that person’s own body now being a temple of the Holy Spirit.

The third instance of forgiveness in the Mass is during what is called the Words of Institution. Holding the prepared Chalice, the priest repeats the words of Our Lord: “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is intimately tied into the nature of the Eucharist, and at the heart of Holy Communion. By the consecrated Bread and Wine—the Precious Body and Precious Blood of Jesus—Jesus is really and actually present, palpably, tangibly and sacramentally—and this presence is for the forgiveness of sins. By the Eucharist, we are completely un-separated from God. This mystery requires our utmost reverence, our best prayer.

The fourth and final plain instance is in the Our Father prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Note that we are agreeing to a contract, you might say. The contract that we enter into by our own free will is that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiving of others. Our forgiveness of others precedes, it comes first, says the contract. This is a condition that we place on ourselves. Yet we do so because we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: it is all grace, it is all a gift from God. When we truly forgive another person, it is owing entirely to God’s presence in us, His action in our souls.

And so see Jesus on the Cross; hanging on it; nailed to it. He has been lifted up, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. And the first of His Seven Last Words is “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What an example to us! By this example we are shown the kind of affection with which we ought to pray for our enemies. By this example we are shown the kind of affection with which we ought to pray for those that have wounded us, have hurt us, wounds and hurts that are still bleeding, as Jesus Himself bled on the Cross. Lay this Word  in the treasury of your heart, so that whenever your enemies rage against you, you may be able to utter this memorial of the good Jesus’ overflowing kindness. Hold his word up against the insults of enemies, as if it were a shield. If your Bridegroom can pray for his murderers, can you not also pray for your detractors?

Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.