On being Possessed by God’s Presence

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Purification of S. Mary (Candlemas) 2021

All of the episodes of our Lord Jesus Christ recorded in the New Testament are memories. This is especially the case for the four accounts of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ recorded by S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, and S. John. Their accounts were not written down until several years, even several decades, after Our Lord’s Ascension and the Coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. How the episodes got to be in such a place as to be written down, is that the accounts of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s life was proclaimed and preached in worship by the apostles of the Church. The stories and episodes we have of Jesus come down to us as the apostolic preaching of the young Church. It perhaps is characteristic of our modern mindset to downgrade memories, to regard memories as inferior to, what, documentary evidence—today, it seems something did not happen unless it is captured on a cellphone camera and distributed virally on Twitter.

Yet this really is a modern attitude—among the first voices of the young Church to refer to the four Gospel accounts is Saint Justin Martyr, one of the apostolic voices who entered into greater glory in the year of Our Lord 165. Justin Martyr referred to the four gospel accounts as “memoirs.” This is important for us to always keep in mind—the episodes of Our Lord captured authoritatively in Scripture are not equivalent to documentary footage captured by a camera; but rather, they are superior in that these are the definitive accounts of what the Church remembers of Jesus insofar as the episodes recounted have the power to transform our hearts from a heart of sin to a heart of obedience to Christ.

The term a contemporary theologian today uses to describe the Gospel accounts is that the four accounts reflect “scripturally mediated memory.” The episodes of Jesus, including His Presentation in the Temple with the meeting of Simeon and Anna of their, and our, Lord and Saviour, detail how the Church remembered Jesus in a living way as revealed in and through the opening of Scripture as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Day. To the two disciples on that road, and to more of the disciples that evening in the Upper Room, Jesus gave the key to interpreting what we call the Old Testament, Himself being the key because the Scriptures at all points speak of Him, and are spoken by Him. Jesus shows us that it is He who said, “Let there be light,” it was Jesus Who asked Adam, “Where are you?”, it is Jesus of whom Isaiah prophesied would be born of a Virgin, and so on and so forth.

And it was Jesus of Whom the prophet Haggai spoke—indeed, Jesus Whom Haggai heard speak. It was Jesus who told Haggai that He would fill the House of the Father with glory—a glory greater than the former glory that filled the Temple, that filled the Tent of Meeting to Moses. It was in this new Temple, Jesus told Haggai, that peace would be given. The peace, indeed, that passes all understanding; the peace that keeps our hearts and mind in the knowledge and love of God; the peace pronounced and truly given to the ten disciples in the Upper Room which were among the first words spoken by Christ as He appeared in His glorious Resurrection, saying “Peace be with you,” and breathing upon them “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

And it was this peace, told to Haggai, the peace Who is Christ, Who was held in the arms of old man Simeon who had been waiting for the redemption of Israel, and longing for the fulfillment of hopes only on this day did he rightly understand. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word,” said Simeon as he held in his arms the Eternal Word of God. Just as a lesser glory filled the Temple of Solomon, Jesus when presented by Blessed Mother Mary is seen as the fullness of the holy uncreated Light of the Father Who would be the Light to give light to the Gentiles, and the Light to be the glory of Israel.

Simeon, Anna, and us are given possession of this Light presented by Blessed Mary—given in our Baptism whereby our body becomes the Temple of the Holy Ghost—a Temple truly fit for His Presence. Brothers and sisters, let us continue to receive the heavenly Light through our religion: that is, through our daily prayer, our assisting at the eucharistic Mass, and in our devotion to the sacred Humanity of Christ in our relationships and activities day by day. Our religion is to mean to us nothing less than what it meant to old Simeon: salvation by being possessed by the Presence of God.

On Speaking about God Present in Our Lives

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Trinity Sunday, 2019.

The episode we heard from the prophet Isaiah—”the call of the prophet to prophesy”—is part of the prayer I say silently just before I proclaim the Gospel passage of the day. The prayer is this: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, O Almighty God, who didst purge the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a live coal: and of thy gracious mercy, vouchsafe so to purify me, that I may worthily proclaim thy holy Gospel.” Isaiah’s experience was a profound one: he heard two angels singing to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” We sing this truth as well at the beginning of our Eucharistic Prayer. Just as we are taken to the source and summit of reality in the Eucharist, where the door opens to heaven, Isaiah had a mountaintop experience. And as when we approach the Light of Christ we see our shadows, Isaiah saw his. And he confessed his sins: that he had unclean lips, and therefore had become lost. One of the seraphim brought a live coal to his mouth, and thereby absolved Isaiah of his sin. And being made clean, he was able to respond to God’s call to go into the world and prophesy. “Here am I! Send me,” he said. And we Christians have savored his words for nearly two thousand years: words spoken six hundred years before the Incarnation of Jesus yet describe Jesus is wondrous detail.

On this Trinity Sunday, the final of the traditional eight days of Pentecost (also called the Octave of Pentecost) it is fitting to reflect on what it means to prophecy. It is fitting because being prophetic is something that Saint Peter preached about on the Day of Pentecost, and it is captured in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Quoting from the prophet Joel, from whom we heard last Sunday on the Feast itself, Peter said these words: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yes, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” Prophesying, then, is something that all will do—all who are caught up in the Spirit’s out-pouring. Prophesying is for everyone. It is not reserved for the few or the spiritually elite. Sons and daughters, young and old, menservants and maidservants—all shall prophesy. It is in fact a kind of command: “shall prophesy,” not “might prophesy.” I want us, then, to ask the immediate question: Are we prophesying in our parish?

This might sound like an odd question to ask, but it is not at all. Or at least, it should not be. The reason I say that is because Saint Paul taught the very same thing to the parish church in Corinith. In the fourteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, he wrote, “You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” So as it was for Saint Peter, it is for Saint Paul: prophesying is for everyone. “But,” you may have in your mind right now, “I thought prophecy has to do with predicting the future, like Isaiah did.” But that is not right. It is true that Isaiah’s words predicted a great deal, but that is not what made what he did an act of prophesying. What made his words prophesying was simply that he, Isaiah, spoke about how God was present in his life. God is present in our lives in unique ways—for Isaiah, to describe God’s presence meant to describe the words God was telling him. We do not all need to be speaking like Isaiah literally to be prophesying. But we do need to imitate Isaiah at the deeper level: to speak to others about how God is present in our lives—that is what it means to prophesy, and that is what Saint Paul was teaching the Corinthian parish to do.

And why is it important to prophesy? For Saint Paul, when we hear another person talking about how God is present in their life, we are taught and encouraged by their words. Why? Because when we hear another person talking about how God is present in their life, God becomes present in our lives in the hearing. And as wonderful and nourishing as that it, there is still more for Saint Paul. He taught them that a parish church whose members are comfortable talking about how God is present in their particular lives, such a parish stands the best chance of growing numerically. And he states it plainly: if outsiders or unbelievers enter our church, if they hear the congregation as a whole, as well as individuals, prophesying—speaking genuinely and authentically about how God is present in their lives—the outsiders will be attracted to the community. In Saint Paul’s words, “secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” Because nothing in this world is more attractive than the presence of God, and He makes His presence known through the members of His Body—through us.

Brothers and sisters of the Parish of Tazewell Count, let us begin this season of Trinitytide with this petition to our loving and merciful God—that the Holy Ghost, Whose very nature is to guide us into all truth, will continue to teach us how to prophesy—that the Holy Ghost, Who always gives to those faithful to Christ the words to speak, continues to teach us how to speak about how God is present in our lives—how He was present in our distant past, how He was present in our life five years ago, how He was present in our life last week, and yesterday. For outsiders to visit us and come away from the experience by saying “God is really among you” is the highest compliment a parish church can receive. And I am sure I am not alone in saying that I want outsiders to say that about us.