On Christ Destroying the Works of the Devil

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday after Easter Day, 2021

Hope, real hope, is woven into the Easter greeting we so joyously use in this season; the greeting: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” Jesus became man in order to give us this hope, this real hope—as opposed to the false hopes that so often are tempted to cling to, as the children of Israel, even as Moses was on top of the holy mountain communing on their behalf with God and receiving the Ten Commandments gave into their temptation toward false hope and fashioned an idol, the molten calf, around which they danced and sang; the people of God are ever tempted to do this very thing, to turn false hope into an idol. The real hope of Jesus Christ is ever-lasting communion with the triune God—that is, communion within the eternal community of Father, Son, and Spirit. Beholding God face to face, in the words of the Apostle Paul; and seeing Him as He is, because we have become like Him, in the teaching of S. John heard today.

The hope of Easter—the hope given only through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who in dying on the Cross for our sake trampled down death by death—the hope of Easter demands our personal transformation. This is what S. John tells us today: “every person that hath this hope in Jesus purifies himself, even as He (Jesus) is pure.” In Jesus, John also adds, is no sin; yet in us is sin: and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, John so memorably teaches. This is why the hope of Easter demands our personal transformation.

And this is why Jesus did what He did in becoming Man. For this purpose, John teaches, the Son of God was manifested: that He might destroy the works of the devil. And as the works of the devil are destroyed in our hearts, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. The two tests of growth in the spiritual life are a greater desire and capacity to pray, and, even more practically speaking, committing fewer sins. We commit fewer sins (and, of course, our desire and capacity for prayer increases) as the works of the devil are destroyed in our heart. The human heart is God’s chosen battleground to fight the devil, who is the prince of this world. When we commit sin, John reminds us, we are of the devil—dancing with the devil around the molten calf. But for this purpose the Son of God was manifested—for this purpose He showed forth Himself within the economy of God: His incarnation not only in human flesh, but His incarnation in the consecrated bread and wine, His Precious Body and Blood carry on His incarnation as well—that through His death He might destroy the works of the devil, all of which lead to death (whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual): all this is so His incarnation can reach fruition and completion: in our hearts.

And note how directly Saint John ties together destroying the works of the devil with Christ’s incarnation: again the verse: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” For this purpose (destroying the works of the devil) and not others, at least not primarily. The primary or main purpose of the Incarnation, John is teaching, is to engage the battle happening in our hearts: for God’s chosen battleground to fight the works of the devil is the human heart. It is not that the Son of God was manifested, that people can live in comfort; it is not that the Son of God was manifested, that people can read and write theology; it is not even, primarily, about being good people. Now, all of these might result. But these are by-products, of Christ’s chosen battle (against the works of the devil) in His chosen battleground (the human heart).

My dear brothers and sisters, our primary concern must be allowing Christ to accomplish His mission in our hearts, and asking daily, hourly, even moment to moment, for His mercy upon us. He is the good Shepherd, we are His sheep, and it is for this very reason that He laid down His life for us: that He might destroy the works of the devil in our heart, and thereby in the choices we make, and thereby in all our  lives. With God nothing is impossible, for the power of His Name makes the Devil quiver in fear.

On the Transfiguring Name of Jesus

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

As our prayer moves into the season of Lent, Saint Peter wants us and all the Church to know that the experience of Christ transfigured was for him, James and John truly first-hand. They were eyewitnesses to the majesty of Jesus Christ. Just as during the Eucharist, the priest holds up the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” the Father held up His Son Jesus to these three apostles and said, behold, “This is My beloved Son.” And then to make clear what the Church is always to do, the Father adds, “Listen to Him.”

And we must always listen to Him, for we know that Our Lord need only speak a word, and our soul shall be healed. Just as Peter writes of having a prophetic word made more sure, we have that same prophetic word: and the word is, “Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on us.” This word is our rock; this word is our castle; this word is our guide; this word leads us; this word is our defense against the temptations of the world.

Saint Peter continues his teaching to us by saying, “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” He means this as to our daily personal devotion, our prayer in private. In our personal prayer, Peter with all apostolic authority advises us that we will do well to pay attention. How often our attention is not on Jesus, Who is Light beyond all light, indeed through Whom all physical light comes into being? Jesus is a lamp, Peter says—a lamp shining in a dark place. Imagine being in a dark place and not using a lamp to make your way? But this is exactly what we do when in going about our lives our attention is not on Jesus and His ineffable glory. When our attention is elsewhere, when we are distracted by the countless things that distract us, we are like a person in a dark place, who turns away from the very light that guides them and gives direction to their journey. When we choose to put our attention elsewhere, we are choosing confusion, we are choosing our suffering, we are choosing to be lost.

Our Lord knows our temptations. He knows the human condition, having Himself become human for our sakes and to truly reveal Himself to us. He knows there is a war in our hearts for our awareness—awareness of God’s presence, and the Devil who uses any means necessary to keep us from looking at the uncreated Light of Christ. The Tempter turns anything he can into enticement to give up our attention to Christ and turn not towards God but away from God. Food, which we need for nourishment and fellowship, can be turned by the Tempter into temptation; means of communication (especially smart phones) which often are necessary means to exchange information that needs to be exchanged with others, can be turned into an endless source of distraction, and even means to give into hate, anger, and lust (which we all know can also come from the television; a smart phone being really a miniature television).

Again, Our Lord knows we face temptations; He allows temptations to exist because overcoming them with the help of His grace makes us stronger in faith, makes us more aware of how totally dependent upon God we are, and how lost we can be without Him, when in our dark place we turn away from the Light. But just as after the overshadowing cloud and the voice of the Father, all that remained for the three apostles on the holy mountain was Jesus only, so also all that remains for us on day to day is the Holy Name of Jesus. Let us this Lent, brothers and sister, renew our commitment to the Holy Name of Jesus. Let us say His Holy Name every day, more and more following the Apostle’s teaching to pray unceasingly.  For with His Holy Name comes His Light and Salvation; with His Holy Name comes His strength; comes His fair beauty; comes His protection; and with His Holy Name comes comfort for our heart—that our heart is not hardened and arrogant, but open and receptive to the Light we need every moment of our life, and in every breath.

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.

On Light in the Darkness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the 4th Sun. after Epiphany (Septuagesima), 2021

The season of Epiphanytide is the season of the uncreated light of God showing forth in, through, and by Jesus Christ, Who therefore is our Lord and Saviour. It is a season of great mystery, and all the episodes that outline this season possess in them this sense of great mystery—the holy Nativity, when Jesus is born of Mary in Bethlehem; the holy Circumcision when Jesus is eight days old; the coming of the Magi from the east bearing gifts that bespeak of the Child’s kingship, holiness, and death; the holy baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan which sanctifies all water and affirms Christ’s solidarity with all human beings. Likewise the feasts during this time speak to the great mystery of the uncreated light of God showing forth in Jesus Christ—the testimony of S. Stephen and his stoning; the holy Innocents, murdered by Herod; S. John the Evangelist and his mystical understanding of Christ; and the Conversion of S. Paul the Apostle, from the chief persecutor of the Church of Jesus Christ to her greatest public advocate. Running through all of this is the mystery of God causing a new light to shine in our hearts, a light which can give knowledge of God’s glory in the face of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, if we have the humility to truly seek His face.

We hear today of S. Mark’s account of Jesus’s first exorcism. It happens in a synagogue in Capernaum, after Jesus and His disciples had entered the space, and after Jesus taught the gathering, which included both His disciples as well as other Jews who were probably hearing Him for the first time. The holy Evangelist tells us that Jesus spoke with authority, and not, he tells us, as the scribes. Mark had already recorded the very first teaching of Jesus after His baptism in the River Jordan; that teaching is “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” And Our Saviour adds, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Then Mark records Jesus encountering Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee, and His teaching to them was “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of Men.” But in the synagogue, Mark does not specify Jesus what Jesus taught there. So we can very plausibly assume that His teaching in the synagogue was of the same character. The message is that God is present, to turn to His presence in humility, and by continually turning to Him others can be saved because through us the world knows the kingdom of God.

This is what it means to seek the Face of Christ—that in knowing God is present (in the world, in creatures, but preeminently in our hearts), in humility we turn to Him, with faith that doing so gives the health of salvation to us, and through us to the wider world.

Yet what Mark also records provides us with a very important dimension of seeking the Face of Christ. And that important dimension is seen in the man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit; that is, the man who is filled with a demon, is possessed by the Devil. Christ’s presence called out the demon, unclean spirit from the man. This happens for us, as well. Christ’s presence, which includes His presence in the proclamation of the Gospel (what we do in Mass, for all of Mass, including the reading of Scripture, is a proclamation of Christ’s presence right here), calls out the demons in those who hear the proclamation—which of course is the case, because when Light comes into darkness, what is in darkness comes into the Light.

We see this in the testimony of Stephen, for despite seeing his face as angelic and hearing Stephen testify to the presence of Christ, Paul (then Saul) nonetheless was first provoked to sign off on the stoning of Stephen, as well as continue for some time his persecution of Christians, and do so with great zeal. The face of Christ in some sense showing forth in Stephen’s face and the voice of Christ from Stephen’s voice, the Light of Christ shined upon Paul’s heart, a heart possessed by demons, and in the process of being sanctified, firstly came out the unclean, evil spirit.

Brothers and sisters, we must always be prepared for this in our discipleship. In seeking His holy Face, in being committed Christians, we must know that the shadows in the darkness of our hearts at some point will be exposed. Their exposure will bring discomfort, and possibly some degree of emotional pain and tremor—after all, what we have repressed, to use the psychological term, is often wounds of hurt, humiliation, and loss. It is difficult to confront these, yet this process is the same as what it can feel like to examine one’s conscience before making a sacramental Confession. As the light of Christ shines in our hearts—or more accurately, as we let His Light shine, as we open ourselves to Him in humility and surrender—the dark shadows have no where to go but out. But let us also be assured, brothers and sisters, that this is all in the loving hands of the Father, and that as painful as it may seem, not only will Christ’s light truly bring peace to our previously unsettled heart, but that the world will in some sense see in us the effects of purification, this purging of the darkness from us—and that the saving Light of Christ transforming our hearts serves also to draw others to the Gospel, to the Light, to true health in Jesus Christ.

Living Baptismally, pt 15: On Wearing the Wedding Garment

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23), 2020.

The Lord of Hosts has made a feast for us, and for all peoples. Our Lord Jesus teaches us this today that we would know that the peace which passes all understanding is available to us in the feast of the heavenly banquet prepared for us. This is a feast described by the prophet Isaiah as a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. For wine to be “on the lees” means it is protected from spoiling. Fat and marrow refers to nutrients the body needs to be healthy. A robust and nutritious meal is prepared for us, prepared by God for His people. God has spread a table before us that our cups might run over.

The feast God has made for us is a feast of Himself. God has made all things, and He has made all things through His Son that in receiving His Son we receive God. The feast of God is a feast of receiving Him—that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. And He gives Himself to be received. “Take, eat,” Jesus says. “This is my Body, which is given for you.” And He says, “Drink ye all of this, for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which his shed for you.” We His servants are called to the marriage feast to receive His Body and to receive His Blood, to receive what God has made everything ready so as to give and be received. He has taught us how to pray, so as to make us ready to receive. He has taught us how to find Him in Scripture, so as to make us ready to receive. He has engrafted us in His Body in Baptism and given us His Holy Spirit, so as to make us ready to receive what the Father has prepared for us. He has made all things so that as our mind learns to see, as our mind learns to hear, we might behold the Light who is the expression of God—that we might behold the holy Face of Christ, Who already knows all our desires, our thoughts, our actions, and our sins.

Brothers and sisters, we must always seek to wear the wedding garment, our Lord Jesus teaches. It is the wedding garment that allows us to discern Our Lord’s Body present among us. Saint Paul taught the Corinthian church on this when he wrote, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body east and drinks judgment upon himself.” The person who eats and drinks without discernment is a person whose mind does not see, a person whose mind does not hear. We are all made blind and we are all made deaf by our sins—this is why we must repent in prayer, why we must turn to God in humility saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This prayer—the prayer not of the Pharisee but of the tax collector—is the prayer of a heart that yearns for God.

