On Blessed Mary: The Soul of Every Christian

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Annunciation, 2021

With the major exception of none other than Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who is the Eternal Word of God, and Whose Name—Jesus—is the Name above all other names, can there be any doubt that the most significant words ever spoken by a human being in the history of human existence have come from the utterance of Our Lady, Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin? Most blessed Mary is the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of the Church, and Our Lady of the Upper Room—her words, although some may say we have so few of them recorded by the Evangelists, drip with greatness, with sanctity, with humility, with wisdom. She herself who is the beginning in time of Our Lord’s works, was brought forth before mountains were settled, before the hills were made, even when Christ prepared the heavens, she was there—blessed Mary, Our Lady, is the soul of every Christian.

Mary is the soul of every Christian because her greatness consists in her absolute selfless devotion to Jesus her Son and Lord. To her cousin Saint Elizabeth at the Visitation, after her greeting (which made John Baptist in utero leap for joy, along with the heart of his mother, Elizabeth), Mary sang: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” She was wholly devoted to the Lord. To the place of poverty she willingly went at Our Lord’s Nativity; to the place of shame she willingly went at our Lord’s Crucifixion and death; and to the place of promise in the Upper Room she willing went as one of the 120 apostles in the first Christian parish for the Coming of the Holy Spirit of her Son and Lord.

Mary is the soul of every Christian because unto a seemingly impossible vocation, she said “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” Facing the incomprehensible, she said Yes, according to thy will; facing the utterly paradoxical, she said Yes, according to thy will; facing the most tremendous mystery (the mystery of reality Himself), she said, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” To the opportunity to be given to the Temple at age three, as her parents Anna and Joachim had promised God, she danced (which is a Yes if there ever was a Yes); to the prospect of leaving the Temple (in which she grew up into her teenage years) into marriage to Joseph the carpenter, she said “Yes.” As she heard announced to her by Simeon at Our Lord’s Presentation “And a sword shall pierce through your own soul also,” in wonderment and courage, she said “Yes.” And to the final words of her Son on the Cross, Jesus telling her to behold her Son—words she heard from her Son, words now about her Son in a radically new way—she said “Be it unto me according to thy word,” and behold in the beloved disciple John not a resemblance to her Son, not a mere likeness to her Son, not a kinship to her Son: indeed, in John, Mary behold Jesus, her Son.

Should it surprise us at all that Mary is the soul of every Christian when within her heart from the first was her Son’s Name; within her heart from the first was the Name Jesus, the Name above all names, the Name which is a fortified tower to which the righteous run and are safe; the Name we will walk in for ever and ever; the Name which saves everyone who calls on it? Just as among the first things known to Blessed Joseph about Mary’s Son was His Name, so was it for Mary: the Angel Gabriel giving both Joseph and Mary not merely knowledge of the Son of God, but the true knowledge of Him which is His Name. Can we doubt that Mary would say His most Holy Name all the days following her most holy Annunciation? Can we doubt that each time she said His holy Name Jesus, her heart pondered the Mystery of all Mysteries, and was filled with the awe from which comes true wisdom? Can we doubt the joy she shared with Blessed Joseph, her most chaste spouse, in the Name of their Son—a joy in His Name they knew was not only theirs, but would be the joy of all creation?

Brothers and sisters, let us be strengthened by the Name of Jesus like Mary and Joseph; let us be emboldened by the Name of Jesus like Mary and Joseph; and let us be obedient and humble to the Name of Jesus, like Mary and Joseph—that with them, we might learn to ponder and watch and keep long silences, thinking of the deep, tender things of Jesus.

On S. Joseph, Guardian of the Church’s Divine Nature

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Feast of S. Joseph, 2021

Saint Joseph is a powerful Saint. He has a powerful intercession on behalf of us to Jesus. Of this there can be no doubt, for after all, it was part of God’s economy of salvation for Joseph to have the vocation of guardian and protector both of Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin, and Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In the economy or plan of God’s salvation through His Son Jesus, there are no accidents, but all is of His loving and infinitely wise providence. This is why we sing of Joseph, whose glory fills the Church with praises: Joseph, the blessed and most chaste spouse of Blessed Mary, is called by God to be the best of protectors. And God chosen Joseph for this vocation, knowing of Joseph’s humility, glad spirit, and adoring nature. God never puts on our shoulders more than we can handle; but He also never puts on less. He put this responsibility upon Joseph’s shoulder because God knew Joseph would be able not only to handle the responsibility, but to exercise his responsibility most competently and always giving glory to God. God has given Joseph grace and honour in ways wondrous to the Church from the beginning, and wondrous to us today who venerate him.

In the ancient images of Joseph, such as we have here, Joseph is painted holding the Son of God, the very same Son of Mary, close to himself, as if Jesus sits on Joseph’s left arm. The intimacy between the two is evident in how Joseph holds Jesus with both hands, a symbol of Joseph’s God-given instinct of protection and strength. And notice too how Our Lord Jesus responds in the icon to Joseph, placing not one but two hands on his. The peace between the two is palpable: the peace of Son and father (and let us not be confused: of course the true and only Father of Jesus is He Who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible; thus Joseph, called even by Mary as the father of Jesus, was father not in terms of parentage but by virtue of his fatherly love and care of Jesus and Mary).

Imagine the heart of Joseph, brothers and sisters. Imagine his heart as he beheld Jesus from birth unto however old Jesus was when Joseph’s earthly life ran its course; beholding Jesus Who so trusted Joseph that Our Lord was to Joseph subject, submissive, and obedient. Imagine the heart of Joseph, quietly and inwardly savoring the love between Jesus and His Mother Mary. Imagine, too, the heart of Joseph as he courageously and decisively protected his family against the coming onslaught of Herod, even as they escaped to Egypt; and likewise the heart of Joseph as he protected Mary and Child on not one but two voyages home: to the first home of Bethlehem (home because of Our Lord’s birth) and to the second home in Nazareth. The strength, the resilience, the perseverance, steadiness, the internal fortitude of Joseph—in all ways the ideal father.

And let us also reflect upon the heart of Joseph found his betrothed spouse Mary to be with child of the Holy Ghost. Now, some may say this reflects a moment of weakness and disbelief on the part of Joseph; they therefore suggest Joseph suspected Mary to have known another man, and thus she is to be put away privily, to save her the humiliation of being known as an adulterer. But none of this is so. Notice that Saint Matthew does not say, Mary was found with child; but he says that Mary was found with child of the Holy Ghost; meaning, it was made evident to Joseph from the first of the Child’s divine parentage. Joseph’s struggle, then, was not with Mary’s faithfulness. Rather, Joseph’s struggle was about whether this act of God should be private or public.

It was to this discernment that the angel Gabriel again spoke to Joseph in a dream, confirming that the Son of Mary is the Saviour, He shall save His people from their sins. And to Joseph was revealed the Holy Name, as it had been revealed at the Annuncation to Mary: to Joseph, Gabriel declared: “and thou shalt call His Name Jesus.” To Joseph was shared the Name above all other names, the Name unable to be said without the Holy Spirit.

Along with Mary, Joseph is guardian of the Holy Name, and thereby guardian of the Incarnation. Along with Mary, Joseph guards the truth that the Father of Jesus is divine. And because Jesus is divine, His Body the Church is also divine, with divine parentage. Everything, therefore, of the Church is divinely ordered, divinely arranged, divinely organized—the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. The Sacraments are the way they are because the Sacraments are heavenly and divinely arranged: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation; Matrimony, Unction, and Confession; and of course Holy Orders—all extend the ministry of Jesus; all extend Him; and all are arranged and ordered and organized divinely as Jesus Himself is the Son of the Father in heaven. Just as Joseph did not recoil but held firm as the divine plan of God unfolded through Mary, so Joseph reminds us to not recoil but hold firm to the truth that the traditional, catholic, and orthodox validity of the Sacraments is found only when their divine arrangement and ordering is accepted, cherished, celebrated, and protected.

