Homily: “On Temptations in Lent”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The First Sunday in Lent, 2019.

I ended my sermon for Ash Wednesday with these words: “We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentance.” The Church has entered Lent in dust and ashes, not as a sign intended to make us unnecessarily sorrowful or weak; not to force us to focus inordinately on our mortality—rather as a sign of our creatureliness in the face of a Creator Who is both tremendous and mysterious in His power—wholly other from us yet walking, talking, and dwelling among us—His nature being that of boundless love Who guides all things with His hands and causes the dawn to know its place and gave the clouds their garments, Who possesses us that we will be agents of His boundless love, and proclaim through our words and deeds God’s heavenly peace—that frees the captives and ennobles the poor and downtrodden—a heavenly peace that shines from the glorious cross and which transforms ordinary reality into sacramental reality—a universal message for all people that is captured in the simple yet radiant image of Mother and Son: because God chose to reveal Himself to the world in the arms of Mary.

This and so much more makes for the overwhelming way God manifests His glory. And the Church has taught, because it was revealed by God directly, that her members need to be overwhelmed by the mysterious tremendousness of God—not once, or twice, but constantly, all the time, even every day, and multiple times a day if possible. Because being overwhelmed by God is what called holy fear, and time and time again we find in the Scriptures the teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And therefore it is the beginning also of repentance, and it is necessary for a holy Lent.

A good way to think about Lent—not the only way but a good way—is that it is like the walking down from the mountain that Peter, James, and John did with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It did not take them forty days to reach the bottom; maybe it took them forty minutes. But even as an analogy, why is this period of time a good way to think about Lent? It is because their shadows had been revealed in crisp detail, because that is what happens when we are close to the Light. Too often we think we have to struggle to find our shadows, digging tirelessly through our mind, our memories, to uncover our hidden sins—the Transfiguration story sets things properly: put ourselves close to Jesus, close to His Word, as close as we can to the Cross—and then in humility, abandon ourselves at His feet, that through our surrender, we listen. God will reveal to us our sins as we are able to bear the load of them upon our shoulders. God will handle that: our job is to sit at His feet like Mary Magdalene and listen.

It is a very curious thing that despite what must have been an astonishing experience beyond words—Jesus brighter than the sun with Moses and Elijah on His right and left—the Evangelists do not give us any details of the reactions of Peter, James, and John after the experience. It is another instance of what I have called “holy silence” by the evangelists where we would think detail would be abundant. How did these three disciples process this experience? We get an important clue from Saint Mark, and we see it when James and John ask to be on Christ’s right and left in His glory—ask, that is, to be just like Moses and Elijah were. It seems like a desirable place to be, and it is an understandable, and frankly admirable, thing to request of Jesus—and Jesus, far from admonishing them, simply says that such a request is not for Him to grant, but the Father. And perhaps Peter and John, after the Coming of the Holy Ghost later, winsomely chuckled about their request, admirable as it was for the time: because after all who ended up being on Christ’s right and left but the two robbers crucified with Jesus.

In an understandable way, nonetheless James and John (and we might presume Peter as well) did succumb to a temptation—such as Jesus was faced with in the wilderness when the Devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory . . . If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” It is the temptation to prideful ambition with a dash of Envy thrown in, based fundamentally on a very human need for approval. And Jesus, in answering the Devil’s temptation, gives us the remedy whenever we might face such temptation to authority and power: the Scripture “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” We are to allow ourselves to be prostrate at the foot of the Cross as our service to God, and wait for Him to speak with us and tell us what to do. God in His Providence has all things in His hand, including a plan for us, and it is in His interest to make known to us His plan for our lives: our job is to come to Him in humility, surrender, and openness so that we can listen and learn how God approves of us, loves us, cares for us.

We are told by Saint Luke that the Devil addressed Jesus as “the Son of God.” Biblical scholars tell us that the term “Son of God,” despite how it rings in our ears, did not ring in the ears of the early Church the same way—it would have meant not the Second Person of the Trinity but rather the official representative of the historic faith of Israel—the significance of which might be startling: the Devil probably did not know quite who Jesus was. He addressed Our Lord by saying, “If you are the Son of God” something like “If you are a Prophet like Moses and Elijah and Isaiah.” Jesus, therefore, chose to go into the wilderness so that He could use the experience to teach more effectively His disciples the key aspects of overcoming the primary temptations in mature Christian life: the temptation to need security (the first temptation: magic for food in the stones turned to bread), to need approval (the second temptation: adulation by all), and to need control (the third temptation: commanding the angels to save Him from His fall).

In our lives, we face these temptations in every day ways, and in serious Christian life, they are heightened: the need for security, the need for approval, the need for control. But it is by meditating only on God’s holy words in Scripture that we can overcome these temptations. Because when we meditate on God’s holy words, we find Jesus. And when we find Jesus, we again realize that His boundless light is closer to us than our own breath.

Homily: “On Transfiguration and Fire”

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

In the book of the Bible called the Epistle to the Hebrews comes the memorable description: “Our God is a consuming fire.” The writer echoes the Book of Deuteronomy, which teaches that “The Lord your God is a devouring fire.” Fire of course is one of the elemental things. For ancient society fire was absolutely essential for survival not only for its heat but for its transformational power over food. Modern society, without needing fire itself all the time, replicates the effects of fire in our homes, in our buildings; many industries are built around the power of fire to produce goods. And so the transformational heat of fire remains as essential today to our society as it was in ancient societies.

There is something element also in the experience of fire. For those who have them, a fireplace can be a treasured location in the home where memories linger. And those who like to camp in the outdoors often order their day around the building of the camp fire—not only for cooking but for that campfire experience particularly after the sun goes down. I remember such a fire that would have been twenty-eight years ago—it was a bonfire at my high school during my senior year, during homecoming week. It was in the back areas of the school’s property, out where we had football practice. I had driven alone to the school, and arrived well after dark arrived. I was in high school, as I said, which meant I was perpetually tired and I do recall being rather drowsy on the drive to school. As I walked from my parents’ car in the parking lot back towards where the fire was, I remember how large it was, even from a distance. There were already many students, and presumably adults, gathered near and around the huge flames. I probably spoke with a number of fellow students and fellow football players, but I do not remember anything specific of what was said (although I have the sense that unrequited high school romance played a part). But that is irrelevant—the experience is seared into my imagination as one of the highlights of high school—something both of reality and of dream. Its presence in my memory and in my imagination cannot be shaken.

Jesus took with Him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. This is the final lesson of how Jesus manifested His glory that we have before we begin the season of Lent. For the Jewish religion, Moses had been the living icon of the God alive in Israel’s life. Moses had after all spoken with God, not only on the mountain but all throughout the years in the wilderness. And because of it the skin of his face shone, and the people were afraid to come near him. Only when he veiled his face could he speak with them, guide them, and keep peace and the right worship of God among them according to the two tables of testimony in his hand, the ten commandments—which also can be translated the ten words—of God.

Jesus, dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, now shows Himself—manifests Himself as brighter than all the stars and sun—as the true expression of God alive. Jesus is the true icon, or image, of the Father. Jesus taught His disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” And Peter and James and John were not only seeing the Father, but they heard His voice. For a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him!” Listen to Him—because not only was Jesus speaking at that moment with Moses and Elijah, but it was always Him speaking with them during their lives, for Jesus is in Himself the expression of the Father; the Father’s Eternal Word. It was Jesus speaking with Adam and Eve in the garden. It was Jesus speaking—anonymously to be sure—also with Noah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and the rest. Jesus in His preexistence, His eternal divinity that was from before time.

And it is an existence fully revealed when we too see Jesus in our hearts as in prayer—Jesus, in His being at this moment, in prayer for us, for His Church, for all His creatures. Jesus, glorified at the Right Hand of the Father in heaven, with His wounds incurred on our behalf and for our sins and the sins of all people past, present and future—in prayer. In perfect relationship with the maker of all things visible and invisible—a relationship of perfect prayer. Perfect obedience, perfect listening, perfect harmony.

When we adore Jesus in prayer, He becomes dazzling white, His very being which is love becomes manifest to us as an all-consuming, all-devouring love. And so let us, as we behold by faith the light of His countenance, enter Lent strengthened to bear our cross—strengthened by our intimate closeness to very Love Himself—confront our own shadows that can only be clearly revealed when we are close to the Light. And in confronting our shadows, may we be strengthened to bear the cross of them—knowing that whatever our shadows may be, the more honest we are about them, the yet closer to God we become, and our lives are ever-more possessed by His love, and we are ever-protected by His loving hands.

Homily: “On the Transfiguration and Falling in Love with Jesus

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2018.

We have asked in our Collect that God, wonderfully transfigured in raiment white and glistening, grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in His beauty. It is a Collect that exemplifies the observation, that Collects concentrate an extraordinary amount of theology into a small devotional package, a package that consolidates the biblical revelation into prayer. This is a prayer that by faith we might see the beauty of God. This is beauty at a greater depth and significance that the physical aspects of Jesus. It is this depth of beauty that Saint Mary Magdalene surely perceived Our Lord when she sat at His feet and when she anointed Him with her oil of faith. Is this not why in our lives we choose to be Christians amid other possibilities—for those moments through our worship, our prayer, our service, Christ makes His beautiful Face apparent to us, a Face that turns darkness to light, and sorrow to joy?

It seems to be a pattern for two persons who fall in love that at some point during the courtship each sees in the other more than the eye can see. The beauty of the person takes on a deeper tone of radiance and of presence. They become, for each other, an everything. And this perception, both subjective but also very real, imprints on each person, and becomes the baseline for how each sees the other as the adventure of love gives way to the ordinary days of marital relationship. And then after the death of one, the surviving spouse maintains that image imprinted so long ago, and it even heightens to become the dominant way that person is remembered. Any photograph will bring that radiant image back immediately. Or even, just hearing the name spoken aloud.

Let this be how we begin to understand the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is described as yet more, yet let this be our baseline. Just as Moses was imprinted by the divine radiance of God shown to him on the mountain as he received the commandments of creation, the commandments of relationship with God, Saints Peter, James and John were imprinted with the glory of heaven, the glory of Jesus Himself, whose true nature is also heavenly. In Him, everything is concentrated, everything is focused. His sacred Heart is the heart of Being, of all of reality. He who had performed miracles of healing and feeding, Himself is the true miracle, indeed the primordial miracle. Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses of His majesty, and heard the thunder of the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was the true Isaac, Jesus was the true Lamb, Jesus was the true suffering servant. It is no small detail that in each of the Evangelists’ telling, the Transfiguration only comes after Jesus had described both His coming Passion and the conditions of true discipleship, of taking up of the cross.

The three disciples, then, fell in love with Jesus. The Transfiguration is the moment of transition from the disciples’ acquaintance with the human Jesus to their faith in the same Jesus as the Christ.[1] The depth of this transition did not begin to be realized until Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected to the Right Hand of His Father. But it began here—began as they witnessed firsthand the glory of this human man who teaching them that true love is not basking in the radiance of being, but giving one’s life for others. Jesus could have, one might suppose, chosen to be assumed into heaven at this moment of glistening glory. He could have passed from that mountain to His Father’s presence in the sight of the three disciples. But that would not have been the Christ we worship, if He had sent His disciples down to face something that He Himself would not face.[2]

That prayer on the mountain was not a prayer for escape from pain, but a prayer that brought to His mind and soul and will the complete acceptance of all that was hidden in the dark sea of the Passion. As the Church forever wrestles with the Cross, and tries to make the Cross the center of our reality, let us always thank God that through the devastation of the Cross, through its cloud of suffering, through the crown of thorns shines a Face, a Face that is divine. As we enter into the cloud of Christ’s pain we enter into the light of His love.[3]

[1] cf. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, XII.48.xvi-xvii.
[2] cf. Father Andrew, Meditations for Every Day, “Tuesday after Trinity VIII.”
[3] Ibid. And cf. Father Andrew, Meditations for Every Day, “Wednesday after Trinity VIII.”

Homily: “On the Transfiguration of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Last Sunday after The Epiphany, 2018.

God’s glory has been revealed on the holy mountain. To Saint Peter, Saint James, and Saint John, the beloved Son of the Father was transfigured before them, His garments glistening, intensely white. Indeed He showed Himself forth as Light from Light. They thought it was the culmination of their lives on earth. They were in awe that this was the end time, that this was God’s final kingdom. “Exceedingly afraid” means filled with awe and wonder, filled with holy fear. “Master, it is well that we are here,” Peter said. They were not frightened, not incapacitated, nor struck mute: they were being stretched: stretched in their thinking, their perception, their entire reality, and they would never return to their former consciousness. When you encounter God, you can never return to who you used to be. Read more “Homily: “On the Transfiguration of Jesus””

Homily: “On the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the  First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2018.

 

John the baptizer heard the Father Almighty. He heard our Father in heaven proclaim Jesus of Nazareth His beloved Son and John witnessed the Spirit of God Almighty descend upon Him like a dove. The imagery of this moment is rich. For John this was a quiet earthquake; a spiritual explosion; a silent but fiery illumination. All four of our evangelists record this the baptism in the River Jordan of Our loving Lord Jesus: Matthew, Mark, and John describe it directly, and John directly alludes to it, and presumes his readers know about it. This is not a Christian baptism, of course: for why would Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Himself fully God and fully Man, this Christ-Child through Whom all things were made, need Christian baptism, to be incorporated into Himself? Of course not. He chose to participate in this ritual of Jewish baptism to fulfill all righteousness: words of Our Lord recorded not by Mark but by Matthew.

For Our Lord to choose Jewish baptism to fulfill all righteousness is fitting for us to recognize and celebrate in this season of Epiphanytide—the season made of episodes of Our Lord showing forth Himself to the Wise Men, showing forth Himself as the King of all nations, the Lord God of all creation. And when we stretch our mind back from this season, through Christmastide and to Advent, we see like a cloud that stretches in the skies as far as the eyes can see how much Our Lord has been showing forth Himself. To Blessed Mary, His Mother; to Blessed Elizabeth her cousin, and to the babe John the Baptist in her womb; to the Jewish Shepherds, whose flock might bear the lambs to be offered spotless and without blemish in the Temple; to the Wise Men; and now a showing forth again, this time to John the Baptist as a mature man: he who, having studied the scriptures through deep prayer, and having undoubtedly been taught in a holy family by his mother Elizabeth and his father Zachariah; John the Baptist who knew his limitations, that he baptizes with water, but that the Christ was coming who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire—indeed, He baptizes directly into the heart to give them power to become children of God, to be born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but to be born of God: to the ears and heart and mind of this man, John the Baptist, came the words of unspeakable glory, words directly from heaven: “Thou are my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

These divine words heard by John have echoed within the Church, even back before God’s Incarnation to its earliest moments. Isaiah heard God tell him, “Behold My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in Whom My soul delights.” All faithful Jewish people studied the prophet Isaiah, his verses as common to them as the Gospel is to us. Who would be this servant of God, this suffering servant with the Spirit of God to bring forth justice to the nations? To Abraham, God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, your beloved son, and go to the land of Mori?ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” In ancient Jewish tradition, this act by Abraham was also seen as a voluntary act on Isaac’s part, willingly offering himself as sacrifice. And it was on the holy mountain that Jesus went with His disciples Peter, James and John, and there He showed forth Himself in glistening white, brighter than the sun, showing forth transfigured, or metamorphosed, before them. And again, as a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” That this echoes about the Church is why we love singing “This, this is Christ the King.”

Brothers and sisters, in showing forth Himself, Jesus has opened up to us God’s dwelling place. At Jesus’s baptism, John saw the heaven opened, and Mark describes the splitting open of the sanctuary veil at the death of Jesus on the cross in the exact same way. The world has been newly created because its limits have been destroyed. Heaven and nature are singing, along with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. The heavenly Father spoke, just as He spoke in the creation of reality. For when the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. This is the word that God says, and our souls shall be healed. Amen.

Homily: “On Transfiguration”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, 2017.

When relationships take a turn, there is often a feeling of loss. This applies to the regular, even every day, moments such as when a person leaves in the morning to go to work or leaves on a several-day long trip; the other person not leaving has that bittersweet feeling. On a larger scale, when a person changes jobs or retires from a job, the people remaining often experience a sense of loss or even a disorientation. Still more this is true about when a loved one dies—even the most faithful Christian will experience a profound sense of loss, an emptiness, some sort of vacuum. To provide some sort of offset to loss, we try to compensate with expressions of love. Kisses and hugs abound before the person leaves for work or a long trip; a going-away party often ensues for those changing or leaving their job; and in the case of death, a visitation and proper funeral are the means for the family and friends to express their love for the deceased as well as for each other in this time of grieving and loss.

The Church is taking a turn starting this week, the turn to the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. We are moving from the glowing, light-filled seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphanytide into something starker, even grittier. Here too, though in a different way than the other examples, there is a dislocation. The wee baby Jesus, beheld in supernatural admiration by His Mother Mary, gives way to the fully mature and adult Jesus who is squarely facing his mortality, firmly on pilgrimage to Jerusalem by way of Cross. Read more “Homily: “On Transfiguration””