On Advent: Seeing in Depth

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

Why would Saint John the Baptist have his followers ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” If we think that John himself was not sure of who Jesus was, would not this be at odds with the picture we have of John Baptist from Saint John’s gospel? It would be at odds. For in Saint John’s gospel, John the Baptist sees into the depth of Jesus from the first. At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is coming toward John the Baptist, and John responds, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” These of course are words we hear as the Sacrament is shown before us in Holy Communion. It is no more  apparent to normal vision that the bread that is held up is the Lamb of God—that it is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—than is it apparent to normal vision that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary (and, we can presume many thought, also of Joseph) was the Messiah, was the Chosen One of God, was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself. John the Baptist, in other words, had a clear sense of who Jesus was. John could see Jesus in depth. John had come for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. John was not the light, the scriptures reveal, but came to bear witness to the light.

So then what is this passage from Saint Matthew really about? The key to this passage are the words of Our Lord, “The blind receive their sight.” Those words, and the words that come after—the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear—those are echoed in our passage from Isaiah: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame man will leap like a hart (an older word for deer), and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.” These are symbolic descriptions meant to remind us that the Word of God is a transforming word—that the Word of God transforms our heart, transforms the whole way we look at the world, the whole way we look at ourselves, the whole way we relate with reality. Seeing in depth, like John.

Faith’s name for reality is God. But it often takes time for faith to name reality as God. Isaiah speaks of a highway called the Holy Way. This highway is the way Jesus has prepared for us that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways. Those who walk the Holy Way do so through prayer—certainly through specific prayers we say, but even more so through a prayerful way of regarding our existence. Our eucharistic canon speaks of this: that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto God. This means being “eucharistic,” for the word “eucharist” means giving thanks. Why be this way? Because, as we sing a moment after that, Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. Growing into our recognition of that truth is how we walk the Holy Way spoken of by Isaiah. Jesus sent the followers of John Baptist back to him with the good news of God revealed in Christ. Carrying the words of Christ with them as they walked back to John Baptist meant those words of good news began to lodge in their heart—and so their walk back to John Baptist became a pilgrimage. They walked the Holy Way in some sense, because walking the Holy Way means seeing all of reality in more depth, seeing in more truth.

The Lord sets the prisoners free; we heard the Psalmist say: the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Seeing only the physical world is from the Christian perspective to be blind to the invisible truth of God. As the Apostle Paul taught, Christ is the image of the invisible God. Christ is that image of the invisible, not only in His physical person, but in His actions, and in His words. And in what is spoken about Him in the scriptures. As  I have said, Advent takes its root in the first chapter of Acts at the Ascension of Jesus, when the 120 disciples learn from angelic revelation that Jesus, Who was taken up into heaven, will come in the same way they saw Him go into heaven. It was this revelation that fully opened the eyes of the 120 disciples to the invisible God revealed in Christ crucified and resurrected. It was this revelation that opened the eyes of the 120 disciples to see the Mount of Olives transformed from dry, desert land into the Holy Mountain of God—always to be looked towards to find God in His coming, and therefore God in His actual presence.

And thus the whole passage of Isaiah is transformed because the hearts and minds and eyes of the early Church had been transformed by the reality of Christ crucified and resurrected. The wilderness and the dry land of the Mount of Olives became in Isaiah’s words, “glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing . . .  They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” This seeing in depth by the Light of Christ who is crucified and resurrected and walks with us on the Holy Way is what prayer means: the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread that we may know that He is everywhere and in all places—that wherever we may be in the desert streams of living water may break forth.

Homily: “On Teaching and Healing”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany, 2019.

Because our mortal nature is weak, our Collect has it, we can do no good thing without God. That is a truth that we may not think about in such stark terms. — that we can do nothing good without God. Does it confront us, this truth, and cause us to flinch or raise our eyebrows? We can expand that theology and say still more: not only can we not do any good thing without God, but we cannot do any beautiful thing without God, nor can we do a true thing without God. That all that is good, beautiful and true of this world comes from God is an iron-clad law, and happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord.

What this truth expresses is the reality of our baptism. In baptism we are buried with Christ in His death, and we are reborn in baptism in Christ’s resurrection. We are born: not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. The grace of God possesses us—we have said yes to God as Mary said yes to Him through Gabriel, and our mortal nature passes away, and our glorious nature, which is Christ in us, takes over—and we become people who are walking in His light, delighting in His ways. When we see this, when we allow this to be our identity, when we conceive in our hearts the very same Christ who Mary conceived in hers, we fall into awe, we tumble into wonder, and we leap for joy as Elizabeth and John the Baptist leapt for joy at the presence of Our Lord through His Mother.

