Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Brief Homily on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas  
Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican Friar and Priest.  St. Thomas is one of the most influential writers in church history, known as the Doctor Angelicus of the church, and much of our modern philosophy was developed either in conversation or opposition to what Thomas wrote.  It is, I think, very difficult to overestimate the impact Thomas’ writings had on the church.  He is best known for his books the Summa Theologica and the Summa contra Gentiles.  Impressively, his writings were declared whole cloth to be those of the Church, which, when you think about it is an incredible statement.  In what is perhaps the most telling testament to St. Thomas’ wisdom, he was once visited by the Blessed Virgin, to whom Dominicans have a particular devotion, their founder having apparently received the first rosary from St. Mary herself, and she was comforting Thomas with the welcome news that he would never be a Bishop.  

Having read a fair amount of the two Summas I can say, Thomas is a force to be reckoned with.  He writes powerfully and convincingly on the nature of the sacraments, on what happens at the Eucharist, on why we believe what we believe, and his writings have greatly influenced me, especially on my theology of the Eucharist.  In fact, in seminary when taking a liturgics class, I was reading an assignment that was making a particular argument about what actually happens during the canon of the mass, what happens when the priest at the altar is saying and doing certain things.  I have to admit, I didn’t find the argument to be terribly persuasive.  I noticed however, that it had cited St. Thomas’ a couple of times and so I went and read the document that this particular article was arguing against.  Given what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it will be any surprise that after reading through both, I found Thomas’ 750 year old argument to be quite a bit more persuasive than the article written in the last decade.  Even giving someone a three-quarters of a millennium advantage in additional scholarship, Thomas is still an opponent that’s difficult to beat.

And this is actually relevant, because for Thomas, God was knowable by reason.  There’s a joke going around the Episcopal Church that I’ve never been particularly fond of that says “The good thing about being Episcopalian is that you don’t have to check your brain at the door.”  I’d say that by virtue of being a faithful Christian is that you don’t have to check your brain, we certainly have no monopoly, and others certainly have great scholars, but St. Thomas is proof of that par exemplar. He believed deeply that our reasoning intellect that humans alone seem to have been given was given to us for a purpose, and that if God is true, we can learn about the nature of God through statements that must be true.  He teased and toiled those truths out of the world around us, out of our sacred texts, and out of lived experience.  And in doing so Thomas taught us more about the nature of God than perhaps anyone since the end of the Apostolic age.  His writings on God were so incredible and impressive that when his canonization trial was taking place to determine whether he’d be a saint the Devil’s Advocate pointed out he had no miracles (sainthood requires two, unless martyred, then only one).  The reply came: "there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles (in his Summa)", thousands.

And yet, Thomas never lost his reverence for mystery, knowing that even given our powerful intellect and our ability to reason out things about the nature of God, that God is, in the end, beyond our comprehension.  It was from this place of adoration and mystery that Thomas wrote communion hymns, many of which we still use today.  In fact, I believe the only hymn used at both of my ordinations was written by him.   
Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen,
who thy glory hidest  ‘neath these shadows mean;
lo, to thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed,
tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.

Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail;
faith, that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil.
I believe whate’er the Son of God hath told;
what the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.

O memorial wondrous of the Lord’s own death;
living Bread that givest all thy creatures breath,
grant my spirit ever by thy life may live,
to my taste thy sweetness never failing give.

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold;
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.

As he approached the end of his life and knew he was dying, Thomas had a vision. Meditating before an icon, the crucified Christ said to Thomas, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?" Thomas responded, "Nothing but you, Lord." After this exchange something happened, but Thomas never spoke of it or wrote it down. Because of what he saw, he abandoned his routine and refused to continue dictation to the person helping him, Reginald of Piperno. When Reginald begged him to get back to work, Thomas replied: "Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me"

His monumental works stand as mountains in the church, the basis for much of our understanding of God, but to Thomas, compared to even a glimpse of Christ, they are but so much straw.  Such is the glory of God, that even those who understand better than most are still reduced to humble awe in the presence of Holy Divinity. 

The motto of the Dominican Order is, translated from Latin, to Praise, to Bless, to Preach.  St. 
Thomas did all of these things with exceptional ability.  He wrote well of Christ.  He, in his humility, loved God well.  May we all be so fortunate as to seek to know God to the best of our ability, to Praise God with our Work, to Bless God with our lives, and to Preach both the reasonable and mysterious glory of God.  And let us today give thanks for the life and work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, that we may one day humbly adore the God who dwells in light alongside him.

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