On the Fever of the Passions

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Sexagesima), 2021

The healing of Saint Peter’s mother-in-law must have been a pretty big deal to warrant its coming down through the decades of oral tradition after the Passion of Christ all the way to Saint Mark. Many biblical scholars suggest Mark’s gospel dates from the early 60s; some even as late as the year 70. Even at the earlier date, we are talking about 30 years of oral preaching and teaching about a healing of a fever. It seems like a rather mundane problem to have—which is not to diminish how serious a high fever can be from a physical perspective, of course. I mean that, this episode is one of the first healing miracles of Jesus, and it is a healing of a woman, which is significant for a reason I will mention in a moment.

It is a fairly iron-clad rule of the New Testament that what is included in the four Gospel accounts is not mundane or unremarkable, but rather what is included is included for a very specific purpose: that is conveys spiritual knowledge about Jesus Christ and how He is the Messiah and Eternal Word of the Father; and on a practical level this means that what is included in the Gospel accounts of Jesus has spiritual meaning for us that feeds our desire to be transformed by the Holy Spirit—transformed heart, and thereby a transformed life. The Gospel details from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are included to, in the words of our Collect, set us free from the bondage of our sins, that we might receive the liberty of that abundant life which the Father manifested in His Son Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

So, we must ask, given this iron-clad rule, might it be the case that the fever described by Saint Mark might indicate something more than Peter’s wife’s mother having a temperature higher than 98.6 degrees—that the image of her having a fever represents not a physical condition, but one spiritual?

It turns out there is plenty of support for just that interpretation, and it shows up early in the life of the Church (the early Church being generally referred to as the “patristic era”). A great voice of the Church, Saint Jerome, for example, interpreted the fever as intemperance. In traditional moral theology, “intemperance” refers to lack of moderation or restraint, and an excessive indulgence of any passion or appetite. More recently, the term is used to refer to an addiction to intoxicating beverage (that is, to alcohol), but in the Church it means an addiction to anything at all. The Venerable Bede, another great patristic voice, interpreted “fever” in the same way, and also included under its category addiction to sexual gratification. Many other voices could be cited here.

Now, we do not know (because Mark does not specify) which particular form of spiritual malady Peter’s mother-in-law possessed. For Mark, it is not an important detail to include. What is important, however, is that whatever the specifics, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. And of course, we all are sick, from time to time: spiritually sick. Being unable to exercise restraint over some sort of addiction is something every human being suffers from, at least from time to time. Addiction to television, addiction to cell phones, addiction to gossip, addiction to control, addiction to victimhood; but also addiction more broadly: addition to anxiety, to judging others, even to family (putting family before God), addiction to politics is a prevalent one today, addition to laziness; and, of course, addiction obviously to food, as well as addiction to things we normally speak of as addictive (drugs, alcohol)—these are part of the normal human condition of being fallen, and the Church generally calls these “passions” and what is named in our Psalm as “prison.”

And what spurs our giving into our passions (our addictions) are, in the language of the Church, of course demons. We should note in this passage that Mark uses the word “demons” four times in this passage. When sick, look for demons. Within the Christian faith, being sick has everything to do with our inability to exercise restraint against our common human impulses and human addictions: that is, unable to resist temptation dangled before our eyes like the serpent dangled the fruit of the paradise Tree in front of Adam and Eve. Being sick, in short, results from giving into our passions.

And yet, it is to provide healing from our human weakness that Christ came as the Light that lighteth all human beings. That is what we see right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: immediately we see Jesus healing, and in our passage today, Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And again, Mark means “spiritual healing,” and that is indicated by the fact that as the fever left her, after Jesus “lifted her up” (itself a signal of spiritual healing), she served them. Now, it is easy to overlook the significance of this act of serving, but in the Greek the word is of the same root as the term we today use for an ordained Deacon. Older English translations often use, “the fever left her, and she ministered unto them,” which is closer. Ministering is the activity, of course, of Jesus: and the significance I mentioned earlier of this episode involving a woman is that this woman, Peter’s mother in law, after being healed of her spiritual fever, of her spiritual “passion” (meaning addiction), is the first person in Mark’s gospel to imitate Jesus. Jesus came that His disciples would imitate Him. To be healed, which is what salvation means, is not just to receive relief (or absolution) from Jesus from our sinful temptations, but it is to lead a different way of life thereafter—to walk from henceforth in Christ’s holy ways. It is to lead a transformed life with an illumined heart, guided by grace.

Brothers and sisters, as we continue to approach Lent with the knowledge of the new light of Christ shining in our hearts, let us understand that if we say we have no sin (that is, no passions), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins (our giving into passions), the Father is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

At the Foot of the Cross

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Christ the King), 2019.

We ask in our Collect today that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule. Rightly understood, this Collect expresses concisely the Christian understanding of the fallen world and why we Christians are in the world with an apostolic mission. To a sinful world we are to bring a way of life centered on the glory of the Cross; a way of life empowered by our knowledge of Christ both crucified and resurrected. The knowledge of Truth—that is to say the knowledge of Christ Crucified and Resurrected—is knowledge that is lived out; is knowledge that is embodied and enacted; is knowledge that must, if it is true knowledge of Truth Himself, be expressed through a general attitude or disposition toward all the world, and as the premise of all our relationships in the world with God’s creatures, especially our relationships with the human ones. It is this ennobled way of life that is the true meaning of “Christ’s most gracious rule”—Christ’s most gracious way of life; Christ’s most sacred humanity.

The world is full of disorder and disharmony, our Collect rightly declares. The image of God that remains in all people is obscured because their likeness of Him is defaced by sin, by evil doings in the phrase from Jeremiah. The flock has been scattered. Instead of surrender to the way of life anchored in Truth Himself, separation from that way of life—and this separation is sin properly understood—is what causes a life of darkness: a life of spiritual darkness that cannot see the uncreated Light Who reconciles all creatures to Himself and Who leads us not into temptation but out of the darkness of evil and toward salvation.

And so God became Man in order to attend to the world full of evil doings. And the way He attended to it was to die on a Cross. Heaven was no longer far away or unreachable. With God on a Cross, dying for our sins, to remove our sins, to remove our separation from the true way of life, heaven was no longer far away or unreachable: heaven is found by being at the foot of the Cross. Our King is found when we are at the foot of the Cross and behold Him, when we look up and behold His kingly power. Our kind is found when we are at the foot of the Cross and look up and behold that the righteous branch of David loves us from the Cross and loves us to the end. Being at the foot of the Cross demands our stillness—of mind, of thought. There is no other way to be at the foot of the Cross but to be still, for in being still, then and only then can we truly behold the loving Jesus on the Cross out of His inestimable love for us—only when we are still can we know God.

This is why all of the epistles of Saint Paul are really about being at the foot of the Cross beholding Christ suffering for us—all of his letters are about Christ’s free choice to suffer for us, and the glory that comes of this unfathomable action. The image of the invisible God, in whom all things are created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, all things being created through Him and for Him—He Who is before all things and in Whom all things hold together: He who is the head of the Body, the Church; the beginning, and in Whom is the fullness of God—the image of the invisible God is Christ in extreme humility. The image of the invisible God is our Lord treated like a criminal. The image of the invisible God—Whose Name is “The Lord is our righteousness”—meaning, “The Lord is our right relationship with God”—is Jesus scoffed at, spat upon, and mocked Who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” From His extreme humility comes His extraordinary forgiveness, that this is what Saint Paul and all the apostles teach as the source of strength, endurance, and joyful patience.

Brothers and sisters, let us in all this be stirred up. God’s thoughts are always thoughts of peace and not affliction, despite the sinful ways of the world, sinful ways that killed our Lord. Only the heavenly peace of Christ overcomes death, and overcomes sin. And in our King, this is accomplished.

On Fear of the Lord and Our Prayer Life

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

“For behold, the day comes,” says God through the prophet Malachi, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn the up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my Name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” This revelation through Malachi makes clear what is at stake in our service to God. The Lord will come like fire, and the wrongdoers among the people of God will be burnt to ashes. Those who fear the Lord, however, will experience the fire as a healing sun. The stakes, in other words, are high. The historic and traditional Christian faith is not about “playing church.”

In all things and in all expressions and in all circumstances, the root of real faith is fear of the Lord. And here again, we must bear in mind that “fear of the Lord” means not fright, but awe before the majesty of the Lord the maker of all things visible and invisible. Fear of the Lord, then, is an attitude. It is a disposition that we do not have like we have a mood—moods come and go; we have a mood of lightness one moment, a mood of heaviness another, a mood of optimism, then a mood of pessimism. The fear of the Lord is nothing like that. The fear of the Lord must be as everyday to us as is the recognition that the sky is blue, that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that dark follows day and day follows after night. So the fear of the Lord—awe at the majesty of God and His marvelous things, awe at His mercy and faithfulness, awe at His love for His creation, awe at the offering of Jesus for the world, awe at His suffering of death so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone and thereby remove the sting of death for ever—the fear of the Lord is something so central to being a Christian that if it is something we do not thing that we have, we must ask God for His grace to give us this fear!

Brothers and sisters, let me emphasize that the primary means for asking for this grace to give us the fear of the Lord necessary for our salvation is the Liturgy—the daily prayer with the Offices or devotions in the Prayer Book in concert with the Mass are a system that was a revealed publicly on the Day of Pentecost with the Coming of the Holy Ghost. And the purpose of this system is entirely spiritual: to draw us into awe of God. Why is the Mass ordered the way it is? To draw us into awe of God. Why is daily prayer ordered in the Prayer Book the way it is? To draw us into awe of God. If these services, seen not as a collection of pious things to do but as a system or “regula” to work out our salvation, were not central to the Faith the Prayer Book would not have them at the front of the Book and Saint Luke would not have noted the revelation of them by God to the young Church on Pentecost.

Being faithful and mature Christians in our tradition means embracing the daily prayer and the Mass not as an obligation as much as an opportunity to again surrender ourselves to God, presenting to Our Lord our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Him—an opportunity for Him to take us into Him, and make us one Body with Him, that He—the maker of all things visible and invisible—may be one Body with us. And this is the seed that grows into true fear of the Lord. This is the seed that grows into a deeper ability to rest in God: for only in Him can our restlessness truly find rest. Our participation in the Liturgy is the seed that grows into the reliance upon God in all things: particularly reliance upon Him when the world tests us. We need to rely upon God in those moments, knowing that, as Our Lord Jesus taught His disciples, He will give us a mouth and wisdom. He will speak through our mouth.

The promises of Christ are high, indeed. They are high because the stakes are high. Without the fear of God implanted in our hearts, at His coming we will not be able to withstand the heat. But with it—the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing—that is, mercy—in its wings.