Tag Archives: Saints

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


James of Jerusalem: A Homily

St. James

All the apostles and elders kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
`After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:12-22a.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you all this morning as we observe the Feast of James of Jerusalem, sometimes called James the Just and sometimes called the brother of our Lord.
When we look at the Gospel for this morning, we see James (along with the rest of Jesus’ family) being used as an argument against Jesus’ authority. Having heard Jesus teach and seen his deeds of power, Jesus’ family is used to make the argument that he’s nothing special. We know his mother, we know his brother, he’s the son of a working man. It’s so difficult for us to recognize holiness in our everyday lives. But that’s how God works: he makes the everyday holy. But it’s hard to see sometimes. Even James, we think, did not accept Jesus as messiah, as his Lord, until he witnessed the resurrection.
So, the reading this morning, from the Book of Acts, puts St. James in a place many of us know something about: he is smack dab in the middle of a church fight.  Very often in church fights, as is sometimes true in marriages, the fight isn’t really about what the fight is about. The fight isn’t about how messy and chaotic the drawers in the desk are; the fight is about how messy and chaotic our lives are. Or the fight isn’t about the style of worship; it’s about people feeling like they’re losing the church they grew up in. But sometimes a church fight can clarify doctrine, or can offer the Church what we now call a teaching moment.
One of my Jesuit brothers said, “Unity in the essential things, liberty in the nonessential things, and charity in all things.” This fight was about essential things—about the essentials of becoming a Christian and following Jesus and about salvation. So, James is caught up in a fight, and it’s a doozy.
Luke says, “certain individuals” were teaching that circumcision and following the law was necessary for salvation. Now, these folks were Pharisees. And they had heard what was happening with the Gentiles down in Antioch. And they were certainly right: they were correct about what had been the custom of the Jews in Jerusalem. But, like we so often do, they had confused those things that are customary with those things that are necessary.
And on the other side of this fight were Peter and Paul and Barnabas. And Peter, in the verse immediately before this passage we read today, argued that none of those things in the Mosaic law were necessary anymore. He said, “We believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.”
It’s an important lesson for us today as well. Don’t try and out-God God. We so often underestimate the Holy Spirit—underestimate the power of grace. And when it comes time to make a decision, James (the head of the church in Jerusalem) speaks for the whole Church. He hears the voice of the prophet Amos in what’s been happening with the Gentiles. And he concludes, we shouldn’t trouble those who are turning to God. He knows that grace is enough; grace alone suffices to sustain us, to save us. Now, he does caution them about abstaining from food offered to idols, and otherwise acting like pagans. In other words, he advises them not to abuse their liberty.
So, the story of my namesake, St. James, is not a story about a guy who knows the truth in an instant. It’s a story about a guy who makes a couple of mistakes before he finally gets it right. We all need to hear the story of St. James, because it’s a story about the only necessary thing: God’s grace in our lives. And it’s a story about second chances. And, after all, ours is a religion of second chances.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

The Feast of the Holy Mother

*Welcome, Mary, sister in faith;
the Lord has surely chosen you.
The life leaps within me
to herald the fruit of your womb
which is Jesus!
Who am I
that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
Pray with me now,
and always.
Amen.

*Weep, Mary, a mother’s tears.
Your son must die,
thrust high in agony.
Alone in suffering
separated from His Father’s smile
by sin we laid upon Him.
Blessed in He
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Now, Mary, be mother to John
and all who will lean, like him,
close to the heart of Christ,
and watch with Him in the hour of death.
Amen.

*You, Mary, who knew His grace,
now you’re with the Lord.
Blessed is any who walks with God,
then is not here, but taken–to Jesus!
Hold us, Mary, at peace with God;
join with the prayers of the penitent,
now and at the gate to life.
Amen.

I found this prayer, this little liturgy, in the Celtic Book of Daily Prayer.  It seemed appropriate, because today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of Our Lord. Mary has always held a special place for members of the Dominican Order, dating back to very early in the Order’s history. So, I thought I’d make a few observations about Mary.

First, Mary seems to offer a special place of devotion for those who’ve had their hearts broken.  One can’t look at the Pieta without immediately recognizing Mary’s special understanding of heartache and sorrow. The Holy Mother also  speaks gently to those who understand the risk of faith.

