Tag Archives: Church Fathers

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.

© 2014 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.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

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.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis


To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

Becoming a Unity

All of you must become a unity.  Let there be no divisions in your hearts.  When I was among you I cried at the top of my voice, with the very voice of God: “Be united with the bishop, the priests and the deacons.”
Some people thought I cried like this because I foresaw a schism.  He for whose sake I am in chains is my witness that I did not speak in that way because anyone had given me such a warning.  I had simply been listening  to the Spirit proclaiming:
“Do nothing without the bishop!  Keep your body as a temple of God!  Love unity, avoid factions! Be imitators of Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ is of the Father! [cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 11:1]
With such an aim I have done all I could, as one destined to the service of unity.  God does not dwell where there are divisions and bad feeling.  I exhort you: never give way to a quarrelsome spirit, but always carry out the teaching of Christ.
Jesus Christ is my criterion.  Unassailable grounds of judgment for me are his cross, his death, his resurrection and the faith that comes from him. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Philadelphians (quoted in Drinking From the Hidden Fountain).

Today is the Feast of Ignatius of Antioch, who was born in modern day Syria in around 50 A.D., and died in Rome around 117 A.D. He was the third bishop of Antioch, which was then one of the centers of Christianity. He studied under John the Apostle. We don’t know a lot about him, because his ministry occurred so early in the history of the faith. We know about him principally through the seven letters he wrote that scholars consider to be authentic.

He wrote at a time when being a Christian was a dangerous choice, and was accused of treason by the Emperer himself. He was a bishop, an apostle and a martyr for the faith. As we can tell from today’s reading, the subject of the unity of the faithful was a common theme in his writings.

As I read this piece, I was struck by the notion that our divisions as Christians begin with our being divided as individuals.  Most often, our petty disagreements arise from our competing loyalties to Christ and the world. When we are truly focussed on Jesus, the cross, and our faith, most of our divisions fade away.  I pray we will someday learn to set aside our egos and live as the one body we are called to become.

Jesus knew how difficult this would be for us.  Thus he prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” I pray for the day when all God’s children become one in love.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Evidence of Our Inhumanity

It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard the indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand.
You say, “But that fellow there is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.” So what?  If that poor fellow is putting it on, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty.  Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity.  You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting.
If it were not for necessity compelling him, why should be behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread?
The made-up take of a beggar is evidence of your inhumanity.  His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on.
That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part. But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you.
He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution.  You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.
John Chrysostom, On the First Letter to the Corinthians, 21, 5.

I found this passage in today’s reading from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: a Patristic Breviary.  The passage is taken from St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople who lived from around 347 through 407 A.D. He was a marvelous preacher and public speaker, who was given the nickname chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed.” He regularly spoke out against the abuse of authority by both political and church leaders. Because of this, he was arrested, exiled and banished several times.

In today’s reading, St. Chrysostom criticizes our lack of charity, our lack of concern and love for the poor among us.  He characterizes this as “madness.” He teaches that our treatment of the poor, our indifference toward them, reflects an indifference toward God. While our wardrobes are full, we ignore these images of God who are naked and shivering in the cold.

Regarding the suggestion that the poor might be exaggerating their plight, Chrysostom turns that argument back on us.  He suggests that the poor would not do so but for our cold-heartedness.  (We still hear a related version of this suggestion today: that the poor do not merit our help because they are lazy or comfortable and have chosen their life.) St. Chrysostom responds that it’s unlikely that people voluntarily chose to surrender their dignity.  More likely, he says, any exaggeration is simply meant to overcome our natural indifference.

On occasion, I’m at the my church kind of late.  Now and then, someone will come in asking for money.  I have to admit that I sometimes confront a voice in my head that says, “You’re being played for a sucker here.”  But I think St. Chrysostom would remind me that even if that’s true, that’s none of my affair.  That’s between them and God.  The choice before me, rather, is whether I want to overcome that skepticism with charity.  I hope I’m willing to run the risk that, when I die, someone might write in my obituary that I sometimes loved foolishly. I hope you are willing to take that risk too.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Interpreting the Law

How must we interpret this law of God?  How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”  Listen to Paul:  “The whole law,” he declares, “is summed up in love”; and again: “Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” the law of Christ–does anything other than love more fittingly describe it?  Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother or sister in trouble.

But we are told that this law is manifold.  Why?  Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues.  It begins with two commands, but soon embraces many more.  Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects.  “Love is patient,” he says, “and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.” Moral Reflections on Job by Gregory the Great.

I ran across this passage earlier this week in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. St. Gregory makes a number of powerful observations that help us understand Holy Scripture.  Principally, he enjoins us to read the Torah (the Law) through the lens of love.  Jesus taught that all of the law and all of the prophets hung on the commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Matt. 22:40.

In Jesus’ day (just as in ours), some argued that the scriptures should be read as an exclusionary document.  Thus, many (lepers, those with physical infirmities, women, and outsiders) were excluded from the Temple.  Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What have you done to help them inside?” Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus brought many back within the circle of faith.  The Pharisees used the scriptures as a club to beat people away from the gates of the church.  Jesus, interpreting the scriptures through the template of love, showed us how to welcome God’s children back home.

We see this same tension played out in the book of Job.  Job endures calamity upon catastrophe without blaming God for what’s happened to him.  His three “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) arrive to convince him that God always punishes evil and rewards good, so somehow, Job must’ve sinned. Job’s friends do have a superficial understanding of the scriptures; they just don’t understand much about love, or God for that matter.  (A very good friend of mine observes that Job’s friends did everything right: until they open their mouths.)

Those who follow Christ know that all scripture, the Old Testament and the New, must be read with eyes of love. If we love God and His children, we cannot leave those in need behind.  And once we recognize that love provides the Rosetta Stone by which we interpret all the teachings of Scripture, we find ourselves compelled to love more broadly and more deeply.  We find ourselves breathing in a climate of grace, and we begin to  learn the language of blessing.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis