On the Work of the Holy Spirit

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021.

One of the striking aspects of the gospel account according to Saint John is how in his account, the core disciples (which includes the Twelve, but also others including the holy women) are shown to recognize the divinity of Jesus during his ministry of preaching and teaching, walking about them, eating, drinking, healing, praying, and spiritually guiding. This is very different than the gospel accounts according to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, and Saint Luke. In those three, the core disciples, especially the men of the Twelve, do not recognize who Christ is, until after the Passion. Only when Jesus crucified and risen walks among them and shows them how to read Scripture do they recognize Him. For Saint Luke, for example, the crucified and risen Christ opens the scriptures and breaks bread, and He is recognized only then.

Such is not the case for John’s gospel, however. Immediately in John’s gospel, the first chapter, we have the strong declaration from Saint John Baptist: “Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” which John Baptist repeats a few verses later. That is a recognition that the disciples only began to grapple with in the end of the three other gospel accounts. Where those end, the gospel according to John begins. And, furthermore, it is from hearing John Baptist’s confession—Behold! The Lamb of God! (which, of course, is taken up into our eucharistic liturgy when the priest turns with the Blessed Sacrament, the words being proclaimed by the priest are the same as the words proclaimed by John Baptist, and with the same meaning—it is from hearing John Baptist’s confession that the Twelve disciples of Jesus began to come together. Initially it was Andrew who heard John Baptist and felt called. Then Andrew did the same to Peter, his brother, and Peter felt called. Then Jesus showed Himself in Galilee and said to Philip “Follow Me.” And then Philip repeated the pattern with Nathanael (who later name was Bartholomew) and he felt called. And with this, the initial quartet of four disciples was set (or, quintet of disciples, if you include John Baptist). All of this is so very different from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that it begs the question, what is Saint John after with this? What is the purpose behind the way he is telling the Gospel, even its very beginning?

What John is after is emphasizing the centrality of the Holy Spirit to being a follower of Christ. And we see this when we look at the verses that directly precede our Gospel passage today. Sandwiched in between the two proclamations by John of “Behold! The Lamb of God!” is his necessary preaching in which John Baptist says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.” John then adds, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” The emphasis in John Baptist’s preaching is a central teaching on the Christian faith: the teaching that it is the Holy Spirit at work whenever Christ is recognized. For it was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus truly came to John Baptist, when in Jesus of Nazareth John saw the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. It is the Holy Spirit Who revealed to John the correct interpretation of Jesus, He Who is the image (the icon) of the invisible Father. And the chain of calling that was outlined earlier is a chain of the Holy Spirit at work through John Baptist and through Andrew, just as the Holy Spirit was at work upon John Baptist at Jesus’s baptism.

This is why Saint Paul puts such strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit to the Greek Christians in Corinth. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” In context, this is part of Paul’s teaching about the high view of the human body in Christianity. But his teaching is all of a piece, and the whole of it is so breathtaking that it can only be taught in parts—and the whole of it is the sheer and unfathomable gift of the Holy Spirit to us. Through Him, the Holy Spirit, our hearts are transformed. Through Him, we are purified. Through Him, we are taught to pray. Through Him, we are led more and more, deeper and deeper, into the Truth Who is Christ. And, that the Holy Spirit is in our body, that our body is His temple. Let us continue to pray unceasingly, brothers and sisters, that just as Christ overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple, the Holy Spirit overturns our sinful habits and replaces them with godly habits of obedience and works of charity according to the threefold Regula, that Christ’s House, His temple, which is miraculously our body, which is our heart baptized, may not be a den of thieves, but rather, a house of prayer.

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.

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 Witnessing the Light”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Third Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017. Stir up your power, O Lord—our Collect begins—and with great might come among us. As a bread maker, I find a particular poignancy to those words “Stir up.” When I am preparing to make bread—and this is something that takes about 24 hours as I make bread the old fashioned way—the first thing I do is take yeast culture that lives in our refrigerator, which is called “the mother,” and with a wooden spoon, stir it up. This brings oxygen into the mother, waking it up a little bit. Immediately there is an aroma of yeasty goodness, which is the primary sign that mother is healthy. Now, God is always active, is always awake, so the analogy falls apart pretty quickly. Yet Jesus is the Bread of Life, with a divine power to come among a mother with bountiful grace to transform water, flour, and salt into delicious sourdough loaves—and many more wondrous miracles—so this analogy is not wholly off the mark. This, at least, is the witness of your local sourdough baker. In the wonders of His love, and in creating new heavens and new earth through the Incarnation of His Son, that there may be rejoicing in Jerusalem, which restores the fortunes of Zion, there was a man sent from God, whose name was John. Read more “Homily: “On Witnessing the Light””

Homily: “On the Lamb of God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time) 2017, Year A.

Whereas last Sunday we heard described the Baptism of Jesus in something of a first-person account, Jesus’s own experience of the moment, handed down to Saint Matthew, today the account is from the perspective of John the Baptist, which reached Saint John the Evangelist.

Now, despite that we are told by Saint John that this is the day after the Baptism in the River Jordan, if we consider this account from the Gospel of John while flipping back and forth from accounts of given to the Church by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we can suspect the plausible and even likely scenario that John the Baptist is here seeing Jesus coming toward him after Jesus had returned from the forty days in the wilderness and the temptations concerning the manner of His messiahship. A biblical “day” is often longer than a 24-hour period. In the wilderness, recall that Jesus rejected being the king of satanic magic, rejected being a king outside the natural order of creation, and he rejects being a king of earthly politics. Having battled the Devil in the wilderness—which is a biblical symbol involving contemplative, silent prayer—having battled the Devil in the wilderness, and forever vanquished the forces of evil, he returns to the community, and John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him.

What light must have shined from Him—the Light of all light! Jesus has taken hold of the life of perfect love. Jesus, always the divine Son, from His birth and maturing as a wee baby, then a toddler, then a big boy, then a teenager going through puberty, then young adult, and finally a fully mature man, increased in wisdom and increased in stature—Jesus through it all was the perfect pray-er. He always held His Father in perfect adoration. Jesus’ consciousness was always heightened and expanded, and because of that, His conscience always attuned to reality, and because of that, His compassion always sensitive to those around Him. He knew who He was—He is the Son of the Most High; He is to sit on the throne of David, He is to reign over the house of Jacob for ever, of His kingdom there will be no end—indeed, He is the Son of God.

And He knew that as the Son of God, He was to live His whole life for us, and for our salvation. And in living His whole life for us, He knew that He is to suffer. He was to suffer because He has taken on our sins, He shares our human nature, He would live and die as one of us. He lived His life on earth at all times bearing His cross, knowing somehow that it is His Father’s will that His Son be nailed to it.

John the Baptist, blessed by being born into a family of devout Jews and blessed still more by the presence of Jesus when both we still in the womb, not perfectly but intuitively understands who Jesus is, for John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We hear these words at the moment of eucharistic communion. Jesus, actually and really Him, offers Himself to us in love. The term “lamb” for the hearers of John the Baptist was rich in symbolic meaning. Preeminent among the meanings is that of sacrificial victim—the Passover lamb as well as the lamb of daily morning and evening sacrifice, and weekly Sabbath service. Lamb refers to oblation—an offering to God—for the atonement of sins; a lamb was presented to the Most High has a peace offering and a sin offering. A lamb is offered to make pure that which is impure. Furthermore, “lamb” means innocence, a lamb needs care and nurturing, a lamb is a sign of gentle and serene peace as well as prosperity.

This is why the Church appointed last Sunday the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, and today the 49th. These are two of the four “servant songs” that reflect the prophesy of the “suffering servant.” What it means for Jesus to be the Lamb is described by Isaiah: bringing justice to the nations, not a political but a spiritual king, the Light of light that opens the eyes of the blind and saves those in darkness, a salvation that reaches to the end of the earth. For He takes away the sin of the world—He gives us a permanent way out of our self-centeredness, out of our tendency to put ourselves and even those we love before God, before our love for Him. When the resurrected Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, undoubtedly among the Scriptures he explained to them were the four suffering servant songs of Isaiah, and how these concerned and described Him.

Brother and sisters, God releases us from the bondage of our sin as we cooperate with His grace, the grace that always goes before us. Yet in the vast majority of cases, this is a slow and even laborious journey. Indeed the true nature of Jesus Christ is revealed little by little. But let us in our imperfect and incremental ways recognize indeed that the Lamb of God walks among us. We sang about the Lamb of God during the Gloria, asking him to have mercy on us and receive our prayer. We will sing again of the Lamb of God during the Communion Rite, asking again for Him to have mercy on us, and also asking Him to grant us peace, a peace which we recognize in those around us, a peace that shows us what forgiveness really means. And then Behold the Lamb of God immediately before Communion itself. We receive the sacrificial offering, and we continue to become that which we behold—that we too may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Amen.

Homily: “Advent and Joy”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.

In my homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, to all of you I said the following words:

“Let us continue to seek harmony with each other through prayer. For when we do so, God will send forth to us His increase. The increase of the harvest is completely up to God—he will send new disciples not when we think we are ready for them, but only when God decides—when He judges—that we are ready to receive new disciples, when we show the fruits of our prayer and harmony.”

I said those words last Sunday, and I repeat them again this morning, and I probably will repeat them again in the future, because they reflect accurately the Gospel as the Church has received it from Jesus Christ. The theology of those words is derived primarily from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, when he appointed the Seventy for mission, “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.” And when he appointed them, Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

Jesus sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves. We are lambs by virtue of our baptism, being incorporated into Him, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are lambs because we hear the voice of our shepherd, we hear Christ’s speech, we hear His voice. And hearing His voice, we are filled with joy—the real joy, against which all other joys are secondary. This joy protects us, it shields us, for it is the shield of faith. This joy is our breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of our salvation, the sword of the Spirit. This joy is true peace.

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Homily: “Advent and Hope”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.

What does it mean that God will judge? We hear from Isaiah the words, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Judgment is also described by Saint Matthew from the words of Saint John the Baptist: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” What’s more, our Collect from last Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, has these words: “He shall come again in His glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.” And of course those words are carried into two important and authoritative statements of the Catholic faith, first into the Apostles’ Creed and later, historically speaking, incorporated into the Nicene Creed, and point to, and thereby express, what is called the doctrine of God’s judgement. And so we have yet another layer for our Advent prayer and reflection—the intersection of the Bible and creedal doctrine with liturgical season.

So what are we talking about when we are talking about the doctrine of God’s judgment? And how does the doctrine of God’s judgment  relate, and even enlighten, the themes of the season of Advent — of Expectation in Week 1, Hope in Week 2, Joy in Week 3, and Acceptance in Week 4? And how can we speak of such a doctrine of judgment  — apparently which involves winnowing, clearing, gathering and burning — when our God’s very nature is Charity, whose very nature is to give Himself to His creation completely and genuinely?

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