A heart that desires God. The yearning for God and the desiring of God is the very fabric of which the wedding garment is woven. How often we are tempted away from wearing the wedding garment! How often we are tempted, in the words of loving Jesus, to make light of the Gospel through our disbelief; how often we are tempted not to go the Altar in prayer, but one to his farm, another to his business—that is, to allow other activities to take priority over the holy Mass, to allow other activities to take priority over receiving the daily Bread given to us from heaven through the Scriptures. How often we are tempted to ignore the voice of Moses, to ignore the voice of the prophets, to ignore the words of God’s Mother—for Moses, the Prophets, and Mary all teach us about Jesus, all teach us about the heavenly realities beyond time and space, all teach us true meaning obedience, which is having a listening silence of wonder at the feet of God Who is always on His heavenly throne and closer to us than our own breathing.

As Saint Paul teaches us, “The Lord is at hand.” And because He is at hand, let us give our anxiety and worry to Him, let all our requests be told by us to God, that we might have no anxiety about anything. Let us put on the wedding garments of humility, that Paul’s words may ever be our own: “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me,” and thereby be continually given to all good works through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Living Baptismally, pt 13: On Sin and Forgiveness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19), 2020.

There can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to the Christian life. Plenty of passages of scripture show that—obviously our passage today from Matthew 18; but also in the only prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples (the Our Father) forgiveness is key; and even more so with the Eucharist, when in the Upper Room with the Twelve on the night when He voluntarily gave Himself up to be betrayed, He said, “Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” Jesus gives us Himself in His Body and Blood, and His giving of Himself is for the remission of sins, the forgiveness of sins. Given that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian experience, and forgiveness of sins is central to its purpose according to Our loving Jesus, there can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to Christian life.

Saint Peter’s question to Jesus echoes this. He says, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” The practicalities of following in the footsteps of Jesus for Saint Peter and the disciples already we bound up in the seemingly unresolvable problem that sin abounds all around them. And that should no surprise us in the least, not if we pay attention to our daily human life, and know anything at all about the human condition. We live in a fallen world, and all of us sin against our sisters and against our brothers. And likewise, our brothers and sisters sin against us. But let us be clear about what the Church means by “sin.” We often might think, because wider society thinks this way, that the word “sin” is simply a Christian term for “wrong-doing,” and basically synonymous with it.

We see this demonstrated in what used to be called “sin taxes,” that is, taxes government would place upon the purchase of, say, cigarettes or alcohol—taxes on things society preferred people not so (at least publicly) and saw as wrong behavior. But the Christian meaning of sin has nothing to do with this. The Christian theology of sin begins in the recognition of the absolute necessity of the Cross to salvation. Or put more simply: sin in its primary sense is the condition of being in need of a Savior. Every human being is born in sin, because every human being is born in need of a Savior from the first breaths and cries of life. Adam and Eve were always in need of a Savior, therefore from their creation, and even the creation of Adam which preceded the creation of Even, Adam was never not in need of a Savior. Adam was born in sin, prior to any specific act of sin. Adam and Eve were in sin, in other words, before they choose to go against the will of God and eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Yet this specific act of sin, or occasion of sin—the choice to eat the forbidden fruit, and then the eating itself, for that is two sins, the choice and then the eating, with other sins to immediately follow—springs from the human condition of always, from birth, being in need of a Savior, being in need of Christ. It was because Adam and Eve were in need of a Savior—were in the condition of needing a Savior—that their act of sin occurred. And it is important to notice as well, that according to the economy of salvation which is God’s overall plan for His creation, through their act of sin, grace abounded, and they began on the hard road of living consciously within the condition of sin, the condition of needing a Savior. And, for themselves, we can reasonably speculate that they committed more acts of sin before they ran the full course of their mortal life—each and every time of committing an act of sin tied irrevocably into the prior reality of their sin, the condition of always needing a Savior. This is a condition that no one can avoid—we are never not in need of a Savior, and we can do nothing to escape that fact. All specific acts of sin by our brothers and sisters against us (and all acts of sin we commit against others) are anchored in the condition of sin we all find ourselves in, as Paul did at his conversion—prior to which he regarded himself blameless with respect to the law; after which and after being convicted by the Cross which is the glory of God, he regarded himself as the greatest of sinners, able to do good thing despite wanting to.

This is why forgiveness is central to Christian life; this is why forgiveness is central to Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself, His precious and holy Body and Blood, to us for the remission of sins. He gives us the heavenly reality of Himself to ever wake us up to the deepest reality of sin and the deeper reality of salvation only through Him. Knowing that we are filled with Him through the Eucharist, we are Him, for He is in our bodies. And our minds are transformed into the Gospel: that where sin abounds, which is everywhere and in all persons, grace abounds much, much more.

Baptismal Living, part 6: Shining like the Son

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 11), 2020.

Those attentive to our Gospel passage today may have noticed that Our Lord shifted the definition of the seed as compared with the Gospel passage we reflected upon last Sunday. In that passage, it is clear is that the seed is God’s eternal Word, indeed Christ the Word, in us. The seed of Christ the Word in us is powerful beyond measure. Christ the Word performs awesome things, moves mountains in His power, stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves of insecurity, anxiety, and desolation; Christ the Word makes the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy, and He visits the earth and waters it abundantly with His grace, endless grace for His river is full of grace.

In the passage we hear today, the good seed is defined by Our Lord as the sons of the kingdom. Christ the Word is now the man sowing good seed in His field—sowing good seed in the world—sowing sons of God in the world. Immediately let us hear this and see that God always puts us where we are for a reason—wherever we find ourselves in life, we are there as part of God’s plan, and that God intends His plan to be fulfilled through us. Being His seed, He desires that we grow up—that is, grow into deeper relationship with Him, grow more into spiritual maturity (for mature trees and bushes bear fruit, and those immature do not), and grow in spiritual height and width and breadth so that the weeds of the world—that is, the devil’s temptations in the world—become weaker from lack of nourishment, crowded out by God’s mature trees and bushes, which is us, being spiritual mature baptized persons.

This is why, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. All of creation needs the redemption of God, and God’s chosen vessels of redemption of creation are human beings who are baptized and take on the responsibility of sanctification by constantly seeking to cooperate with God’s grace. Christ said to the prophet Isaiah “Those who hold fast to Me shall possess the land and inherit My holy mountain.” Possessing the land means redeeming the world for God, and inheriting God’s holy mountain means living each day with reverence and holy fear that the eyes of Our Lord are always upon us. The world is unable to redeem itself—it is only human beings who are endowed with the capacities necessary for to be agents of God’s redemption in the world.

In our Psalm we asked God to keep watch over our lives, for we are faithful; asking Him to save us His servants who put our trust in Him. This really encapsulates our daily prayer, indeed it articulates why we pray at all. We also in the Psalm ask God to teach us His way, that we might walk in His truth; also asking Him to knit our hearts to Him that we may fear His Name. In these two verses is everything of what it means to live a baptismal life. In asking Him to keep watch over our lives, we abandon ourselves to God’s providence, acknowledging He, not you or me, is always in control. In pledging to be faithful, we promise that through thick and thin, we will flee to Him, talk with Him, and know that our lives are always in His hand. In asking Him to save us, we acknowledge that we can never save ourselves—that His grace is not optional but a necessity to true life. In asking Him to teach us that we might walk in His truth, we put ourselves with humility at the throne of His Wisdom, asking to be shown the Truth about ourselves so that the impediments that keep us from recognizing Him might be removed. And in asking God to knit our hearts to Him that we might fear His Name, we express our desire to live out the baptismal life: for in being knit to Him, we are incorporated into His Body, dwelling in He Who is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. The fear of the Lord is always the beginning point for wisdom.

Brothers and sisters, for about the last month sunflowers have been in bloom in the gardens around us. These are glorious and grand flowers for the strength and beauty that each one radiates. Our loving Jesus intends that each one of us, in being transformed into His likeness, shines like the sun in the kingdom of Our Father—indeed, intends us to be Son-Flowers, that God’s economy of salvation, His redeeming of all creation, may be accomplished through us, through the baptized members of His Body, who knowing His great love towards us, radiate His wondrous things to the world.

Baptismal Living, part 2: Saint Paul and Psalm 69

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 7), 2020.

The season of the Sundays after Trinity constitutes the time the Church spends year after year reflecting on what it means to be a baptized Christian, and what as a result we should do. Each year, there are over twenty such Sundays between Trinity Sunday and the beginning of the Advent season. One might wonder, isn’t that plenty for the subject of Baptism? And the answer in no uncertain terms is, if Baptism is properly presented, no, it is not. In the words of probably the most consequential Archbishop of Canterbury of the modern era, maybe even ever, Michael Ramsey, “The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism.” It is a cause of, in the words of our Collect, “perpetual fear” of God, that is to say, perpetual awe—for in being made a member of Christ’s Body in baptism, we are permanently joined with He Who is in Heaven. Through Him, we are already alive forever in God, even if during this portion of life, quite imperfectly. Unpacking but the meaning of that fact, as well as what we ought do as a result of that fact, could occupy an entire life of reflection—not twenty some Sundays before Advent, but twenty times twenty thousand, and yet the riches of Baptism would be inexhaustible.

In our Epistle, Saint Paul speaks of the “free gift” and here he is referring to Baptism, which, he teaches, brings justification—that is, Baptism properly fits us to begin to process of sanctification, of being purified of our sinful ways, then illuminated by God’s presence in the world and in our lives, ultimately to be unified with God, at one with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

And there is perhaps no better person in the Church to teach about the free gift that God desires to bestow upon human beings than Paul. His biography even demonstrates his teaching in basic outline. He went from being the greatest persecutor of the Church to its greatest public advocate—not only in his preaching and writing, but in the many churches he planted. Before his conversion, he regard himself “blameless” before the Law, that is to say, sinless as a faithful Jew. Yet after his conversion, he regarded himself, in his first epistle to Timothy, “the foremost of sinners.” From among the best to the worst.

It is a remarkable shift in his self-identity. And yet I think Psalm 69 provides a treasury of images that make clear how Paul, by God’s grace, made such a remarkable shift.

The Psalmist begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck.” Here let us bear in mind the shame and guilt that must have tormented Paul till the end of his days, for the terrorism and evil he inflicted upon the Church before his conversion. “I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet,” the Psalmist says, because in persecuting the young Church, Paul was persecuting Christ Himself, as Our Lord even said to Paul as he was knocked to the ground by the thunderous, blinding light: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“I am grown weary with my crying,” the Psalmist says, “my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God.” Paul was made blind by God at his conversion, and did not receive his sight until his Baptism—this was a direct teaching to Paul by God that despite his training in the Scriptures by the hands of Rabbi Gameliel, he was blind to the truth: blind and unable to find God until God found him. “O God, you know my foolishness, and my faults are not hidden from you,” the Psalmist says. And here is where Paul would be haunted, as many of us are, despite knowing we are forgiven our sins, our past actions haunt us—and I believe God intends them to, as a warning not to fall from the faith and again practice sinful ways.

Can there be any doubt that Paul, despite coming to know that he was forgiven, nonetheless was haunted by the people whose lives he terrorized, and even killed? He watched as Saint Stephen was stoned and martyred, and he was zealous for the same fate to befall other Christians, whom he regarded as blasphemers. What caused this change? It was He Who is the Blinding and Thundering Light of the Cross. The Light of the Cross opens the dark, closed off places of our soul, our conscience, our lives. What God had told Paul in the dark, Paul loudly uttered in the light, through preaching and teaching. What Paul heard whispered as he prayed Psalm 69, he proclaimed upon the housetops. And this is a teaching about baptism par excellence: For baptized people, the Cross shines a new light upon who we are, and, often shockingly, who we have always been.

The Psalmist concludes our portion of Psalm 69 with these verses:

“But as for me, this is my prayer to you, at the time you have set, O Lord: In your great mercy, O God, answer me with your unfailing help. Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters. Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the Pit shut its mouth upon me. Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me.”

This is Saint Paul’s prayer after his conversion, while he was yet blind before baptism, then after baptism when he regained his sight, during the time he spent with Peter and James; and it remained his prayer in the three years of solitary life Paul spent in the desert of Arabia—because the Cross changed his entire way of thinking, being, and living. Realizing how naked he was before God brought forth his perpetual awe of God, each and every day of his life.

Brothers and sisters, the Song of Paul in Psalm 69 be our prayer. Let our prayer with this Psalm be an occasion, in the words of Alcuin, to “find an intimate way of confessing your sins, and a sincere mode of pray for the divine mercy of the Lord.” And through it, let us know again how immeasurable God’s love is, and how boundless His grace and forgiveness truly are.

