Homily for Palm Sunday, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

 

There is something fascinating about famous last words. Some are merely interesting: “All my possessions for a moment of time” (Queen Elizabeth I); “Josephine” (Napoleon Bonaparte); “I have tried so hard to do the right” (Grover Cleveland). Some are even humorous: “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis” (Humphrey Bogart), while others are troubling: “Don’t you dare ask God to help me” (Joan Crawford).

 
We often speak of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus on the cross. Where are they in today’s reading of the Passion? As it happens, Matthew has only one. Three are unique to Luke; three more are unique to John; there is only the one in Matthew and Mark, “last words” in the usual sense of the term. It is the most troubling of all, an expression of despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 
Jesus is quoting the 22nd Psalm (the one that comes just before “The Lord is my Shepherd”), which goes to the heart of the question asked by all who suffer: “Why?”

 
One answer might be simply that such is the human condition. That is true enough, but not really good enough. It’s like saying, “Well, it’s just—because!”

 
Sometimes the question “why” is not actually a request for an explanation. It can also be a protest.

 
The Suffering Servant of the first reading does not protest, but says, “I have not rebelled,... not turned back. I am not disgraced,... not put to shame.” And St. Paul reminds the Philippians that Jesus “humbled himself,” accepting “even death on a cross.”

 
The question “why” could be repeated many times as we read the story of the Passion. Judas “looked for an opportunity to hand him over”—why? Peter, James and John “Could not keep watch”—why not? Why did Peter insist, “I do not know the man”? Why did Pilate think himself “innocent of this man’s blood”? And why on earth would the people call a ferocious curse on themselves—a curse used or, rather, abused over centuries to justify persecution of the Jews, including the Holocaust.

 
Psalm 22 ultimately ends on a note of hope and trust, starting in verse 23 with the words, “I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” Whether Jesus recited the Psalm to the end we cannot know, but it hardly matters; what is more important is that he lived it to the end, and we know why. As St. Peter wrote in his first letter, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps... so that free from sin, we might live for righteousness.”

 
As Christians “living for righteousness” we might imagine that our last words will be of comfort and hope, but very few of us will even know that our last words are in fact our last. As interesting as they may be, they are—like the words uttered by Jesus on the cross— actually less important than the life that has come before.

 
And they are nothing compared to the life that will come after.



Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler,
M.S. Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

We are faced today with such an embarrassment of riches in the readings, one hardly knows where to begin. It would be interesting to ask each of you what struck you in particular. Let me share what struck me. I begin with... the Responsorial Psalm!


“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The Psalmist certainly had his fair share of the experience of “the depths.” Many Psalms have a similar theme: “I cry aloud to God, cry aloud to God that he may hear me (Ps. 77). Perhaps the bleakest of all ends with the words, “My only friend is darkness” (Ps. 88).

 
Virtually everyone knows what it is like to be swallowed up by that ocean, drowning in what Shakespeare calls “a sea of troubles. It can be the boundless depths of grief, the remorseless depths of misery, the hideous depths of rage, the black depths of fear, the pathless depths of doubt, the icy depths of pain, the cavernous depths of depression & hopelessness (“My only friend is darkness”), the relentless depths of guilt, the unimagined depths of humiliation, or the insatiable depths of addiction.

 
There are of course other fathomless depths in life, like love and trust and hope. It was from the depths of sorrow and the depths of faith that Martha, and then Mary, reproached Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In his encounter with Martha, Jesus challenges her faith—and ours—with an extraordinary claim, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” followed by a bewildering declaration: “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” To paraphrase: You won’t die, but even if you do die, you won’t. Then follows the question, “Do you believe this?”


It would appear that only a believer can hold on to this puzzling truth, even without actually making perfect sense of it. It isn’t Western logic; it’s faith. (This applies also to today’s second reading.)
 

There is no doubt that faith is at the heart of this Gospel story. Before leaving for Bethany Jesus tells his disciples he is glad he didn’t save Lazarus from dying, “that you may believe.” Then there is the encounter with Martha. Later, at the tomb, Jesus prays aloud to the Father, so that the crowd “may believe that you sent me.” And the story ends with the words, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

 
Jesus also experienced the depths. On the cross he cried out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in today’s Gospel, “Jesus wept.”

 
Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the first two he confides to Peter, James and John: “My soul is sorrowful, even to death.” There is no equivalent in the Passion according to St. John.

 
But maybe we might not be totally misguided in seeing the same reality in that famously short verse, “Jesus wept.” The bystanders recognized the depths of his grief for his dead friend and the bereaved sisters. But sorrow at the death of another is never isolated from sorrow at the prospect of one’s own inevitable passing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus always knows what is coming. The death of Lazarus furnishes the perfect opportunity for Jesus to react to the suffering and death that lie ahead.

 
We read that Jesus was still “perturbed” when he arrived at the tomb. Lazarus, meanwhile, was in the depths of the grave. Jesus summoned him, fulfilling in a spectacular way the prophecy of Ezekiel.

 
Let us return for a moment to our Psalm. We don’t know exactly what depths of suffering the psalmist was experiencing, but we do know that he didn’t simply wallow in it. “Out of the depths” he cried, yes indeed, but to the Lord, in faith.

 
In the light of all this, we return, finally, to Jesus’ words to Martha, “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Suddenly it all makes sense if we look at Lazarus. After Jesus raised him, he died again at some later date. But death no longer had a hold on him.

 
Jesus does not deliver us from dying. That is part of the human condition, which he also shared. But he does deliver us from death, that is, from death’s ultimate, absolute power. Death shall have no dominion.

 
Do you believe this?

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2014


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH


What did the man born blind do once he could see? He went back. Where? We don’t know. Why? Well, where else? John tells us nothing about his reaction to his new situation. He is totally unlike the lame man healed in Acts 3:8, “walking and jumping and praising God.” He was not even looking for Jesus, as far as we can tell.

It almost makes sense. He is the only blind person in the Gospels whose story does not include Jesus’ being asked to let him see. Maybe he was just stunned, confused at this totally unexpected turn of events. Add to that all the fuss going on around him!

Why did the bystanders even feel it necessary to bring him to the Pharisees? This is an element typical of John’s Gospel, heightening the drama and propelling the dialogue forward to its climax.

With such an interesting story, it is easy to miss the brief prologue, in which Jesus stresses the need to do “the works of God...while it is day.”

The Pharisees in the story exemplify what St. Paul calls, in the second reading, “fruitless works of darkness.” Even the good and great Samuel, in the first reading, initially saw only what he wanted to see. The Pharisees persisted in that attitude.

It is impossible to explain color to one who has never seen it. Helen Keller, in her 50’s, published an article in The Atlantic Monthly (January 1933), titled “Three Days to See”. She wrote, “At times my heart cries out with longing to see... If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life... How many of you, I wonder, when you gaze at a play, a movie, or any spectacle, realize and give thanks for the miracle of sight which enables you to enjoy its color, grace, and movement?”

Have you ever tried to explain faith to someone who has never known it? It is every bit as much a free gift as Jesus gave to the man born blind. Taking our cue from Helen Keller we might ask how many of us who do believe use that gift consciously. How often do we give thanks for it? It is easy to take it for granted.

Helen Keller suggests we should look at things as if in three days we would be struck blind. Applying that thought to faith, what if we had just three days to build up a store of faith, as it were, and then no more increase, no more deepening? How might we go about it? Today’s Responsorial Psalm 23 might be a good start, but I suspect each of us would take a different approach. It’s an interesting concept.

In the case of the faith of the man born blind, Jesus again takes the initiative. He seeks him out and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He adds the gift of faith to the gift of sight, bestowing an even greater gift on top of an already wondrous one.

Lent provides an opportunity for us to recognize the gift of faith, and ask for more.