Yet we do not always recognize our true identity with such simple clarity. We sometimes do not see ourselves as a child of God. Rather we see ourselves as troubled, as wounded, as unlucky, as beat down. We see ourselves as far from God, and far from His grace. With full reverence because we tread now on holy ground, let us in this holy space, a space filled with the presence of God in numerous ways, let us allow ourselves to see such self-identifications in the way Saint Luke characterizes those who came out to hear Jesus teach—as troubled with unclean spirits.

Being troubled by unclean spirits is not a rare or uncommon thing for followers of Jesus, but a common and normal condition, and the same is true for us. It is through the meddling of the unclean spirits led by Satan, who is known as the prince of this world, that we forget who we really are. Each of us is a child of God, a member of His Body, who live and move and have our being in Christ’s Resurrection, here and now, and more abundantly to come. Yet we fall prey to temptation to forget this self-identification, to forget this name for ourselves, to forget the grace that at all times empowers us. We forget that the very reason for our being biologically alive and not erased from existence owes entirely to God’s grace. Everyone alive right now, from the most saintly to the most satanic, is only alive by God’s grace. We keep that fundamental truth in mind, and the claim that we can do nothing good without God in our Collect becomes almost obvious.

The pattern Our Lord demonstrates to heal people from the work of the unclean spirits, to cure them of the condition by which they forget their true identity and accept a lesser, false identity, is that He teaches them. This is the next dimension revealed about the Light who is Jesus in Saint Luke’s telling—the close connection between the ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching. When Jesus teaches “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” any identity the poor and downtrodden among Him had as poor and downtrodden is transformed—again this is the truth captured in Our Lady’s hymn, Mary’s Magnificat: He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humbled and meek.

By His teaching about Who He is, He teaches about Who those are that follow Him, the identity that have in being a disciple. Finding out who we are—profoundly who we are in our core—that we are like trees planted by the streams of water that flow directly from the holy mountain of God into our roots—this is the Gospel. We can imagine that 120 people gathered in the Upper Room after Christ’s Ascension all finding out together their true identity as children of God living in Christ’s Resurrected Body is part of what blew the doors off the place with the mighty wind of God. Finding out that no matter what our economic or social status might be—into what conditions we have been thrown, no matter what our givens might be—that we each are a child of God already living in heaven and growing into the stature of Christ who is in heaven bleeding gloriously from His cross the blood and water of the Sacraments we receive—that Christ is resurrected and He in part lives His resurrection through us—this and only this is true happiness; this and only this is true goodness; this and only this is true beauty.

Homily: “On the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 2018. The words that the prophet Isaiah hears in the fortieth chapter come to him after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of its leading citizens.  The religious, political, and social institutions were no more. The Davidic dynasty was gone, the temple was in ruins, its priesthood scattered. Darkness pervaded everything. And so it was for this reason that in Isaiah we do not hear a call for the people to recognize their failure and confess their infidelity to God. There was no way to deny those were the case, the truth of their infidelity to God was so self-evident and pervasive. Read more “Homily: “On the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist””

Homily: “On the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 2017.

We heard these words in our second reading: “Before His coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” This is what Saint Paul tells us, as recorded by Saint Luke, the author of both the Gospel by His name and the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus was coming into the world—coming into relationship with the world (he already was in relationship because all things are made through Him, so we mean coming into relationship in the sense of being able to be recognized and to be available through sure and certain means); He was coming into relationship, and coming into the hearts of people. And before Him, ahead of Him, as the forerunner, was John, son of Elizabeth and Zachariah—indeed, a holy family the members of which the Church has long venerated as Saint Elizabeth, Saint Zachariah, and Saint John the Baptist, the nativity of whom we celebrated today.

Saint John is a major saint of the Church. He plays a major role in the economy of salvation—that is, how salvation actually works not as an idea or good-feeling sentiment, not as the theme of a social club, but as an actual reality that has happened, and is happening, and, God-willing, will continue to happen to actual people in actual lives. Saint John is the first person we meet in the Gospel of Mark, he is introduced at length in the Gospel of Matthew, he is prominent in the Gospel of Luke, and his ministry is raised to the status of a mystic in the Gospel of John. Read more “Homily: “On the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist””