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.

On Advent: Pondering with Saint Joseph

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2019.

As I have said, the character of Advent is in an important sense the character of the whole of Christian life. It is as the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent describes: we ask God to cast away the works of darkness, put upon us an armour of light, in this time when Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility—and then furthermore, that in the last day, when He (Christ) shall come again in His glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.

That is the character of Advent, and it is fundamentally the character of Christian life because we are facing the Cross knowing that through the Cross, Christ comes again in His glory for our salvation—through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Day-spring from on high visits us, guides us into the way of peace, guides us on the holy high-way of His commandments and teaching—all this through the Cross from which comes the Sacraments of heavenly life: the Sacraments which prepare and make straight the way to heaven—and so facing the Cross is facing the Mount of Olives, is facing at the same time the holy mountain of God where Christ is transfigured and where Moses received the Ten Commandments and where Elijah heard a still, small voice and knew God.

Advent means all these images come together in a symphony—and through prayer, obedience, and quietness, we are caught up in the adoration of a tremendous mystery of our salvation—Immanuel, God with us. God, Who will come again as He went away at His Ascension—and we are waiting, and the way we wait is the threefold Regula: through the daily official prayers of the Church, through the breaking of the bread, and through our everyday fellowship with each other and the world according to the Scriptures.

As we think of one hundred twenty disciples coming to grips with this great mystery as they worshipped in the Upper Room facing east towards the Mount of Olives, it is most fruitful to think about how deeply personal it all must have been for the disciples. The personal relationships each of the disciples had with Jesus before He voluntarily went to His death. The memories that each had, and as they were remembered through the Light of Christ’s death and resurrection, the meaning of the memories grew exponentially. The deeply personal aspect of true Christian life is dramatized by the Apostle Paul—his conversion a very personal moment, and he spent the rest of his life of teaching, preaching and writing to work out and come to terms with that moment in time of the thunderous light and voice of Christ persecuted—and how that moment was for Paul the Advent of Christ.

Let us also reflect on the deeply personal Advent of Christ in the life of Saint Joseph, Our Lady’s most chaste spouse. We know so very little, but what we do know is so very powerful. Joseph, we are told by Saint Matthew, found Mary to be with child of the Holy Spirit before they came together. He was unwilling to put her to shame, we are told—and this is an indication of his nobility and respect for Mary. He wanted to protect her from the shame she would experience from wider Jewish religious society of that day. Then an angel appeared to him. He had an angelic annunciation just like Mary had had. And in the dream Joseph is told that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

Why, though, are we told all this? It is not immediately clear why. Matthew immediately tells the story of the Wise Men from the East. Why all this about Joseph and his dream? How does it serve the story? I think the way is this: Matthew wants us to think about how the reality of Christ was deeply personal from the beginning. The reality of Christ was tied up into Joseph’s marriage with Mary and their marital relations on all levels. The reality of Christ was tied up into Mary’s ability to life in Jewish society, which is a deeply personal thing.

And there is an important detail that is often missed in this story from Matthew. When did Joseph learn that Mary’s child was of divine origin? When did he learn? We think it was during the dream, during his annunciation. But in fact, he learned earlier. Matthew says “before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” If the text ended at “was found to be with child” that would be one thing, and I think that is how this passage is often read. But it does not end there. Matthew adds: “of the Holy Spirit.” So from the first, in addition to all the ways I mentioned that the reality of Christ was deeply personal for Joseph was this additional way: that all this was of divine origin.

And so he went away considering all this, not because he thought Mary had committed adultery only to be corrected by the angel Gabriel. No, he considered all this—or in the words Luke uses so often about Mary, Joseph pondered in his heart—and what came out of this profoundly personal and mindblowing revelation was the determination by Joseph to be a staunch public defender and witness to the fact that Mary’s child was divine in origin—and therefore, Joseph becomes the patron saint of the Church, divinely ordered. Jesus, Joseph witnessed, was not made by human hands, but by divine hands. And the Church is the Body of Christ, and this Body like His is not made by human hands, but by divine hands. And this means everything of the Church is not made by human hands, but of divine hands—the Sacred Scriptures, the Liturgy, and also the Sacraments.

Brothers and sisters, let us know that as we approach the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, His Advent as a Child born of a Virgin, everything that surrounds us in these coming days likewise is not made by human hands, but all is the work of divine hands. Let us continue to pray as the young Church prayed, from the Upper Room toward the Mount of Olives. Just as the Church beheld in prayer the holy Mount of Olives, Joseph beheld in prayer Blessed Mary found with child. And so the character of Advent is found also in Saint Joseph, and he is permanent witness to the Church made without human hands.

Saint Joseph, patron of the divine ordering of the Church, pray for us.

Homily: “Even of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016. This indeed is a moment of tremendous holiness. For to us a child is born; to us a son is given. And in this birth of a child, on this night when a son given to us, let us not overlook the truth, but celebrate it. Let us not lose focus amid the warm moments of Christmastide—the family feasts, the exchanging of presents, the sugar cookies—but keep our attention firmly on the fundamental reality of Christmas: that God has come to earth and Mary is Mother of God. Read more “Homily: “Even of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ””