On the Communion of Saints

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

If the Saints were not central to the Christian faith, and if active and living communion with them not obligatory upon all Christians, then we would not, in the baptismal creed of the Church called the “Apostles’ Creed,” proclaim a belief in the Communion of the Saints. But the fact of the matter is that we do proclaim our belief in the Communion of the Saints at our baptism. And the Church professes her belief in the Communion of the Saints every morning in Matins and every evening in Evensong. Any feast day that shows up in the creeds of the Church, or can be found by thinking about the creeds, is by definition a major feast. In the creeds we can easily find Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, Ascension, Christ the King, Pentecost—and we find All Saints.

This should not be surprising, because it was through a communion of Saints that the Church of Jesus Christ was born. One hundred and twenty Saints were gathered in the Upper Room, told to go there by Jesus Christ to await the promise of the Father, the Coming of the Holy Ghost. This was the first Church. Gathered in the Upper Room for nine days were Blessed Mary, whom the Church quickly saw as Mother of the Church, along with other holy women, Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, Mary the wife of Cleopas, perhaps Peter’s mother-in-law; along of course with the Eleven men singled out by Jesus for a particular task, soon joined by Matthias taking over for Judas. It was from and through this communion of Saints, this gathering of Saints, this fellowship of Saints—all of whom were apostles because “apostle” means someone sent and each Saint in the Upper Room was sent there by Christ to wait for the Holy Ghost, and in a more general sense sent by Christ to proclaim to the nations the Truth that can only be found in Him; it was through this all-star communion of Saints: their daily prayer, their breaking of bread, and their fellowship and teaching, that the Church came to be by God’s action through them. God acts through His Saints. God reveals Himself through His Saints. God brings about that which is new through His Saints. God transforms the world through His Saints.

How does this happen? It happens because the Saints are those people who, in the words of Saint Paul, have the eyes of their hearts enlightened by God. “The eyes of their hearts enlightened”—Paul teaches—so that persons who receive such grace know what is the hope to which God has called us, according to His great might which He accomplished in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and made Him sit at His Right Hand in the heavenly places. It starts with the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart. God accomplishes His mission through those heart has enlightened eyes. Not eyes that do not see God in the world, but rather eyes that see God in the world through all things good, beautiful, and true. Not eyes that are impatient with the world, but eyes of patience and humility that look for Him even when He might be hard to find. Not eyes that do nothing but judge others for their sins and inadequacies, but eyes that see Jesus in the face of every person they meet. Not eyes of suspicious, but eyes of love—indeed, enlightened eyes of the heart means the eyes of Jesus, the eyes of His sacred humanity. Eyes of compassion and mercy, eyes that forgive—eyes through which grace in its fullness can be found, because such eyes of the heart is Christ in us.

Brothers and sisters, all of this is biblical Christianity, and this is why churches such as ours who seek to participate in historic, sacramental Christianity usually take a Saint as a patron of the parish—in our case, Saint Paul, and in our sister congregation, all the Saints. And, likewise, this is why God has led our Parish to see Saint Teresa of Calcutta as our patron of our Mission in Tazewell County. She is a powerful example for us of how to embody the Gospel as we encounter others in our day to day lives. “We are to be Christ to the world, and to every person we meet,” she teaches us. “The greatest disease in the West today is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for,” she teaches us. “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you,” she teaches us. That teaching is the Gospel. Through that teaching, Christ acts. Through that teaching by this Saint, God reveals Himself. Through that teaching God brings about that which is new. And through that teaching by this Saint, who in her words captures what’s fundamental about Christ’s teaching to His Church, through that teaching God transforms the world. Let us be led, brothers and sisters, by this teaching—led in our mission in Tazewell County.

Homily: “On Saint Matthias and Providence”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Matthias the Apostle, 2019.

There are times when I just do not know what I will be making for dinner. When the regular dishes do not have that spark, well, one just starts with whatever ingredient you want to base your cooking around, and go from there: a little of this, a little of that, and so on. Sometimes one finds oneself at the grocery store, not knowing what one plans to make for dinner. And this can be dangerous, especially if at that moment you are hungry. But you walk through the aisles of the grocery store—produce, dairy, meat, and the boxed goods—waiting for inspiration. Waiting to be reminded. Waiting even, well, for a sign.

When we hear from Saint Luke in the Acts of the Apostles that the company of persons gathered in the Upper Room (about a hundred and twenty) cast lots to determine who would replace Judas in the college of the twelve apostles, and we learn that “casting lots,” though a well-attested biblical practice throughout the Scriptures, is something along the lines of rolling dice or playing the lottery, hoping the ping-pong balls come out with the right numbers—when we learn this, we are tempted to regard the early Church as superstitious or naïve. Yet we should resist this temptation, for we often leave important matters—such as what’s for dinner—up to something we call “chance.”

The company of one hundred and twenty—constituting what we can regard as the first parish—had a strong belief in the Providence of God by means of the Holy Spirit. And they had good reason for this belief. The things that Jesus said would happen had happened and were continuing to happen. This was a group of people fresh off an astonishing series of events: the Ascension of Jesus, preceded by a whole host of resurrection appearances by Jesus in His glorious Body that Scripture insists was an objective reality, and that after His resurrection after gruesome and utterly deflating death on the Cross, which was immediately on the heels of a public show-trial that was little more than a riot in the public square, and this after He had instituted the Eucharist as His permanent gift of unfathomable love—and of course this preceded by His three years of public ministry in which the hearts of each and every one of the one hundred and twenty people in the Upper Room Parish were cut to the heart time and time again—changing the direction of their lives and focusing their lives toward a singular shared purpose of unity with God for eternal life.

Furthermore, their prayer life together in the Upper Room Parish was one that broke open the Scriptures—that they found Jesus everywhere in the Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings. They found His guidance in the Psalms, as we hear Saint Peter proclaiming (and this is a subtle but unmistakable indication that in those nine days in the Upper Room, they were praying the Psalms through what we call the daily Offices both Morning and Evening). They remembered Jesus’ words of teaching, and shared them together that the fruits of profound hidden meanings might be found, and the guidance as to what to do next discerned.

They remembered, as Saint John recorded, Jesus say, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” They remember how much Jesus said He would possess them, as a vine possesses all its branches. And here again we see the biblical basis for the stark words of our Collect last week—that we can do no good thing without God—as a branch can do nothing that leads to growth or fruit without being part of the vine. The positive expression of that is Jesus’s strong teaching to abide in His love: abide in His words, His actions, His life, His person. Savor them, and allow ourselves to rest in them.

The Upper Room Parish also remembered that Jesus taught that “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come.” And before His Ascension He again promised the coming of the Holy Spirit—that they would be plunged into the reality of the Holy Spirit (because “plunging” is what the word “baptism” means). We see this happening, because in Luke’s telling, what follows on the selection of Matthias by lots—meaning allowing the Holy Spirit to make evident His wish; this was no partisan election or straw poll; they asked the Holy Ghost to show everyone whom He wanted to replace Judas—what follows on this is the Coming of the Holy Ghost not only as evident to them (because He had already come to them numerously in private and small-group ways) but as a public reality evident to all of Jerusalem—a staggering explosion of spiritual energy that continues to empower everything that we do.

It is rightly said that the Kalendar of the Church teaches the faith. Through our cycles through the seasons—Advent into Christmas into Epiphany—we have learned how Jesus manifested the glory of His being the Eternal Light of the Father. Our tour through the Saints also teaches the faith—for we see through their lives how the Gospel is lived out. In the case of Saint Matthias, we know precious little about him and his ministry—the strongest evidence is that he later travelled to lands in and around present day Turkey and planted Christian communities. His symbol is a bible and a sword—so he was faithful to the Scriptures and he died from martyrdom. His primary teaching for us is found in how he was selected, because it indicates the level of trust and surrender to the Providence of God through His Holy Spirit that the Upper Room Parish had, and that we should have as well. Allowing God to show us what to do as a Parish is how we demonstrate our surrender to Him, our total dependence upon Him. And according to the pattern of the Sacred Scriptures, abandonment of our selves to God anf surrender to His Providence is not an option, but rather necessary for the spiritual health of a parish.

Icon by the hand of Aidan Hart.

Homily: “On the Sacred Humanity of Jesus”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Mass of Christian Burial of Nancy Swayne, 21 February 2019 at Saint Paul’s Church.

There was such joy when the first Christians gathered in community in the first church in Jerusalem. This was the Upper Room, where Jesus taught about Eucharist, later instituted the Eucharist and washed the feet of the eleven apostles on the night before He died. It is where Jesus appeared to the apostles in the evening of Easter Sunday, and it is where the early church after the Ascension of Jesus learned how to worship, learned how to live in community around the cross, and learned what it was like to be fully human and share a full humanity with one another—for this is why God became man: that through the gift of Jesus, formed by His outlook upon reality, our fallen humanity (so prone to missteps, misguided behavior) can participate in the sacred humanity of Jesus.

The sacred humanity of Jesus is fundamental to the Gospel of God—fundamental to the Good News that Jesus taught and lived in His life, resonantly echoing the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. The sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards the world—that all things are not only made by God, but made through Christ: and so it affirms that all creatures both small and great are endowed by God with His gift of existing, and are to be used and beheld for the glory the give to God, the maker of all things visible and invisible.

The sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards people—that Christ in some profound sense is present in all persons, whether Christian or not: and so the sacred humanity of Jesus reveals to us the dignity in all persons, and that all things good, true, and beautiful in all persons are of God, no matter the form, shape, or appearance. To recognize this truth is the deepest meaning of the commandment to love thy neighbor.

And the sacred humanity of Jesus is an attitude towards death, an attitude toward the inevitability of life leading to the end of our earthly, bodily life. It is an attitude awake to sorrow and pain, not avoiding sorrow and pain but embracing it as Jesus embraced sorrow and pain on the Cross—knowing that the power of God overcomes death, overcomes sorrow and pain, and transforms them into new depths of love.

Because our redeemer liveth—and we know this is true because He has been changing hearts of people from one end of the earth to the other for two thousand years, with no end in sight—we know that our lives and our humanity, baptized into His life and His humanity, are already stretched into heaven with Christ. This is the gift of baptism: that we begin to participate in the heavenly realities in the here and now. Death in Christianity does not mean the end of our relationship, but the beginning of a changed relationship with our sister Nancy.

The most important and central truth we proclaim today is found in the first words of our liturgy today, chanted during the procession to the Altar: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” The rest of the liturgy both here and at Prairie Haven simply expands upon that truth, and makes that truth our prayer: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life. Can we doubt that part of the reason for Nancy’s uniquely warm and infectious smile stems from the fact that the spark and light of Christ filled her and she saw that spark and light of Christ in each person she met? And can we doubt that the ability of her smile to fill our hearts in but a moment she now is sharing not only with us but with the dearly departed in paradise—in only the way Nancy can? I not only do not doubt this for a moment, but I firmly believe that it is through her smile that she is singing the praise of Jesus in His house, and will continue to do so in His arms, for ever.

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.