When Mary answered “Yes” to God’s call, she laid aside her plans for her life and undertook the risk of an unwed pregnancy.  In first century Palestine, that kind of thing could get you in trouble; it could get you killed. Mary (who would have been known as Miriam) thus teaches us about allowing God to interrupt your plans, and willingly accepting the cost of becoming God’s instrument. She showed us how to trust God and how to live without fear.

For many of us, Mary serves as the gateway to, and the icon of, the Incarnation.  If God’s decision to walk among us as a man was indeed the pivotal point of human history, it was Mary who cleared that path.  She offers us the key to Jesus’ full humanity.  Her tears on Golgotha demonstrate that this was no metaphor and no mere spiritual apparition.  Hanging on that Cross was Mary’s little boy whom she had raised from His birth in a stable.

The Holy Mother also teaches us a good deal about the faithful response to mystery.  When Gabriel told her of God’s plans, she didn’t ask a lot of questions.  She didn’t need to understand what happened at Cana; she simply witnessed it.  I’m fairly confident Mary didn’t understand the need for the crucifixion or how the Resurrection changed the world. I doubt she had a firm grasp of the Pentecost.  And yet, there she stood: a witness (martyr in the Greek) staring across the precipice of the greatest mysteries of our faith.

Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to Mary as the Theotokos (the God-bearer).  Mary teaches us all about the importance of bringing Christ into the world, of being pregnant with the message of the Kingdom.  I pray we all can bring God into a world which needs Him now as much as it ever has. I know she will join in that prayer.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Cup of Poison

The first monks who tried to live under Benedict’s direction hated his regimen, so much so they plotted to kill their abbot. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict’s biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.

Benedict, Gregory wrote, “perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death,” called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, “Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”

                                                                                                                Christianity Today

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in about 480, as the Roman Empire began to crumble.  The son of a Roman nobleman, he left his home and his studies around the age of 20.  He established about a dozen monastic houses, but is most widely known for founding Monte Cassino, an abbey which to this day remains the mother house of the Benedictine Order.  Benedict died around 547, according to legend while standing in prayer to God.

Benedict is sometimes considered the founder of western monasticism.  The effects of the monastic movement, including the Benedictines, has been enormous. Largely as a result of their patience and painstaking labors, the Holy Scriptures were preserved through the Dark Ages.  They contributed greatly to science, literacy, and culture at a time when all of these were threatened.

As I reflect upon the story above, it seems to me to have a deeper meaning than first appears.  There’s nothing unusual about those of us in the religious life experiencing profound frustration, and even anger, with our brothers and sisters.  (I’m glad to report, however,  that I’m unaware of any conspiracy to poison my Prior or any of the leaders of my Order.)  According to legend, as Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the poisoned cup, it shattered.  It seems to me that the Cross has a remarkable way of breaking through anger and resentment, and that may be the point of this story.

Benedict’s response to that poison cup offers us another insight.  He forgave the brother’s responsible.  He teaches us something terribly important:  having been saved by the Cross, we cannot withhold from others the same forgiveness Christ displayed on the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

St. Brigid’s Day

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare.  The people of Ireland love her dearly, as do the people who love the people of Ireland (folks like me).  The legends about Brigid far outweigh the facts known about her.   She was born around 450.  Her parents may have been baptized by  St. Patrick.

We know she founded a Christian community at Kildare, primarily for women.  She had a profound influence on the Church in Ireland.    She may have been consecrated as a bishop.  (Thus, she is often depicted with a bishop’s crozier.)  When others protested that he improperly bestowed this Holy Order on a woman, Bishop Mel reportedly replied “No power have I in this matter.”  He suggested that God alone had chosen Brigid for that Holy Office.

Brigid understood that the physical needs of the poor intersected with their spiritual needs. We remember Brigid for her profound hospitality, her unflinching generosity, and her extraordinary compassion.   I pray that her spirit will grow within the Church today, which so desperately needs it.

I found this prayer for today within the wonderful Celtic Book of Daily prayer.  I hope you find as much life and joy and light in it as I do.

I would welcome the poor
and honor them
I would welcome the sick
in the presence of angels
and ask God to bless and
embrace us all.

Seeing a stranger approach,
I would put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and look with joy for the blessing of God,
who often comes to my home
in the blessing of a stranger.

God bless you and those you love,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis