Who’s In Charge Around Here?

Jesus Casting out demon

The full readings for this Sunday can be found  here:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them…”

In the name of the Living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Well, good morning, good morning.  And welcome, as we join the Church and find ourselves in the holy season of Epiphany, which our Orthodox brothers and sisters call the Feast of Lights. We celebrate that a great light has come into the world in the revelation of God the Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.

Several years ago, my father passed away. And after the funeral my family gathered for a meal, and when you have that many members of the Dennis family gathered together there is only one choice for the menu: barbeque. Well, I’m sitting there with my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and a big old plate of brisket and sausage, sitting across the table from my no-good brother, Patrick. My younger brother, Patrick. And I have not yet gotten a single bite of brisket, not a single pinto bean, into my mouth when Patrick looked right at me and said, “You know now that Dad is gone, I’m in charge. You know that, right?” Well, I responded to my brother with words that appear nowhere in Scripture.

But, to some extent, I think a couple of our readings today compel us to ask the same question that my brother’s comment raised: Who’s in charge around here?

In the first passage, we hear Moses announcing that God will send the prophets to the Hebrews. It’s worth setting the scene here. This takes place as the Hebrew people are about to enter Israel. They have left their bondage in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a very long time, and are on the brink of coming home, to a land of milk and honey, to the place that God had promised to them.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Moses to the Hebrew people. He had shown them a path to freedom, acted as the instrument of justice, shown them the power of God, and stood by them when they had fallen short of God’s intentions. And somehow, on this long journey, he had forged this mixed multitude into a nation, a people. And you’ll remember that when God had something to say to them, the Jewish people said, “No, Moses, you go on up there and find out what He’s got to say and then come down here and tell us.”

And so, I’m sure it troubled them, it filled them with anxiety, when they learned Moses wasn’t coming with them, that he wouldn’t ever come down that mountain. If Moses would not be acting  as the messenger of God, who would? Who’s in charge around here? Because the only thing more frightening than knowing what God wants, the only thing more frightening than hearing the voice of Yahweh, is not hearing it. And so, we come to this passage in the book of Deuteronomy.

God assures the Jewish people that they will know His word through the prophets. And, just like today, there were a lot of voices competing for the attention of God’s people, and some of them were “false prophets.” But we know something about the prophets sent from God. First, they will be raised up from among their own people. The voice of God arises in community, but it’s God’s word, and not our own that we should be listening for. The voice of God tells us to choose life, and not death. It often comes, not in the fire or the whirlwind, but in a still, small voice stirring from within us. This word breaks into our history and shapes history according to the will of God.

You may remember, a couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Samuel in the Temple, hearing a voice in the night. And because he was a young boy, and because the word of the Lord was “rare in those days,” he didn’t know whose voice he heard, but Eli did.

Like the Jewish people standing at the threshold of a new land, we are called to test the many voices we hear, to listen to whether they bring life, because the Word which was in the beginning always speaks to us of new life with the Father. And like the Hebrews, the best way for us to hear the voice of God is to listen for it.

And for us, that prophet who speaks God’s word, well, we’ve always understood that as Jesus, which brings us to the Gospel today.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum. Mark offers this story as the beginning point of Jesus’ public ministry. And Mark notes that, unlike the scribes, the people find that Jesus teaches with authority. And what was that authority? I think Jesus’ teaching rang true, not simply because He spoke the truth, but because he was the Truth. In Jesus, there was no separation between what he taught and the life He lived. In him, Israel found the prophet that God promised to raise up from among them.

And then, we come to this strange story of a man there in the synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit. Now, in this passage, as in much of Mark’s Gospel, one of the important themes is about recognizing Jesus. Many of the people who should know him don’t, and many of those who we wouldn’t expect to recognize him do.

In Mark’s Gospel, lots of people are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is: his family, the religious authorities of the time, the political authorities, his disciples. But this spirit knows: he is the Holy One of God.

And this man with the unclean spirit, shouts out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, indeed? I think it may be one of the most important questions in Scripture, one which we should ask ourselves several times a day. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

We all know about those unclean spirits. We have seen the demonic forces of alcoholism and addiction shatter lives and tear families apart. We watched as the demonic forces had a field day in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. We have heard the unclean spirit of greed and craving whispering to us, spreading fear, telling us we may not have enough. We have seen the sex trade reduce God’s children and their bodies to the trinkets of commerce. We have perhaps felt within our lives the demons of rage, or the demons of deception and mendacity, or the unclean spirit of pride. And in each of those instances, the unclean spirit says, “Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with this. This is between you and me.”

You know, when we talk about these events, we say that such people are “possessed.” But I’m not sure we shouldn’t use the word “dispossessed.” Because there comes a point in the struggle with those unclean spirits when there just doesn’t seem to be any room in there anymore for the people we knew, when there’s no room in there for any sort of humanity.

I saw my father struggle for control of his life when alcohol evicted him from himself. And it was only in the last few years of his life, after a long struggle with that unclean spirit, that he began to understand again who he was and what mattered to him. And I have known other folks who lost that struggle, who never regained possession of themselves. And it wasn’t because they were morally inferior, or that they lacked courage. They just never found a way to wrestle back control of their lives.

You see, those unclean spirits always deny the supremacy of God in the world. They take over, and they tell us the lie that they are in charge of our lives now. That way lies madness, and they would rob us of sharing in God’s dreams for the world. They always deny God’s capacity to redeem any life, any situation. They always speak in a voice of dark hopelessness and despair and the lie is that they are somehow in charge.

And I’m here to promise you: that that voice is a liar. The voice that would lock us in a cage of fear and separate us from the Light of the World is the voice of a  false prophet. I think it was love that helped my father overcome his demons, and it was the love of Christ that cast out those unclean spirits in Capernaum. The message of Jesus today remains a message of liberation from the unclean spirits that would tear our lives apart.  You see, I’ve read this book, all the way to the end, and just like that day in Capernaum, God’s love wins. Always. Love always wins.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Homily

Ignatius of Loyola

The readings for the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola can be found here:

 

 
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, and welcome as we come together to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, which most of us know as the Jesuit Order. I feel especially close to him, because many of my first teachers were Jesuits.

          You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern Christian Church, and it seems to me one of the central problems we have today is that many of us view our faith like a drunkard views a street lamp. We use it for support, rather than illumination.

          It was not always so. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the brightest lights in the history of Christianity. He was born in 1491, and in his former life he was a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family. When he was seriously wounded in battle around the age of 30, however, he underwent a significant religious conversion. Ignatius became a mystic, spending many hours a day in prayer and also working in a hospice.

          During that time, he had a remarkable spiritual experience. He had a vision in which he said that he learned more than he did in the rest of his life. This vision seems to have involved a direct encounter with God, so that all creation was seen in a new light and took on a new meaning and relevance, an experience that allowed Ignatius to find God in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, serves as one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality.

          At the age of thirty-three, he began to study for the priesthood, although he was so poor at the time he found himself begging for food and shelter. He was also jailed by the Inquisition at this time. Around then, he and six companions made solemn vows to continue their lifelong work of following Christ. He founded what would become the Jesuit Order.

          While he was living as a hermit, Ignatius began to develop a set of exercises, designed to help believers discern the movement of the Spirit. One of the crucial notions in these exercises is the idea of “indifference,” of being indifferent to the concerns of the world—not in the sense of caring about people or things less, but in the sense of not letting our ego and our attachments get in the way of our relationship with God. As Christians, we are called to be indifferent to whether we’re well-known and influential or obscure, whether we’re rich or poor, or even healthy or sick. Our focus must be on whether God is present in our lives—and God is always present, is right there with us, closer than we are to ourselves.

          And I think that’s part of what Luke is trying to explain in today’s passage from the Gospel. It’s a harsh passage, a shocking thing: hearing Jesus tell a man to disregard the burial of his father, and it doesn’t give way to easy explanations. But sometimes we have to ignore a good thing to pursue a holy thing: our highest calling to follow God single-mindedly. I think Jesus is explaining that being a disciple sometimes requires us to make hard choices: to decide if we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our strength. In the kingdom of God, traditional loyalties are going to be rearranged.

          If we want to follow Jesus, to be disciples, we’re going to have to learn to seek the kingdom of God first, and not let anything get in our way. Once our hand is on that plough, we cannot turn back. And we might find some help in this little prayer, the prayer of St. Ignatius:

“Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”

Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

The Trinity: A Sermon

Rublev, The Trinity

 

The readings for Trinity Sunday can be found here:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

 

 In the name of the living God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, I’ve been doing that, and saying that, for a long, long time. I was probably one or two years old, back in Ector County, when my mother and father taught me to make the sign of the cross and to say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in my family, you didn’t just do it several times during church. We did it at every meal and every night as we said our evening prayers. I’m not sure my parents knew exactly what they were doing as we followed that practice. You see, not only were they reminding us of our baptismal vows constantly, but they were also inviting us into that great mystery we call The Trinity.

And I remember when I was around six or seven, sitting in the pews there at Holy Redeemer  in Odessa, a little burr headed boy in short pants. And we got to that point in the Creed when we said, “We believe in one God.” And I thought to myself, One God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One plus one plus one equals One. And I scratched my little head. One plus one plus one equals One.

And years later, when I went to the University of Texas, my parents were surprised that I studied philosophy and poetry rather than engineering. And I thought to myself, really? Because for years, they had been preparing me to become accustomed to mystery, to make my home there, to abide there.

And when the poets of the Hebrew people confronted the great mystery of how we got here, the mystery of creation, they wrote that God spoke the universe into being. He spoke light and he spoke darkness. He spoke time into being. He spoke us into being as well. Genesis records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Now, it’s worth noting that as God speaks humanity into being, Scripture records the Creator referring to himself in the plural, “according to our likeness.” We’ll circle back to that idea in just a bit.

And our modern poets, we call them physicists, have been studying some very old light, echoes from the dawn of the universe. They tell us that when time began, in its first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the universe began to expand to something that was about the size of a marble.All the stars, all the planets, the entire time space continuum, began to expand from a white-hot mass about the size of your fingertip.    When I think of that, I’m reminded of something Martin Luther once said. He said, “God is nothing but glowing love, and a burning oven full of love.” And that simmering cauldron of love exploded in creation.

Curiously, our scientists also tell us there are about as many atoms in your eyeball as there are stars in the universe. And we confess that God made all these things, visible and invisible — the God who creates, and redeems and forgives and comforts and sustains.

Love, even God’s love, does not exist in a vacuum. Love always arises in relationship, in community. We call that The Trinity.

Now theologians, they tell us that God created everything from nothing. In the Latin, they say ex nihilo. It’s impossible to imagine that: we don’t have a frame of reference for it. When I try to think of it, the closest I can get is the story of Beethoven, having gone deaf, creating symphonies when there was no longer any music for him to hear. But this was something much, much more — infinitely more. And while God didn’t create from any raw material, anything physical, I think he called the universe into being out of His love.

Divine love was the stuff out of which creation sprang into being. Divine love, which overflowed out of the Father, into the life of Son, who breathed out the Spirit onto the disciples and still breathes it into us. It was love that lit the fires of trillions and trillions of stars, love that crawled up that hill called Golgotha, and it was love that broke through the separation of our many languages on Pentecost.

As a friend of mine observed, we will not encounter the living God in doctrine, explanations or analysis. The Trinity is too wild, too beautiful, too expansive, and too intimate for that. God will not be contained in our thoughts or our language. Rather, we encounter the living God in unspeakable moments of awe and joy and wonder. One of the most profound thinkers I know of, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” To confess our faith is to commit, not to any kind of understanding, but to an “endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

And when the book of Genesis records that we are made in the image of God, I think it means that we are made for love. Jesus told us as much, that we were made to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all of our strength, and to love each other as much as we love ourselves.

That’s why Saint Paul said to live in peace and greet each other with a holy kiss, because we are a holy people made from holy love and made to love. Because everyone we encounter, well, they were made in the image of God as well, even the gossips and the soreheads. Thus, C.S. Lewis observed that aside from the blessed Sacrament, there’s nothing more holy in this church today than the person sitting next to you in the pews.

We, all of us, were made for union with God. We came from God, and we’ll go back where we came from. We were made for union with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — the God who is both a plurality and a unity.

Now if the Father lives, and has always lived, in communion, in community, and if we were made in God’s image, that means that we were also made to live in community. Our lives, our salvation, must be worked out together. And that’s why, just two weeks ago, we heard Jesus praying that we would be one, just as He and the Father are one. Just as our Jewish brothers and sisters prayed, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And just as we confess that “We believe in one God.”

We work out our salvation together, and the church acts like the church, when our caring for each other pours out, and God is revealed in this community. Our churches can be, must be, windows through which the world can see God’s love spilling out everywhere — down Pecan Street, through Travis Park, up and down Highway 281, reaching out into our homes and our workplaces, our hospitals and yes, even our prisons.

We were baptized into a community, to share in the life of the Trinity, marked as Christ’s own. And we aren’t called upon to love only our fellow believers, but to live our lives so that the whole world says, “See how they love.”

So, how do we get there, how do we achieve this union with God? Well, Jesus offered us a real good starting place. In a few minutes we’ll be invited up to the table, to take the life of Christ into us. He told us, “Take, eat.” And somehow, when we do, the life of Christ, the love of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit begin to take hold in us. And that’s what C.S. Lewis called The Deep Magic. Somehow, we begin to make our home in that wonderful mystery of the Trinity, to abide with God. And then, we find that Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age.

Amen.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

St. Boniface: A Homily

Boniface

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24: 44-53.

 

He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses* of these things.

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, good morning. And welcome to you all as we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface, a great saint of the Church. He was born somewhere around 675 A.D. in Wessex. At birth, he was given the name of Winfred, but later took the name of Boniface, probably when he was ordained a bishop. In 716, he set out as a missionary for Frisia, in modern-day Germany.

          There’s a wonderful old legend about St. Boniface. They say that one winter he came across some men who were about to offer up a child sacrifice to the pagan god Thor. Boniface stopped the murder of this child by going over to an oak tree and striking it. The tree fell to the ground. When all the snow, they saw a small fir-tree there. Boniface pointed to the tree, which was green in the dead of winter and announced, “That is the tree of life and this boy is to live not die.” He then pointed at the tree again and said, “This tree does not die in winter like others but lives and it symbolizes the eternal life offered to you through Jesus Christ.” He then noted that the shape of the fir-tree is triangular and thus represents the Trinity of God. Upon this declaration, the men repented and gave their hearts to Jesus and they spared the boy’s life.

          So, what’s the point of that story? You know, neuro-psychologists have described something called a perception bias. It’s sometimes called selective perception. It’s the tendency of the brain to seek out what it’s looking for, and to disregard all the other noise around it. It explains how we do those Where’s Waldo puzzles, and how the brain finds what it’s looking for and sets aside everything else. It explains why we see the good in people if we’re looking for it and why, if we go searching out the ways in which people can be selfish and cruel, we’ll find that, too.

          What does that have to do with the story about St. Boniface? I think it explains the reason St. Boniface saw eternal life in Christ when he looked at the evergreen fir-tree. And it explains why he saw the life of the Trinity when he noticed the triangular shape of the tree. He saw those things because he was looking for them. And that’s why St. Chrysostrom observed that unless you can see Christ in the face of the beggar on the street, you’ll never find Him in the chalice.

          And so, we come to today’s Gospel reading. This reading comes right after the story of the road to Emmaus. And we wonder, “Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? How could they not see him, right beside them?” I think part of the answer is that they didn’t see Him because they weren’t looking for him. They thought he was dead; there was no reason to look for him. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, that we are to be his witnesses. We are to see and hear, and speak of what we’ve seen and heard: that Jesus is risen, that he preached repentance, and promised forgiveness. And that He’s still with us.

          So, what are we supposed to be looking for? He told us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” If we follow Jesus, that’s our perception bias. I pray that we’ll look for it, because He promised that if we did, we’ll find it. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

St. Gregory the Theologian: A Homily

Gregory the Theologian
They said to him, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all?I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father.So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:25-32.

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Good morning. It’s good to be with you as we celebrate the feast of St. Gregory of Nanzianzus. He was born in modern-day Turkey around the time the Nicene Creed was written , and died in 389. At a time when the church was still struggling with the nature of Christ and the Trinity, he was an eloquent preacher and a deep thinker , earning him the nickname “The Theologian.”  While the church still strove to understand the idea that Jesus could be fully human and fully divine, Gregory wrote this:

As man he was baptized, but he absolved sins as God; he needed no purifying rites himself—his purpose was to hallow water. . . . He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He is indeed “living, heavenly bread.” He thirsted—yet he exclaimed: “Whosoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Indeed he promised that believers would become fountains. He was tired—yet he is the “rest” of the weary and the burdened. . . . He weeps, yet he puts an end to weeping. He asks where Lazarus is laid—he was man; yet he raises Lazarus—he was God. . . . .He is weakened, wounded—yet he cures every disease and every weakness. He is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us. He surrenders his life, yet he has power to take it again. . . . Yes, the veil is rent, for things of heaven are being revealed, rocks split, and dead men have an earlier awakening. He dies, but he brings life into death and by his death destroys death. He is buried, yet he rises again. He goes down to Hades, yet he leads souls up, ascends to heaven, and will come to judge quick and dead.

So, Gregory spent a good deal of time struggling with those who would attempt to distinguish between Jesus and the Father, and those who would attempt to separate Jesus from his humanity. And so we come to today’s Gospel passage. We hear Jesus trying to answer the question, “Who are you?” It may be the most important question we can answer for ourselves.  Jesus answers, “‘the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him. They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.'” Somehow, in the cross, Jesus reveals his divinity: in his mortality, he shows us that death has no more hold on him, or us. The Christ assures us that there isn’t any separation between the Son and the Father, telling us that “the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone.” In that same 8th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you knew me, you would know my Father.”

Again, like our friend Gregory, Jesus teaches us that there’s no distinction between the life of the Father and the life revealed to us in the life of Christ. The divine unity of the Trinity cannot be carved up. That’s why in just a few moments we’ll all profess that we believe in One God.

Now for most of us, we really don’t confront very often those who would separate Jesus from the Father or the Spirit. But there are plenty of places, people and things we encounter that would separate Christ—from us. Our work, our hobbies, our distractions, even our families, can get between us and a life in Christ if we’re not careful. They conspire to keep us from the life we were meant for, a life shared with the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

But when we come to know Jesus, when we fall in love with the One God, we’ll find the truth. And we’ll find the freedom to be the people of God, the people we were meant to be. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas: A Sermon

Therefore I prayed, and understanding
was given me;Aquinas

I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 
I preferred her to sceptres and thrones,
and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem,
because all gold is but a little sand in her sight,
and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty,
and I chose to have her rather than light,
because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her,
and in her hands uncounted wealth. 
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
but I did not know that she was their mother.
I learned without guile and I impart without grudging;
I do not hide her wealth,
for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals;
those who get it obtain friendship with God,
commended for the gifts that come from instruction.
–Wisdom 7: 7-14

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas 

          Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me;
          I called for help, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.

          In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Well good morning, good morning. And welcome to you as we celebrate the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

          It was a remarkable time in the history of Western culture. My brother Thomas was born in 1225 and died in 1274; he did not survive to see fifty years. But he lived during remarkable times. The Crusades had proven to be a miserable failure. The inquisition had begun recently in Toulouse, France, and Dante was writing his major works.  Gothic architecture was beginning to take root. The institution of universities had only just begun to arise. Within 100 years, a remarkable period in European history we call the Renaissance would begin to flourish.

          And coming largely from the east, a new wisdom began to spring up. The works of Aristotle, long lost in the West, had been recently translated into Latin. Many in the western Church had been openly hostile to this “new learning” because it was clearly pagan. And perhaps because people have “itchy ears” it was widely read and became a prominent philosophy of the time. And so, the notion began to swell that there were at least two kinds of truth. There was philosophical truth (or what we might call scientific truth), and then there was biblical truth. And it all depended on your point of view, you see, which you thought made more sense.

          Onto this scene strides my brother, St. Thomas Aquinas. He did not initially seem like he would have much to offer the world. His fellow schoolmates called him “the dumb ox.” And yet his biographer, Gugliemo di Tocco, describes him as a man consumed by the holy mysteries of the great sacrament of the Eucharist, the sacrament in which we’ll soon share. The Italian term he used was divorato; Thomas was devoured by a sense of awe at this great mystery. But his intellect was also set aflame by the works of Aristotle.

          From within that huge frame, within that dumb ox, shone one of the finest minds of his time, perhaps one of the finest minds of any time. And he was absolutely and mercilessly committed to knowing the truth; he thought that was one of our highest purposes as humans. And one of his investigations, his searches for the truth, is still widely taught and used today in seminaries and schools of philosophy. We call it The Summa Theologica.

And Thomas knew, through his confrontation of and dwelling within the divine mysteries, that God’s truth would surpass and could not be contained by human speech or knowledge. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit Jesus called the Spirit of Truth.

And among his many invaluable contributions, Thomas laid waste to the notion that there were many separate inconsistent truths, that there was philosophical truth and sacred truth. You see, back then, not unlike our day, many folks saw a contradiction between faith and reason. And there arose something called the doctrine of double truth: for example, that something might be true scientifically and false scripturally, and both of them could be correct. Thomas wrote that the truth that “human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith.” The truth cannot be sequestered. Because all truth comes from God, who is Truth and in whom there is no deception, if there is an apparent contradiction between reason and faith we have either reasoned poorly or misunderstood the faith. But, he proclaimed adamantly, there is only one truth.

          Thomas understood that the Wisdom of God, another name for Jesus as our Advent hymns remind us, came into the world. The Logos broke into the world that Christmas morning. There is a story that Thomas had a vision of Jesus on the Cross, and that Jesus said “Thomas, you have written well of me. What can I give you as your reward? And Thomas replied, “Lord, nothing but yourself.”

          My brother Thomas wrote:

“Word made flesh, by Word He makes
True bread his flesh to be;
Man in wine Christ’s Blood partakes
And if his senses fail to see,
Faith alone the true heart wakes
To behold the mystery.”

           In today’s Gospel, the Logos asks us “Have you understood all this?” But this wisdom, this divine truth, is to be felt and not just known, to be studied with the heart and not only the mind. This is a Truth, a wisdom, that is not so much about a problem that we figure out or an argument we can win, as it is about a person with whom we fall in love.

          Amen.