All of this, and unfathomably more, is Joseph’s witness to the Gospel that we venerate today. Joseph indeed is guardian to the unfathomable, his words forever under the seal of confidentiality in Christ, yet his presence immediately available to us as we reflect upon his witness in silence, prayer, and awe.

Blessed Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and guardian of the divine nature of the Church and her Sacraments: pray for us!

On the Nativity of Jesus

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2020.

The nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is described in Saint Luke’s account of the Gospel, as we just heard. His taking the flesh of Blessed Mary is also described, though in far less detail, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel account. That the birth of Christ—which we not merely remember today but actually experience and participate in sacramentally and liturgically—received no mention from Saint Mark and Saint John (save very cryptic description in John’s Revelation), but a verse from Saint Paul, and nothing in the other of the apostolic writings bound up in the New Testament, is something to think about and ponder in our hearts as we celebrate this wonderful feast, so important and central to Christian religion, and so important and central to our lives in so many ways.

Now, I admit, this might sound like something only biblical scholars would find interesting. But this fact starts to become very curious when we consider the order in which the New Testament writing came in to the Church. Having a book called a “Bible” is a great gift but it also can obscure the fact that Paul’s letters—most if not all of them—came before any of the four Gospel accounts were written. Paul, as the primary teaching voice of the Church in the early decades, led in his apostolic teaching throughout the known world not with the birth of Christ but with His Death and Resurrection. He preached Christ Crucified and Risen time and time again. Paul, in all his letters (which are inexhaustible in richness for all time) gives us but one verse on the birth. It comes from Galatians chapter 4, and it reads: “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Surely the Church in its worship life knew of the virgin birth! Surely the Church in its conversations and fellowship knew of Mary. But why was such a momentous occasion as the coming of God as a human baby not part of the apostolic writings for three or four decades after Christ’s Passion?

Let it not be said that the significance of the Nativity was not taught in the decades before the story of the Nativity was written down. We hear not about the Nativity directly but about its significance from Saint Paul’s epistle to Titus today: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us.” Certainly this can be interpreted as applying to being born of Mary in Bethlehem, announced to the shepherds by the angelic choir, “Glory to God in the highest!” But the language of Paul’s teaching here is primarily not the Nativity, but, its significance for our lives. Paul’s teaching about how our Saviour appears in our hearts and minds—how He is born in us, that we may grow up in stature according to His image in us. Paul continues: “He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit,” [note: this is baptismal teaching!] “which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” Paul, as he so often does, is pointing to the baptismal life of Christians who participate in the day to day liturgical and devotional ferment of the Church. Paul is as much reflecting on Christ’s appearing to us within the life of the threefold Regula as he is about Christ’s appearing to Joseph and Mary and the animals.

The reason the specific account from Luke and Matthew showed up later, long after Paul’s letters, Peter’s letters and the rest, is not that it was unknown until Luke and Matthew wrote about it, but rather because the story of the birth of Jesus fermented in the life of the Church’s prayer and was interpreted in light of the Cross, in the light of Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself to die. The Church needed, in other words, to grapple with the end before it the true significance of the beginning could be revealed. The details in Luke bear witness to this. The baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths—wrapped like a body prepared for burial, and the images and icons of the Church bring this out strongly. He was laid in a manger—this is an eating trough, where food and water is placed for animals is where Christ was laid. Why? Because He offered Himself as flesh to be eaten sacramentally: we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and so He was placed on the manger, which takes on the symbolism of an Altar. And why all this? Because there was no room of them in the inn—because Christ came to Jerusalem for Passover on a donkey only to be killed there but a few days later, because there was no place for Him in their hearts, yet. Yet—until all was finished on the Cross, Christ having ascended the Cross and asked the Father to bestow upon the Church the Coming of the Holy Ghost.

As Christians, we begin in the Cross, and only then find the unspeakable beauty and wordless profundity of the Nativity. Brothers and sisters, continue these twelve days of Christmas to put the Lord’s nativity in your remembrance, meditating on the paradox of it all: that God shows Himself as a baby, that this Child was born in purity in order to die and forgive the darkness and sin of the world—indeed that God came to the world as a wee baby that He might be born in our hearts day by day in our prayer.