On ‘Neither Shall You Touch’

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday in Lent, 2020.

We have now truly entered into the great season of Lent, after passing through the first four days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Saturday, four days that are often called the “porch of Lent.” The analogy is apt: if we visit a friend out of town and upon arriving they meet us on the porch and because say it is a sunny summer afternoon you and your friend first hang out on the porch and spend time catching up, you have in a real sense arrived at your friend’s house in a meaningful way; and yet, much more emerges in your experience of the house after you finish on the porch and enter inside. The door to Our Father’s house has been opened by Christ on His Cross and we have responded to His invitation to cross the threshold and enter in.

As we reflected on Ash Wednesday upon the story of Jonah, I suggested that an apt characterization of Jonah was that he was a hot mess. He is a hot mess because he knows God’s will and yet is constantly resisting it; he is a hot mess because he knows God’s loving-kindness yet constantly overlooks it; he is a hot mess because despite constant evidence shown him that God’s power and glory reaches beyond time and space, such as should throw one into a sense of profound awe and selflessness, Jonah thinks primarily about himself, selfish and self-centered—not God-centered. And it was in interpreting the story of Jonah in these terms that I suggested that all of us are closer to being like Jonah—closer, that is, to being a hot mess—than we might care to admit. Brothers and sisters, admitting it, however, is to cross the threshold of the door opened to us by the Cross. And rather than praise the well-composed entryway or the beautiful living room of this house, the proper response as we enter into this great Lent is the response not of the Pharisee but of the Tax Collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, nothing qualified with caveats or comparisons to anyone else: the simple words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” which became through slight modification what the Church grew to call the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”), is the prayer of Lent, is the prayer of creature toward Creator.

The world around us confronts us not only with the beauty, truth, and goodness of God, but also with temptation after temptation. Temptations to all the capital sins: temptation to pride, envy, gluttony, covetousness, lust, sloth, and anger: these capital sins being the pattern that underlies all specific acts of sin. Adam and Eve were tempted by serpent, that is to say, the Devil taking the form of a serpent. And like Jonah, there is a clear sense overall in the narrative of the Adam and Eve’s sin with the fruit of the forbidden tree of both being well aware of God’s power yet reverting to self-centeredness. That is the basic lesson to be convicted by—we are more like Jonah, Adam and Eve than we care to admit. But there is another aspect I want us to consider.

That aspect comes when we notice a detail in the Genesis narrative that is easy to miss. The detail is what Eve adds in her dialogue with the serpent to the words first commanded by God to Adam. Eve tells the serpent that God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden,”—and then the addition, “neither shall you touch it.” God never said those specific words to Adam; He never said, “neither shall you touch.” Now, I think it is implied in what God told Adam: He told Adam he is not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in order to eat of its fruit, one must touch the fruit and then bring it to one’s mouth. Eve adds this detail, and I think this demonstrates that she, like Blessed Mary, has been pondering God’s word, taking it to heart: not merely following an order like a robot but being a thinking human being, which is a great credit to her. She is stronger than Adam, which is why the Devil attacked her and not the man.

Eve’s fleshing out of God’s teaching brings to light truth that is useful to us as Christians facing temptation upon temptation: to notice something, to be aware of something, is not a sin. It’s the touching of it, the grabbing of it, that is the sin. Feelings, thoughts, emotions that come through our mind and heart, these are never sins. But when we touch them—that is to say, act upon them, follow through on the fleeting thought, feeling, or emotion either in word or deed—that is where the sin occurs. Eve noticing that the tree was good for good, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise—that’s not the sin. Noticing that another person is physically beautiful and attractive, for example, or that a material object would be nice to have and possess, these are not sins. “Touching them”—that is to say, committing adultery with that person (whether actually or as Our Lord teaches, even in our heart and imagination)—that is the sin. Or recognizing that new car or computer or jewelry or house would be nice to have, that is not a sin; touching these things, whether by actually stealing them or by improperly and unwisely spending money upon them that should have gone to something else—that is the sin.

Brothers and sisters, Our Lord knows that we will be faced by these temptations: the temptations to touch and grab hold of passing thoughts, feelings, and emotions that, if acted upon, are sins. And so He in His infinite love for us gives us the example of what to do: and again the method is simple—flee to Him. Bring Him to mind. And bringing Him to mind can also be through bringing to mind scripture as He did before the Devil. And this is why, in Lent as well as through the whole year, the Church exhorts us to regular and daily meditation upon the scriptures: that we will be equipped to confront temptations by our ability to flee to Christ as revealed in the scriptures. Because when we do so, the Church teaches that as they did for Christ, angels will come to us and minister unto us.

On Entering into Lent

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2020.

The story of Jonah is one we all know so well that thinking of it as food for our Lenten journey might be difficult. The story begins by telling us that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amit′tai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nin′eveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’” But instead of the obedience of Our Lady, Blessed Mary, who despite having questions about how to cooperate with God, nonetheless answered God, “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word,” Jonah fled. He fled not to Christ, as we are always to do when faced with temptation. Rather, Jonah fled not to, but from, the Lord. Confronted by the Light of God’s guidance, by His Word as a lantern under our feet, and a light unto our paths, Jonah chose instead to turn to his shadows and dwell in them. He chose to pretend his conscience did not hear God’s call. He pretended to forget God’s law.

Jonah fled by boat, and while on the boat, the great wind of the demons made for a mighty tempest on the sea. His conscience began to gnaw at him, and he offered himself up, to be thrown off the boat. Better to become suicidal than to simply say yes to God, Jonah evidently concluded. God saw all this, for His eyes are always upon those who fear Him—and, deep down, Jonah did fear the Lord, deep down, Jonah was in awe of God’s majesty and power, despite his attempts at avoidance—and taking control of the great fish, God’s working of love and protection kept Jonah in the belly of the great fish three days and three nights. And during these three days and three night, Jonah prayed to God—when left to his own devices and free-will, Jonah filled with pride and chose his own will not God’s will; but put into a three-day, three-night time-out by God, Jonah remembered that he was a creature, and God creator of all. His prayer while in the belly of the whale deserves to be heard this day:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Indeed, deliverance does belong to the Lord. And this refrain is taken up into the third Psalm, which reads, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord, thy blessing be upon thy people!” And after this glorious prayer by Jonah, upon being vomited out of the fish upon the dry land—and vomiting is indeed a rich metaphor for what it means to purge our sinful ways—Jonah again heard the word of the Lord; and this time, he began to imitate Our Lady’s “Let it be.” He arose and went to Ninevah, according to the Word of the Lord. And in the city, he cried, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” And in a great surprise to Jonah, the people of Ninevah believed him, and began to repent of their sinful ways. And because they were honest about themselves—because they were reality-based, which is another word for “humility”—God did not destroy the city, but continued to keep it afloat in the ocean of His grace.

And yet, instead of rejoicing, Jonah was exceedingly displeased, and he was angry. His prayer to God takes a remarkable turn: “I knew that Thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil.” But then, “Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Again, suicidal! And to prove his petulance, out of the city he went and sat under a plant God made for him out of His love to provide shade. Then to prove again His power, the plant withered the next day from a God-appointed worm. Again in anger Jonah asked for suicide.

Brothers and sisters, it is fair to say that Jonah was a hot mess. He knew God’s will, He knew God’s love, He knew God’s power, and was constantly fighting it, then embracing it in odd ways, and the fighting, embracing, back and forth. Now we might find the story of Jonah comical as to be a farce. And yet, brothers and sisters, how far away from Jonah are we really, in our lives? Are not we closer to Jonah than we might care to admit? Saint Paul wrote these words to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Is this not us? Are not we, too, a hot mess?

The appropriate response to recognizing this difficult truth, revealed to us by God’s grace through the shining light of His Son Jesus on the Cross, is the response of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Church turned the words of the tax collector in a prayer that is now ancient, called the “Jesus Prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. There is nothing more that needs to be said this Lent than that; no need to make it more complicated or qualified than those simple words. For if we make it more complicated and qualified, our prayer is not the prayer of the tax collector, but of the Pharisee. Let us this Lent, held up by God’s love in the ocean of His grace, not even lift up our eyes to heaven, but beat our breast, and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”