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.

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.

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 Way, the Truth, and the Life”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2018. We ask of our loving God in our Collect this week something extraordinary. We ask that He grant us so perfectly to know Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life. I say this is extraordinary for two reasons. One because the claim made herein about Jesus—He is the way (and there is no other); He is the truth (and there is no other), and He is the life (and there is no other). We need to have this clarity about our loving Lord Jesus—clarity about who exactly He is, and clarity about what His mission was in becoming Man in the Incarnation. Jesus is the definitive revelation of ultimate reality, and He chose to be born, to live, to minister, to die, and to rise again so that the whole world could join Him with the Father in eternal bliss. And that is the second way that our Collect is extraordinary—the clear articulation of Hope. Read more “Homily: “On the Way, the Truth, and the Life””

On the Ministry of the Laity

[This essay by Father Dallman appeared in the May 2018 issue of The Spire, the newsletter of the Parish of Tazewell County.]

Saint Paul teaches in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians that saints (the baptized) are to be equipped for work of ministry, for “building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” He also teaches elsewhere of the centrality of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity to the Christian life.

The pressing question then becomes, within the context of Baptism, how do equipping the saints for ministry and the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity hang together as part of an overall “baptismal spirituality” or “baptismal life”? What is the shape or pattern? Read more “On the Ministry of the Laity”

Homily: “On Firm and Certain Faith”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday of Easter, 2018.

It is not the easiest passage in the Sacred Scriptures to contemplate, but the passage from the Book of Isaiah is a very important one, which is why it is provided for our prayer today. “Open the gates,” Isaiah begins. He is dreaming about the future: a future kept by God, a future where peace is the way of life—a future built on confident trust in the Lord God as an everlasting rock. In the words of one Old Testament scholar, this passage is called Isaiah’s “song of the redeemed.” The vision celebrated in this song foresees a future in which the fortunes of the present will be reversed: the mighty will be brought low. It will celebrate Jerusalem, the strong city of God that has withstood the enemy and encloses the faithful. Read more “Homily: “On Firm and Certain Faith””

Homily: “On Trusting God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Third Sunday in Lent, 2018.

We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. No matter how much we try to control of the world around us—the things and the people in our orbit—none of it will bring salvation. No matter how much we try to control the world inside us—the emotions, thoughts, and desires in our heart—none of that controlling will bring salvation. Our Collect pours ice-water over any kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. It rejects entirely any idea that we can earn grace. We are entirely dependent upon God for everything. Read more “Homily: “On Trusting God””

Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the  Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle, 2018.

That through the preaching of Saint Paul the Apostle, God has caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world—there can be no doubt. Roughly one quarter of the books of the New Testament were written by Paul, and it is likely that all of the letters were completed before the first Gospel was written, the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Then, he travelled around the known world preaching and teaching, exhorting and inviting—that all should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance. In a very clear way, Saint Paul imitated Saint John the Baptist. Read more “Homily: “On the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle””

Homily: “On Beholding Our God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017.

We have asked Our Lord Jesus Christ in our Collect today to give us grace to heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus our Redeemer. That is, the grace to take seriously the words of Isaiah who sings in the highest register, “Behold your God!”; the grace to forsake sin—the separation—between ourselves and God through our daily prayer, a habit that absolves us of the common, low-intensity sins we commit, because daily prayers prepares Him room so that heaven and earth can sing in our hearts; and the grace to greet with joy the God of all creation as He comes into our bodies as the consecrated bread of life and spiritual drink, and still more into our hearts, words, and deeds, for He is speaking peace to His faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to Him.

“Joy to the World” exquisitely captures all the Advent themes of expectation, hope, joy, and acceptance of the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Read more “Homily: “On Beholding Our God””

Homily: “On Advent Joy”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the First Sunday of Advent (Year B), 2017.

The season of Advent began to take shape near the end of the fourth century. Its purpose then remains its purpose for us today: to prepare our hearts to receive the boundless significance of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Nativity of the Word of God as a child—to prepare our hearts to receive Our King with joy. As the prophet Isaiah teaches us: God meets him, that joyfully works righteousness. So Advent, not so much a transition but extension of the celebration of Christ the King, is a time of joy. Our Savior reigns, not only our hearts, but He reigns over all of nature, over all creatures.

This is why the Church wants us to hear the teaching of our loving Lord Jesus as captured in the thirteenth chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel. Our Master is coming again into our hearts, but we do not know the hour, the day, the moment when He will come. Read more “Homily: “On Advent Joy””