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Centennial Reflections

Saint Denis Parish celebrated its 100th year in 2007-2008.  Below are two sermons preached at the concluding events of the centennial celebration, which included the unveiling and blessing of four mosaics of the life and martyrdom of Saint Denis.

Preached at St Denis Catholic Church on the feast of St Denis, 2008.
The Rev. Dr. Guy Collins, Rector of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, Hanover, New Hampshire

May I speak in the name of God, Giver, Forgiver and Lover. Amen.

I would first like to thank pastor Becket Soule for his gracious hospitality in inviting me to preach this evening. It is an honor and a privilege to be here, and I bring greetings and blessings from your Episcopal brothers and sisters in Hanover at the start of this special centennial celebration.

Few of you can be unaware of the long history of rivalry between two of the great nations of the world. I am of course referring to England and France. Centuries of warfare, rivalry, betrayal, and political intrigue have created a famously fractious relationship. And so it is deliciously ironic for this Englishman on this holiest of days, to find himself here on the feast day of your patron who is also the patron saint of France, St Denis; or maybe I should say sainte Denis. At the same time, the life of Denis is gloriously international and cross-cultural. Denis was a stranger in a foreign land, a native of Italy sent to Gaul, who together with his companion bishops laid the foundations for French Christianity. He reminds us that the church is not the product of one culture or one heritage or one social model. Rather, Denis enshrines the cosmopolitan and hybrid character of the Christian body. And while his story will always be precious to the French, it is also of course a story treasured by this community here in Hanover and across our world.

In the thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine wrote the Golden Legend, a simply splendid compilation of writings about the Saints. Along with others, it a text that made an enormous contribution to the globalization of the saints. One of the more striking features to modern eyes is, however, its confusing rendition of the history of Denis, or as Voragine prefers, Dionysius. I look forward to Becket’s exploration of the fascinating triple dimensions to Denis’s personality in the lecture that follows this service. For now, I simply want to draw attention to how seven hundred years ago Voragine was fully aware of how chronologically contradictory it was for Denis to have three lives for the price of one. Voragine is no intellectual slouch, and he can see that he really has three different Denis’s in the story of the one Denis. And yet like the person of faith that he is Voragine states that no mere chronological contradictions can detract from the truth of Denis’s life.

It is hard for us today to understand that sentiment. After all we like to think of ourselves as rational people, and it makes sense that you cannot live simultaneously in three different time lines. But such a perspective fails to fully appreciate the meaning of St Denis.

Modern sensibilities are further challenged when it comes to the heart of the story of Denis. You know better than I how Denis was tortured and almost martyred a number of times. But Denis is reputed to have been like a medieval anticipation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator; he is almost impossible to kill. Attempts to grill him on an open fire, burn him in an oven, and even crucifixion all fail. It is only when he has his head cut off with a sword that the pagans finally have him; although even after decapitation the body of Denis stands up, puts his head in his arms, and marches for two miles to the place where he eventually rests.

It is an absolutely extraordinary story, and one can see why chronological limitations seem pretty lame compared to the physical boundaries that Denis was able to overcome. 

Now I know that many of our intelligent contemporaries are liable to see in the story of St Denis the failings of Christianity writ large. After all who in a world of Large Hadron Colliders and genetic research can be expected to take fantastical hagiographical literature seriously? What possible attention can such stories merit when everything about them is historically shaky at best or flagrantly fictitious at worst?

Those of you who have had anything to do with the philosophical and theoretical ideas to have come out of France in the last forty years will of course be best placed to answer our cultured critics. Thanks to the work of French thinkers like Georges Batailles, Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau or Luce Irigaray to name just a few we understand both our present and our past better. And as Bruce Holsinger has shown, much of the most advanced recent Continental theory emerged directly out of the scholarly study of the medieval world, the world that invented Denis. Through studies of psychoanalysis, feminism, literary theory, power and religion our mental universe is richer than ever before. And largely thanks to the free thinking French we are slowly learning how stories shape and create our world.

The world we live in is not the product of disinterested rational beliefs. Rather, as we know to both our cost and our joy, the real world is formed out of passion and paradox. All of us have imaginaries, mental constructions of the symbolic universe, that are fundamentally important for shaping our choices. While external reality is clearly important to us, even more critical to human decision-making are beliefs, hopes, fears, and desires.

Denis and the medievals who so beautifully tended and shaped his memory, need to be celebrated in this light. It is too easy, and quite facile, to smirk at hagiographical legends. Instead, we need to ask why those legends were so well received and celebrated. And to do that we have to understand the fundamental message of a life like that of Denis.

The life of Denis speaks to the reality of human suffering. And in a world where life was short, brutish and often unpleasant, one can see why this is so appealing. In a world of largely unpreventable and untreatable suffering, the repeated attempts to control or dominate Denis’s body are miraculously repelled. Right up until the eventual beheading Denis remains in control. Protected by his faith, literally nothing can touch Denis.

The site of this divine protection raises the most important political, social, scientific, philosophical, and economic question for our generation, the question of the body. The location of trials and torture, the body is also the sign of blessing and redemption. If we are to take the life of St Denis seriously, then we also need to start taking our own bodies seriously. One of the worst errors in the history of Christianity has been the division of the body from the soul. Too much religious language views the body as a mere container of something infinitely more important. By contrast, Denis reminds us that out physical bodies, vulnerable and weak as they are, are just as much a part of the divine creation as the spiritual or the intellectual. Catholicism has of course always rightly insisted on the sacramental reality and goodness of this physical world of human corporeality. But where human bodies are harmed the image of God is defiled.

The French thinker Emmanuel Levinas took this further, insisting that the face of the other is the basis for all ethics. In our faces we communicate whole ranges of emotional and psychological states, the vast majority of which are accessible only to the other, not to ourselves. So while our face belongs to us, in a true sense it is never ours, for it is only ever fully seen by the other. In the light of Levinas, the otherwise strange detail about Denis carrying his head two miles offers the key to unlocking the meaning of Denis’s martyrdom. Resistant to all the previous assaults on his flesh, the sword chops off Denis’s head only for him to display his head even more prominently.  Read in this way, from being the defeat of a body, Denis’s martyrdom is actually the story of the victory of the Christian body.

As followers of Christ none of us can escape the inevitable powerlessness and pains that go along with embodied existence. Equally, only through the frail finitude of our bodies can we ever hope to make sense of the mystery that is incarnation, God among us. In the body of Christ, God took our vulnerable and powerless human nature, and redeemed it. In Denis, God showed how the body continued to be a site of prophetic resistance. As for us, wherever we love and serve the powerless and vulnerable, there we too will be woven into the healing body that is Christ. Amen
 
Preached at a Festival Eucharist for the Dedication of Mosaics on the Life and Martyrdom of Saint Denis closing the Centennial Celebration
The Rev. Monsignor William H. Carr, Pastor of Saint Bridget's Catholic Church, Richmond, Virginia

Congratulations on the centennial of your parish.  Is there anybody here when it started?

This parish witnesses well to the glory of God and the devotion of God’s people, the Church.  Throughout decades of good times and bad, you have opened your doors and your hearts to the academic and civic communities.

A review of your history reveals respect for the priests who have led you.  Many parishioners also stand out from its pages as good stewards of God’s gifts.  Vigor, reverence, and charity hallmark a hundred years of history.  You have gathered treasures to inspire the lives of those who look upon them and pray.

This church and parish enoble the landscape.  They point minds and hearts to heaven.

Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his Name, he is among them.

Most profoundly, where the Word of God is proclaimed and the Eucharist is shared, the faith community is affirmed and strengthened and expanded as we worship God who summons us to his altar.

This celebration today is clearly of God and us, God who is both beyond us and with us.  This centenary, truly a moment of thanksgiving for faith, is a testament to our humanity, our deep need for communal worship, our holy compulsion to support one another and bear collective witness to the God who loves us all.

We bring our victories and our failures to lay upon the altar.  And from the altar we go to love and serve the Lord.  We draw strength from Word and Sacrament and return to the world better for it.  The weekday Church of God’s people working in the world and the Sunday Church of God’s gathering is authentically one and the same and never distinct.

This has no doubt been the thrust of every priest assigned here over the last 100 years.  Each one left his touch, each moved the parish along, stretched the parish, grew the parish in God’s grace.

This latest priest summoned by your bishop and sent by the Order of Preachers carries on in that light.   We have been friends for a long time.  We first met in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I pastored a parish that had eleven Masses on the weekend.  I looked for all the weekend help I could get.  In the mid-1990’s someone said there is a Dominican priest up in Washington, D.C. who is a history buff and whom you could probably get to come on weekends to help.  They said he would enjoy Colonial Williamsburg and the various Virginia battlefields.

The duties assigned him by the Dominicans included moving between the Chancery of the Washington Archdiocese, Oxford and Cambridge, the Ukraine and the Vatican.  In Williamsburg he served as Sunday Mass priest, confessor, spiritual director, lecturer, humorist, and a very successful campus minister for the College of William and Mary.  I am intellectually more alert and spiritually more alive because the hard working, brilliant Becket Soule is part of my life.

And did I say what you already know: that he is a good homilist?

So your bishop has cared well for your parish. 

Bishops are a reminder of our Catholicism.  We belong to a universal Church, and the link from the beginning, from Peter and Paul, Ignatius and Clement, Denis and all the others, the link has been the overseer, the episkopos, the bishop.  Our bishops remind us that we can never be insular, never be self-serving, never be focused only on the local community – but we are part of a world-wide communion.

Through the bishop we are joined to other bishops of all the other Churches whose unity and charity are symbolized by the Bishop of Rome.

So our bishops tell us who we are.  Our history tells us who we are.  And naturally, the Eucharist tells us who we are.

The first President George Bush had a program called “A Thousand Points of Light” and he went around the country awarding a point of light to exceptional people and places.  One day he came to a nursing home where some very good work had been done to help people in need.

The staff and residents all gathered in the central crossing of the buildings where the nurses’ station was located.  At noon the door flung open and in came the President of the United States with all his aides and security and press people.

President Bush got to the excited gathering and began to make his little speech to award the point of light, when way at the end of the corridor a door opened and an elderly man using a walker started up the hallway towards the crowd.  The President paused so the old man could get closer and join in the celebration.  And as the man approached,  it was clear that he was going to pass the crowd by and head into the dining room for his lunch.

President Bush, afraid that the old gentleman would miss the opportunity of his life --  to see the President of the United States -- said:  “Sir, do you know who I am?”

The old man said:  “No, son.  But if you ask that nice nurse over there, she will tell you who you are.”

The Eucharist tells us who we are.

The three faces of Saint Denis Parish

  • dignified liturgy,

  • energetic ministry,

  • devotion to sacred art and music

are rooted in the Eucharist.

The Englishman Monsignor Ronald Knox said that of all of the commands Jesus gave, to “do this is memory of me” is the one that is most obeyed.  At every moment, in every hour, some place on the Earth, night and day, month after month, year after year, Catholic people gather to thank God for faith and to and to “do this in memory of me.”  To lift up the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, giving all honor and glory to God, tells us who we are.

But Jesus also commanded us to do this in memory of him: Walk the extra mile, give the shirt off our back, give and not worry about receiving, forgive and love and lay down our lives.  And we do all of that – sometimes.

But everywhere all over the world and to the ends of the Earth: 

Eucharist!   “Do this in memory of me.”

A Sacrament of energy, the Eucharist is one of constant momentum: processions of people to their pews, the priest to the altar, bringing forth the gifts, going to communion, and then going forth to love and serve the Lord.

All this energy characterizes the Eucharist as a Sacrament of passage and power.

We think of the Eucharist as a matter of God coming down from heaven into the bread and wine, but another important movement of the Mass is up.  It is at the very heart of the Sacrament that we sinners – we distracted, we imperfect people – give to God what God most wants: the perfect Sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.

Lifting high the Body and Blood of God’s only Son we offer this perfect Sacrifice to the Father: through Jesus, with him, and in him.  The sheer humility of Jesus Christ changes the nature of human life: exiled by original sin, here we are at home.  Broken, here we are made whole.  Here grace overcomes sin and life overwhelms death. 

Such is the Sacrifice offered by this parish for one hundred years.

The Eucharist tells us who we are: We are people who treasure the past.  We have our eyes on a blessed future.

Yes, Saint Denis Parish, with thanksgiving for faith on this anniversary, and in the Eucharist, you are

Beloved of God

With work to do

Here … and beyond.