In a short story published in 1915 by Luigi Pirandello, the author encounters his recently deceased mother. She tells him, “Look at things also with the eyes of those who can’t see them any more. It will make you sad, son, but that will render them more sacred and more beautiful.”

Think of someone you knew who has died, but whose faith was strong and deep and remains an inspiration to you. Now that he or she is gone, look at life, at the world, at other people, with his or her eyes of faith. What a gift of sight that might be!

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2014


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH
 
One of my favorite Scripture quotations is, “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (Proverbs 25:25)

 
Today, however, I feel I should quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.” The first half of the quotation seems apt for today’s readings. Water, water everywhere!

 
In their wanderings in the desert, the Lord led his people to an area where, as we read: “There was no water for the people to drink.” The dramatic scene depicted in the first reading follows immediately. Here water is obviously meant in the strictly literal sense

 
Water is even more prevalent in today’s Gospel. The word occurs eight times in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria. But here, as often happens in John, the literal sense is soon eclipsed by a deeper symbolic sense. As we read, it becomes clear that Jesus is using the image of water to talk about the gift of grace. Even when the conversation turns to other things, the same reality is present. Worshiping God “in Spirit and truth” is, after all, possible only for those who have received the “spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

 
What about the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans? True, the word “water” does not occur, but the symbolic sense is present nonetheless. St. Paul writes, “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Poured out like what, if not like water?

 
This conjuction of water and Spirit goes right back to the beginning of the Old Testament. Most translations of Genesis 1:2 read, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” So too in the New Testament. Early in all four Gospels we find John the Baptist saying that while he baptizes with water, the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Peter begins his discourse with a quotation from the Prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all mankind.”

 
“Pouring out” occurs as well in another, quite different context, quoted in every Mass. “This is the chalice of my blood... which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.”

 
Which takes us back to the first reading: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This same idea is expressed in a wonderful poem attributed to St. Francis Xavier, translated from the Latin by the brilliant poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It reads in part:


O God, I love thee, I love thee---
Not out of hope of heaven for me...

Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance...

Yea, and death, and this for me.
And thou couldst see me sinning!
 
The water of baptism cleanses us. The blood of the Eucharist saves us. The Holy Spirit is present in both.

 
The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make an appearance once a year at Pentecost. Lent is certainly a good time to open our hearts and minds to the constant presence of the one whom we call in the creed, “the Lord, the giver of life.”

 
Spirit, Spirit everywhere. And always more to drink.

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2014


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH


All of us know people who have retired to Florida or Arizona or California, or even people from points south who have retired to New Hampshire or Vermont. But none of them moved because God told them to.

Here we have Abram—at the age of 75, by the way—being told, by the Lord, to do what was unthinkable in his world, to leave country and family behind and go he knew not where. This was nothing like retirement. It was starting all over again. But he did it, because God made him a promise. The trade-off was this: God would gain a people who would worship him exclusively, and  Abraham, still childless at this point, would have more descendants than could ever be counted. God didn’t say it would be easy, and in fact it wasn’t easy for him or his descendents, down to this very day.

In Lent perhaps more than at other times we think of “doing something for God,” praying more, going to church more often, making a variety of sacrifices which, like the sacrifices of old, send up a pleasing odor to God. Why?

It’s not the guarantee of an easy existence. St. Paul encourages us to bear our “share of hardship for the Gospel.” That hasn’t changed, down to this very day. So, what’s the trade-off?

Now you will never find the word “trade-off” in the Bible or any liturgical prayer you will hear at Mass or elsewhere. It’s too inelegant, crass even. But we find the reality often enough.

The word used in the Liturgy is “exchange.” For example, there is this text in the Breviary for January 1st: “O marvelous exchange! The Creator of the human race, taking on a living body,... has bestowed on us his own divinity.” And we find the same reality without the word, at the offertory of every Mass, as water is added to the wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

At the Mass, then, we offer God bread and wine, and he offers us in return the Body and Blood of Christ. What about outside of the Liturgy?

Today’s Gospel helps us to understand this exchange. Not only did Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the glory that Jesus was destined for, but of the glory they were destined for as well.

St. Augustine in one of his sermons describes the exchange. He explains what the Son of God received from us by taking on our humanity, and what we received from him.

From us, he received a human body, that “flesh” which in the Scriptures is synonymous with weakness. From him, we received strength. From us, he received death; from him, we received life. He received insults, we received glory. And through the temptation he endured, he gave us victory.

There is of course an expectation on both sides of the bargain. He will guide and protect his own. We for our part need to put our trust in him, or as the voice from the cloud said: “Listen to him.” Like Peter and his companions, sometimes we do so with enthusiasm. “It is good that we are here.” And sometimes, as they were just moments later, we are “very much afraid.”

Today’s Gospel promises at least two things: the suffering and death of Jesus will not be the end; and, for his faithful disciples, suffering and death, inevitable as they are, will not be the end.

That’s a more than fair trade-off. That’s a “marvelous exchange”!

First Sunday of Lent

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Recently I was traveling south on Route 91 in Vermont. After a winter storm, the roads were slushy. Cars and especially trucks kept spattering my windshield, and at a certain point my windshield washer reservoir was empty. Fortunately, I always keep a small reserve in the trunk, and that was enough to get me to my destination safely.

This episode suggested an image, a parable if you like, for Lent. What occurred to me was this: What if we compared ourselves to a car?

Lent is a privileged time for confession. That is something like going to a car wash. A good thing, an excellent thing, obviously.

But Lent is more than that. Every year at this time our spiritual OBD light (on board diagnostic) light goes on, so to speak, advising us that something needs attention. We need to take our souls in for service.

This is a time to renew our spiritual energies, to recharge our battery. We usually adopt certain practices—prayer, penance, charity—designed to help us accomplish this.

It is a time to see better where we are going. So, while you are charging the battery and the hood is up anyway, fill up the windshield fluid reservoir. This might involve reading or study, a retreat or other forms of spiritual guidance.

It is a time to improve quality of the ride. A realignment is in order, of our priorities and values. Proper inflation of tires will help, carried out, ironically, by a proper deflation of our pride.

It may be time for an oil change, as we seek and find ways to help a virtuous life function as smoothly, as naturally as possible.

It is a time to observe the various warning lights: brake fluid (self-control), temperature (usually too cold), transmission problems (adjusting to changes in life).

Maybe the fuel light is on. This is where prayer and the Eucharist come in: more, if possible, but in any case better, deeper, richer.

Modern odometers do more than indicate your mileage. They can tell you your average miles per gallon (are you getting all you can from your fuel?), your average speed (too slow? too fast?), and your current range, i.e. how far you can go on the amount of fuel in your tank, or how far will your current spiritual reserves be able to take you?

And while you are at it, clean out the trunk! Get rid of the junk and excess baggage that takes up too much space in your life.

The very next verse after today’s second reading reads, “What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!” It is a variation, if you will, on Deuteronomy 6: 16, the verse quoted by Jesus during his temptation: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test!”

Most people don’t take chances with their cars. We prefer not to put them to the test. Why would we take chances with our souls?

So, this Lent let’s go back to the dealership, better still the manufacturer, the Creator, maybe not for a complete overhaul, but for annual service, all covered by a warrantee that never expires! As St. Paul says: “For if, by the transgression of the one, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.”

But while you are at it, go to the car wash, too.

If I may be permitted one more image, I have another little driving story. Some months ago I was heading towards Manchester, New Hampshire. I had programmed my GPS for my destination, but took back roads to get to the highway. Unfortunately, the lady in the GPS didn’t know the back roads and every minute or so she said, “Turn around at the first available opportunity.” Finally, she announced that she was “recalculating,” and we were friends again. Maybe that is what Lent is all about.

