Homily: “On Eating His Flesh and Drinking His Blood”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.

Although a number of people know this quite well, I have found that it is not universally known that one of the mandatory steps within the process of being ordained to the Priesthood is to spent a significant amount of time in an internship as a hospital chaplain. In my case, I spent twenty weeks in four hospitals in suburban Chicago, near Hinsdale, La Grange, and other towns. Although you hear clerics often bemoan the experience, and I heard some priests share horror stories as to why their experiences in their estimation were unhelpful towards parish ministry, priests I trusted, including our Bishop, assured me that hospital chaplaincy was for them revelatory and deeply, and permanently, meaningful.

And I must say, it was for me as well. It was never easy, and often unpredictable. My very first overnight duty on-call saw me assist an experienced chaplain whom I was shadowing as we ministered to a large family of over 25 relatives who that night suffered the loss of one of their family members to a kind of brain hemorrhage that, tragically, was inoperable. Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool and having to learn how to swim. Over the twenty weeks, in not only hospital patients and their families, but in the hospital staff, nurses, doctors, and my fellow chaplains, I witnessed so many instances of loss, of tragedy, of suffering and confusion, but also I witnessed joy, love, faith, and remarkable examples of God active in people’s lives, holding them up by His grace. Examples abounded of true sacrifice, and examples abounded of hopeful life.

The highest example of both sacrifice and life are what Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gives us. His example to us, being a human example that stretches into the divine, is so profound that it is well past our ability to grasp it completely and finally. This is why we are drawn to continually revisit the accounts of His life given to us by the Evangelists—that by hearing them, by which we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them through their many senses of interpretation, we are drawn deeper into the mystery of Him, which along the way reveals the mystery of ourselves.

“Truly, truly,” Jesus says to us, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” This was a teaching, a hard saying, that really weeded out the true disciples from the larger group of Jesus followers. We are told that upon hearing this, many drew back and no longer went about with him. Some of us, even today, might flinch at the image, at both its physicality and its bluntness. Jesus, often winsome and generous in His public ministry, was none the less never above teaching in a direct and even aggressive way. Being poked awake from a cozy, care-free, bourgeois discipleship is a lesson disciples then, and now, constantly need.

And yet the Church, in remembering the words of Jesus, and taking them to heart in prayer in the years and decades after the Ascension of Christ, began to discern within the hard sayings of Jesus—including the teaching about the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood—wisdom that echoed profoundly in the Scriptures. We hear an example in our passage from the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom, who we learn in the Scriptures was God’s first creation, and who from the beginning of her creation rejoiced daily in God’s activities, invites the simple, meaning those people, like Nathaniel, who are without guile but also yet to some extent naive about life, to into her house: “Come,” she says, “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” The term “bread” here is a general reference and would include the meat of the beast spoken of as recently slaughtered. And so to connect this to Jesus, the Church saw in His teaching a connection to the long biblical tradition of hospitality—to eat His flesh and drink His blood at least involved an invitation to intimacy with Him.

We see this in the Eucharist, when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, an event that itself rings on several levels of meaning and signification. Our nourishment is towards eternal life, and so to eat the consecrated bread is to receive into our souls He that is our life—to receive His sacrifice on the Cross, just as the beast was sacrificed in the house of Wisdom, although Christ’s sacrifice was self-offered once but for all time. And to drink the consecrated wine is to receive Christ’s life, because blood in ancient days was always considered the source of life in animals. And so to drink His blood is to receive that life which is triumphant over death and united to God in heaven. Indeed James and John were correct: they could and did drink from the cup from which Jesus Himself drank, and even pleaded on the night before He died that His Father might take away. If this is all a hard teaching for us, we can trust it was a harder teaching for Jesus Himself to accept, and yet fully accept He did.

Our Collect captures all this when we pray to Almighty God, Who has given His only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life. Let us know that as we celebrate and receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life, we are opening ourselves to receive Wisdom, and be received by her. When allow ourselves to participate fully and completely in the Eucharist, we become part of God’s redemptive stream, a river of wisdom, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. Kneeling before the heavenly throne, let us be still, and know in the Eucharist is God.

Homily: On Our Lady and the Theology of Woman

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2018.

It is a funny pattern that we humans have whenever a new technology is introduced. New techbomogy is always first understood in the terms of the technology it is replacing. The perfect example is the automobile; when it was introduced, it was spoken of as the “horseless carriage.” Or, as another example, the internet was spoken of as the “information superhighway.” These  are metaphors, yet these give a vivid sense as to what the innovation actually is. The car, yes it is a carriage—but it is a horseless carriage. The internet is for information, but it is not like a library one has to travel to—no, the information is already mobile and on a superhighway-like-thing: it travels to you with the touch of the fingers. In other words, the pattern is that what is being replaced or made obsolete becomes the shell of initial interpretation for what is new.

We see the same thing in the Scriptures. “Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks His disciples. And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli′jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The terms for understanding and interpreting Jesus used widely in Jewish society were not up to date; or, stated differently but in a sense more accurately, God’s revelation in the Incarnation was such a monumental leap forward in the “spiritual technology,” it is perfectly understandable why the terms to interpret Him had not caught up. He was either a prophet, or He was a military revolutionary—both of which were wrong, but those were the categories of serious public figures for first-century Palestine.

All of this—the pattern of interpreting the new in terms of the old—applies to Blessed Mary, the Mother of God—Theotokos­, to use the Greek title ascribed to her officially, meaning God-bearer—but it applies in fascinating ways. Our Lady is properly understood, first and foremost, in terms of what, and who, came before her. As one theologian puts it, “All theology of Mary [her place in the history of salvation, her place within the constellation of Christian worship of Jesus Christ] is fundamentally based upon the Old Testament’s deeply anchored theology of woman” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, p. 13). This theology is derived from the description in the Sacred Scriptures of the great women of the Old Testament—Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, and Judith. Without these great women, Blessed Mary will not be properly understood.

This biblical theology of woman could be elaborated in long treatises and theological tomes. And yet, we already have that theology captured for us in a remarkably compact presentation. I am referring to Mary’s Magnificat, our Gospel passage, which has been for nearly twenty centuries the Song or Canticle of Mary sung during the evening prayer service by the People of God. (Indeed, in Anglican tradition, it is only during the singing of the Magnificat that incense, the sign of holiness, is burned and brought to the Altar.) Let me bring out of the Magnificat three of the themes that are at the core of the biblical theology of woman:

The first is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This first line is spoken in the first-person—Mary’s soul—yet within the prayer of the Church, Mary articulates the fact that it is primarily in women, not men, where the locus for the revelation of God’s power is found. We see this everywhere in the Old Testament. I recently preached about Judith, and how after she defeating the invading army by cutting off the head of its general through a well-conceived plan of deception, she was spoken of as “the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation!” Similar patterns of God manifesting His will and power—God being magnified in the soul of women—can be seen in the other great figures. The soul of women magnifies the Lord, Mary is saying: more specifically, the faithful women of Israel. And we see this fact in Mark’s Gospel from the first to the last. The first person to imitate Jesus is a woman—Saint Peter’s mother-in-law—and the disciples who listen, learn, and follow Jesus’ teaching the best are women: at His crucifixion, women watch (which was Jesus’ command repeated many times), but the men disperse and are broken, the best example of which, ironically, is the son-in-law of the first to imitate Jesus, that is, Saint Peter. Furthermore, to learn how to be apostles, the Apostles looked to women: to Saint Mary Magdalene, called the apostle to the Apostles because of the resurrection message she brought to them, and to Blessed Mary during the ten days they were gathered in the Upper Room after the Ascension and before the Day of Pentecost, when we can reasonably and prayerfully assume that Our Lady shared with the Apostles the wonderful stories of the Annunciation, the Presentation, the Finding of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple, and perhaps domestic miracles likely He performed within the confines of family life with Saint Mary and Saint Joseph. It was these stories that further empowered the Apostles to bust out with their proclamation upon the Coming of the Holy Ghost.

The second: “He has exalted those of low degree.” The significance of this cannot be over-stated. God bends down to the humble, down to the powerless, bends to the rejected. This is the Gospel proclamation! And yet, this was particularly significant in Mary’s day, because in the ancient world, the unmarried and childless were inferior and often excluded from the worshiping community. Infertility was a seen as a curse, and possibly reflective of sin committed. But to Sarah in her old age was given Isaac, to Rachel Joseph, to Hannah Samuel. Their infertility was reversed: the infertile one ultimately turns out to be the truly blessed (ibid., p. 18). In other words, the ability of women to participate not peripherally but as central characters in the divine action had nothing to do with biology. This participation, which is motherhood—true religious motherhood—is not about body parts, but it is about faith, humility, fidelity to God. And as the Church has from its beginning seen Mary as representative of the Church, we are ever taught by her, Our Lady, who in herself summarizes and incorporates into her being the meaning and significance of all of the great women before her: that God acts through His Church only when we are of low degree: humble, poor, patient, yet striving for complete fidelity to God, firm in our faith despite whatever place in society we might have.

Finally, let us ever-remember and cherish these words: “All generations will call me blessed.” Mary’s place in the Church must always be secure, therefore all she represents is likewise secure, in the central treasuries of our faith. And note how this is a direct commission to the Church: all generations will call me blessed—not “might,” or “could,” or “if one happens to have that piety,” or “if one is a Roman Catholic,”—no, no, no. All generations (she might have added, “despite denominational differences”) will call her blessed—meaning, veneration of Mary is not optional but demanded, if we are to rightly worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Rejoicing in Mary, rejoicing in the central importance of women as the anchor or ark of the new Covenant, means we rejoice fully in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Homily: “On Mary Magdalene and the Theology of Woman”

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

On this Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, traditionally one of the most beloved Saints in English/Anglican Christianity, three words come to mind. Those three words are peace, strength and courage. Peace, strength and courage are what we ask God in the Collect after Communion to grant us so that we can love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart. Jesus teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. And that we are to love our neighbor as our self. And so we ask to be sent into the world in peace with strength and courage, knowing that for us, the baptized who have been nourished with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, God sends His grace because He knows that to love Him and our neighbor, to be agents of heavenly peace in our world, requires divinely given strength and courage.

Peace born of strength and courage describes Judith perfectly. Read more “Homily: “On Mary Magdalene and the Theology of Woman””