On the Baptism of Jesus and Glory

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday after The Epiphany, 2019.

If one were going to think in terms of chronological time, it might be startling for the Church to move on in the narrative of our Lord’s nativity and episodes of His early days involving Saint Joseph, Blessed Mary, the evil Herod, and later, the Magi. But the Church in moving into our reflection on the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the River Jordan is not inviting us to think in terms of chronological time, but rather to think theologically—to think about how we understand God.

And that has been the consistent theme going all the way back to Advent—how do we understand God’s presence in the world; how do we understand God’s presence in our hearts; how do we understand our worship of Him Whom we proclaim with come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead? To come in glory is how Christ comes to us, not only at the end of days and the judgment, but how He comes to us now: we often speak of how He makes Himself known as doing so in and through glory. What is good and true and beautiful in the world—all of it is of God, is our faith; and all such manifestations, all such energies of God are known to us as His glory. The birth of a child reveals the glory of God, for example: and there are countless more examples we could think of.

Saint Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles a speech or sermon by Saint Peter, which begins with the words, “Truly I perceive.” Everything he goes on about is his description of God’s glory that he has perceived and is perceiving—in order to share in his perception that others will be encouraged in faith by it; and not just encouraged, but taught and formed. The apostles’ teaching and fellowship takes its anchor in the perception of Christ that had been revealed to them in the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread. What was revealed to them is a perception of reality—a perception of Truth—a perception of what is truly real; far more real than what can be proved scientifically and witnessed empirically. And the apostolic ministry was to share this fundamental perception with others: the crucified and risen Christ revealed by the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread—the glory of His presence: guiding and loving us: that eyes of flesh would give way to eyes of faith, eyes of spirit, eyes that can perceive the invisible Truth which is Christ.

The perception of glory in Christ was learned by the apostles in some significant way through the teaching of Mary and Joseph, which was them sharing their experiences, experiences of glory, even experiences of annunciations of glory. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds in the field, the Magi—all experienced annunciations of various kinds, annunciations of glory that lifted up their hearts into the invisible reality of God’s redemptive stream. And in being initiated into God’s revelation, the young Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were then able to hear the account of the baptism of Jesus by the hand of Saint John Baptist, and see in it something of the same revelation of glory, the same annunciation about God’s workings through Christ His only-begotten Son, as had been perceived by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi.

And what is the glory revealed by the baptism of Jesus? It is a glory that is trinitarian: the revelation of God the Father in the voice from heaven which says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”; the revelation at the same time of the Holy Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Jesus—as the dove signaled to Noah the washing of sin from the earth, the alighting dove reveals our salvation in Christ, Who is the beloved Son, described in the same terms in Psalm 2 and in Isaiah 42: the beloved Son, the chosen of God.

Just as the nativity of Jesus was his biological beginning—a beginning completely bathed in glory of angels and worship—the baptism in the River Jordan was a beginning, now of the public ministry of Jesus: and let us again be drawn into the truth proclaimed throughout the scriptures: fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Awe of God is always where we must begin: not just in the beginning of our baptismal life, but every day we must begin in this holy fear, this awe. Through awe, through holy fear, we enter into stillness, the stillness necessary to know God. Through awe that gives way to stillness, we enter more and more into God’s rest: into contemplation of God, and contemplation of His boundless love.

On Saint Joseph and Epiphany

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of The Epiphany, 2019.

This afternoon my family and I drove over to Peoria to visit the Arthur family at Methodist hospital, of course on the occasion of the birth of William Fulton Tanner Arthur. I said to my wife on the drive over, it is like we are the Magi, going to visit the new child and pay homage. I suppose I should add that we did not bow down before young William—such worship is reserved only for our King, Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of the Father. But I did offer him a blessing, to add to the blessing of being born on Epiphany. I will also add that, as is the case in any birth, the glory of the Lord, following Isaiah’s words, was upon us—every baby brings such light, along with the mystery of God’s energies in the world burning particularly brightly.

We are told by Saint Matthew that after meeting Herod, the Magi saw again the leading star—that they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. The birth of Christ sent shock waves of joy in every direction for those with ears to hear it. And, we are told, going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His Mother, and the fell down and worshiped Him. It is significant to us that the first vision of the King of the Universe was bound up with that of His Mother. With Jesus comes His Mother who presents Him: and, likewise, with God, comes His Church which presents the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Falling down in worship, the Magi opened their treasures and offered Him gifts—the Magi model how to properly worship: at the feet of Christ on His Throne, we fall to our knees and open the treasure of our heart, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God. When we give God our heart, our offering is greater than all the world’s gold, frankincense and myrrh.

And then notice, brothers and sisters, who is not named as being present during this holy moment. Mary, Jesus, the Magi, even the Star of Bethlehem—these are all named as present. But one important person is not named. Of all people, Joseph! He is not named as being present. Also, to be precise; it is not that he is said to be elsewhere. Matthew does not tell us that Mary and Jesus are receiving the Magi while Joseph is off doing carpentry in Damascus or some such place; we are not told he is off getting groceries or diapers.

It is quite odd to wonder why Joseph is not mentioned at least by Matthew. The passage right before and right after the Magi episode not only have Joseph present but focus on Joseph, and even are about the angelic revelations given to Joseph by Gabriel. Before the Magi episode comes Gabriel’s encouraging words “Do not fear to take Mary your wife,” for Joseph had wondered whether, knowing that Mary’s pregnancy was of divine intervention, to protect her from cultural embarrassment and even shunning, perhaps she ought be sent away quietly. Angel said, “No, she will bear a son, and you shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” And then after the Magi go home by another way—because any true encounter with God changes the direction of our journey—again it is Gabriel back again, this time to warn Joseph, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.” Two major moments of angelic revelation centered on Joseph, and yet why is Joseph not described as being there when the Magi worship?

But what if Joseph was there at the visit by the Magi, and Matthew’s silence about it is to make an important point? It is certainly possible this is the case—again, Matthew does not say Joseph is somewhere else, and the overall tendency of Matthew’s account at this point is for Joseph to be central to God’s activity. So, what if Joseph is there, but does not speak or do anything particularly out of the ordinary? What would be the purpose of Matthew writing this way?

It occurs to me firstly that, interpreted this way, it mirrors or recapitulates the episode of Adam and Eve in the Garden. For recall that although Adam is in the Garden with Eve, of course preceded her in the Garden, while Eve is being tempted by the Serpent, Adam is no where to be found. Did Adam go away, like Joseph go away? Or did Adam buckle under the pressure of the Serpent’s temptation and, scared, delegate dealing with the serpent all to Eve? I prefer that reading because it emphasizes the dignity and fortitude of Eve, and the lameness of Adam, his weakness.

And so consider the Magi episode. Joseph is present while Mary and Joseph receive the Magi. And as they do, Joseph watches silently as the Magi’s gifts become a kind of temptation to Mary to think herself esteemed and special: I mean, frankincense and myrrh: great. But all the gold! In addition to Mary thinking, “We are rich! Joseph, you can retire now!” she might be tempted to think it is all about her; that the Magi worship of the Child means she can boast of herself. And so unlike Adam’s silence, which allows Eve to be tricked by the Serpent, Joseph’s silence pays tribute to Mary and to God, because Joseph knows Mary is too humble, too self-effacing, too focused on sacrifice and praise to God at all times and in all places to give into any of that. All of this fits the portrait of Joseph that we have: caught up in the divine activity of God through Mary, utterly humble towards God and trusting of Mary, and a permanent witness that everything having to do with Jesus is of divine origin, divine plan, and divine ordering: the Church, the seven Sacraments, all ordered not by the hands of man, but by the hands of God. Let us, brothers and sisters, behold along with Saint Joseph, the unfathomable wonder of God, of the Word made flesh for us, for our nourishment, and for our salvation.

On Having the Eyes of Saint Joseph

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

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, we are told by Saint Matthew. And then but a few verses later, again an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, now in Egypt with Mary and Jesus, and yet again to decide specifically where to dwell. This means there have been at least four, and probably five, times that Saint Matthew tells us Joseph has had an angel visit him in a dream. Five angel visits, five angel messages—five, we can say, annunciations, just as Blessed Mary experienced her annunciation by the angel Gabriel. This to some may sound rather fanciful legend, the stuff of fantasy literature. But let us remember that at the heart of this part of the Gospel narrative is the infancy of a child. At the birth of any child, the whole family is thrown into a state of wonder and joy. This is especially so for the parents. Holding the baby, hearing the baby, smelling the baby, simply being with the baby—the meaning of the Twelve Days of Christmas is rooted in this very reality that Christ is born. We spend twelve days savouring the simple fact that unto us a child is born—twelve days, savouring our savior. This Child, Who is in Himself the new Temple of Jerusalem. O come let us adore Him.

I have said before that for such an important person in the gospel narrative, there are so few words ascribed to Joseph. But we know more about him than we might realize. He has been visited by the angel Gabriel five times! So although we do not know what Joseph looked like, or how he spoke, or hardly anything about his life before he took Mary as his wife, except that he was a carpenter of some sort, or what happened to Joseph in the time after Jesus at age twelve was found in the Temple—he died at some point after that, obviously, probably of natural causes of old age—we do know he has been visited five times by an angel to reveal God’s will. So on an existential level, we know quite a bit about Joseph—that he was open to, and well aware of, the supernatural. He was open to, and well aware of, God in His transcendent dimension—open and aware of the invisible reality of God.

And not just open and aware of the invisible reality of God, but ordering his life around the invisible reality of God. He was making crucial life decisions based upon the invisible reality of God revealed to him by the angel. First, to accept the truth that his betrothed had conceived by divine hands—that she was of Child by the Holy Ghost; second, that he, Joseph, was to be a public witness and defender to this divine action—the divine ordering of salvation itself through the Church which is the Body of Jesus, rather than sending Mary away quietly for her protection; third, that he, Joseph, should take the child and His mother to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, undoubtedly possessed by demons, and to wait there; and fourthly, to return to Israel, anf fifthly, eventually to dwell in Nazareth.

What then does all this say about Joseph? How do we interpret him, and his role in God’s plan for salvation through Christ? The first principle we should always use and start with is that we interpret scripture by scripture. Joseph led Mary and Jesus back from Egypt to Israel all by the guidance of God through the angel. Does this sound familiar? It should—it is what Moses did with Israel. Moses led Israel out of bondage to an evil ruler to the promised land of Israel, at all times led by God. And Saint Joseph recapitulates all of it. And if Joseph recapitulates Moses, then Mary and Jesus recapitulate the Ark of the Covenant (the container for God’s holy presence, which is symbolically Mary) and God’s holy presence itself in the cloud and voice (which is Christ). And unlike Israel who were constantly disobedient to God, constantly complaining to Moses, Mary and Jesus were fully obedient to God’s will expressed through Joseph, completely given over to following God’s will without delay. What’s more, just as Moses was able to glimpse the promised land with his own eyes but not reach it before dying, Joseph glimpsed salvation Himself—and was the guardian of the Promised Land-Made-Man in Jesus, for at least twelve years—the protector and dutiful guardian of the revelation of the divine ordering of the Church through Mary and through Jesus, the Son of God.

Saint Paul speaks of God giving us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. He speaks of having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know the hope to which God has called us, and the immeasurable greatness of His power. This is all the spirit and the eyes and the knowledge of Saint Joseph. We know nothing about him except how he gave his life as a sacrifice to God and to be an instrument for God to accomplish salvation through Christ crucified and risen. By the intercession of Saint Joseph, may we do the same.

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.