So switch on your spiritual GPS, and recalculate.

Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

The Gospel has always been counter-cultural, from the time of Jesus to our own day. In no place is this more obvious than today’s Gospel text. Turn the other cheek? Never, no way, no how.

The same applies to giving up more than your adversary demands, or doubling troublesome obligations.

And yet, Jesus tell us that this is the way to be perfect! The first reading uses the term “holy,” but somehow the meaning seems to be the same.

So, if that’s what it takes, do we really want to be perfect, do we really want to be holy?

And even if we could bring ourselves to do these things, how could we avoid resentment at the humiliation and loss of face? How would we be able to deal with it?

There is plenty of resentment out there, around us and within us. There is plenty of frustration and anger behind it. These affect almost every sphere of life: political, personal, family, authority issues, justice, etc.

Think of the greatest source of anger and frustration in your life. Think of the persons or groups that you see as the cause. Now, stop and say a prayer for them.

Really? Yes, really! You might well feel resistance to doing so. Resentment is such a powerful force. It is part of our natural defensive instinct. It has a preventive side as well, when we are on our guard not to be hurt or taken advantage of.

St. Paul offers a great clue to overcoming this resistance. We are a temple, the Holy Spirit’s dwelling.

What if we had a special bulletin board in our church where people could say every nasty thing about the people they hate? Would that be in any way appropriate? Neither is it appropriate in our heart and soul, God’s temple. There would be a kind of defilement in both cases.

And remember: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

When Jesus told his disciples to observe the Law in even the smallest detail, the scribes and Pharisees must have been pleased. That’s exactly what they had been saying for generations, and they lived by that principle themselves.

But then Jesus adds: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, the Law is good, but it is a minimum. He gives four examples, and in the coming weeks we will see more, contrasting the Law’s requirements with Jesus’ expectations. Good enough isn’t good enough!

Much later, in Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes the same point: "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” He follows this up with a diatribe so horrific, so fierce that you will never hear it in the Sunday readings: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!... Blind guides!... Blind fools!... Serpents, brood of vipers!”

The first reading reminds us that we have a choice to make between good and evil. In our time, good has become synonymous in this country with legal. Legal has become synonymous with Constitutional. Constitutional has become synonymous with free.

Freedom is a great good. It is splendidly celebrated in Norman Rockwell’s “Four freedoms:” from fear, from want, of speech, of worship. But freedom is not the only good, not the only norm. It is, like the law, a minimum, a condition or foundation for accomplishing or promoting greater good.

Freedom to engage in a certain behavior does not guarantee that the behavior is good. On the contrary, just as it is possible to abuse power for one’s one advantage, so too with freedom. It’s a powerful temptation.

Isaiah 5: 20-21 has a diatribe just as ferocious as the one quoted above. It reads in part: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own sight, and prudent in their own esteem!”

St. Paul in the second reading evokes wisdom also, God’s wisdom. When Catholics quote God’s wisdom expressed in the commandments and the moral principles of the Scriptures and of the Church, we are openly mocked. The search for truth has been trumped by the desire for freedom.

This does not apply only to the issues constantly highlighted in the media. It bears on the everyday choices that each one of us makes. Our motives are easily tainted. I may have the
right to do something; that doesn’t mean it is always right to do it. Jesus expects more, as in the case of being reconciled before leaving our gift on the altar.

Before us are life and death, good and evil, whichever we choose shall be given us.

Whichever we choose shall be given us. It behooves us to choose wisely and well.

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

Fr. René J. Butler,
M.S. Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Jesus conjures up two images in today’s famous Gospel passage that, on the surface, do not make sense. One is obvious: you wouldn’t light a lamp and then hide it. What would be the point?

The other is the idea that salt could lose its flavor. That doesn’t make sense, either. Sodium chloride is a chemical compound. It’s either sodium chloride or it isn’t. Various explanations have been offered to explain why Jesus would say such a thing. Here is mine.

Both images imply the word “suppose.” For example, suppose that in a storm you lost power and someone lit a hurricane lantern and then put it in a closet and closed the door. That would be foolish.

Suppose salt could lose its flavor. For example, if someone puts salt and sugar in the same container, the salt, for all practical purposes, would lose its taste. That would be a foolish thing to do. Both salt and sugar would become useless.

St. Paul says a strange thing, too, namely that he prefers foolishness to wisdom. Three times in today’s second reading he insists that he does not rely on wisdom in his preaching. In the previous chapter of 1 Corinthians he writes: “Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?” and “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” Remember that Paul preached the Gospel in a predominantly Greek culture, where wisdom (philosophy) was held in especially high esteem. In his Letter to the Romans he writes: “While claiming to be wise, they (the Greeks) became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.”

The Greek word Paul uses for foolish is “moros,” which came into the English language eventually as the now politically incorrect word “moron.”

It’s a funny thing. Jesus uses the same word as Paul, “foolish,” in this Gospel. Where? About the salt! The same Greek word meaning foolish about persons meant “tasteless” in the context of food. “Insipid” might work for both, in the sense of boring, the opposite of exciting.

The reading from Isaiah directs us to the other image: letting our light shine. Twice he says if we devote ourselves to the cause of a just society, then our light will shine. One of the most brilliant shining examples in our lifetime was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Both images, salt and light, make me think of first fervor. We get excited about someone or something and we think: it will always be this way. It isn’t necessarily so. Most of 1 Corinthians addresses this issue in one way or another. Remember also the Parable of the Sower, where the seed that fell on shallow, rocky soil, sprang up quickly and then dried up.

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation, 2014


Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Every couple of years I like to read my One Year Bible. This is one of those years. Just this past Friday, I read the following in Exodus 13: “Consecrate to me every firstborn.” Every firstborn animal had to be sacrificed to God. A donkey could be “ransomed” with a sheep; and “Every human firstborn of your sons you must ransom.Remember that Moses was leading God’s people to Canaan, a land where child sacrifice was not unheard of. God was stating emphatically: DON’T DO THAT!

The “purification” mentioned in the beginning of today’s Gospel refers to the period after childbirth when a woman could not even enter the temple, not because she was in any way “dirty,” but because she had incurred ritual “uncleanness” due to loss of blood. After that time, she would offer a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon; or, if she couldn’t afford a lamb, two turtledoves or pigeons.

These are two different rites in the Old Testament, but by the time of Jesus they seem to have been combined into one.

There are two surprises here, ironies if you will, that are easy to miss. First, Mary, who was full of grace, never tainted by any sin, not even original sin, had to be purified, to go through a ritual of purification. Secondly, Jesus, who came to ransom us, first had to be ransomed himself! The Redeemer had to be redeemed—bought and paid for, so to speak.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that our ransom was paid by Christ, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life... to expiate the sins of the people.”

The consequences in our life of faith are obvious.

First, we need to recognize our need of redemption. The first two of the Twelve Steps of AA offer a good example: acknowledging our “powerlessness;” and “a power greater than ourselves.”

Then, we need to recognize the gift of redemption. The word “amazing” is overworked today, but this is truly the gift we sing of as “Amazing Grace.”

So far so good. But wait! There’s more! Only, we won’t like it. We need to accept purification. This is a sometimes painful process (which is perhaps one of the reasons why people do not avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation) Confession or otherwise). It can be a trial by fire, as in the removal of impurities from gold. In this context there is an interesting passage in 1 Peter 1, 6-7: “In this [promise of salvation] you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Simeon in today’s Gospel gave thanks that he had seen the salvation, the savior. Anna spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. Both acknowledged the need and the gift. But Simeon also spoke to Mary about a sword!

When in the Lord’s prayer we say, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are asking not to be put to the test. Yes, it is wise not to count on our own strength. But then again, we don’t have to. As Job says in a very famous text: I know that my Redeemer lives. That’s all the strength we need!