Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


Who was Shebna? Who was Eliakim? Why did Shebna lose his job to Eliakim? Why should we care? These questions are pretty irrelevant. Today’s reading from Isaiah was clearly selected only because of its reference to keys.

The questions in today’s Gospel, on the other hand, are far from irrelevant.

Can you imagine a head of state or a pope asking his closest associates, “Who do people say that I am?” The more normal question would be, “What are people saying about me?”

The disciples felt no need, apparently, to ask what Jesus meant, and they gave precisely the kind of answer he  was looking for: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (How anyone could think he was John the Baptist, whose death was so recent, is beyond me.)

When Jesus asked the disciples the more pointed question, “Who do you say that I am?” again they understood, and Simon responded accordingly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It is amazing how many different answers are given today to this question. Over the years I have seen articles in print or on-line making some interesting claims.

Some argue that Jesus was a married man, because men in his day were expected to marry, and the Gospels never say that he was not married. (Mary Madgalen is usually the most like candidate as his wife.) My first encounter with this position was published by a former priest arguing for married clergy.

Or: Jesus was a vegetarian. This idea is supported, among others, by the scene of Jesus casting out the sellers, which is interpreted as showing that Jesus was opposed to animal sacrifice. This is from an author associated with a group called “Denver Vegans.” (I have seen a stained-glass window depicting the same Gospel scene, and on the ground, among the spilled coins, are Bingo cards! There was no doubt about that pastor’s position on fund-raising options.)

There is even a book, published in 2003 by the Law and Business Institute, with the following title: Judith Christ of Nazareth: The Gospels of the Bible, Corrected to Reflect that Christ was a Woman. Unlike the previously mentioned articles, the authors make no attempt to justify their claim from Scripture.

As you can imagine, there are similar positions taken by various other interest groups, each claiming Jesus as one of their own.

In a way, that is a compliment to him. It shows how important it is to believers to have Jesus “on their side.” One could even claim that Simon’s response was similar. Who was “the Christ,” after all? In Hebrew the word is “Messiah,” and the Messiah was the one who would ultimately “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Who could be more desirable as “one of ours” for the Jewish people?

Simon’s statement could perhaps be seen as politically self-serving, except that Jesus says, “Blessed are you..., flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

In all of the above, I am not actually interested in getting involved in any controversies. I have neither the time nor the temperament for that. What I am fascinated by, today at least, is Jesus’ response to Simon.

After Simon, under divine inspiration, has named Jesus correctly as the Christ, Jesus repays the compliment. In effect he says, you have told me who I am, now I will tell you who you are: “You are Peter.” The name means Rock. The interpretation of this name varies, naturally, according to the presuppositions and/or desires of those interpreting it.

Shortly in the Creed we will profess our faith in Jesus: Lord, Son of God, born of a virgin, risen from the dead, etc.

Imagine Jesus saying to you after that, “Thank you for your expression of faith, and for recognizing me for who I am. Now let me tell you who you are.”

What does he say next?

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


The image is a familiar one: one or more dogs begging while you are at table, ready to pounce on whatever falls from the table, if not actively “demanding tribute,” as my brother’s Chihuahua “Rosy” does. Cute, if you like that sort of thing.

But there is nothing cute about the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this Gospel. I once read an author, bent on finding humor in the Bible, who claimed that this was just a friendly little repartee, what Webster’s Dictionary describes as “amusing and usually light sparring with words.”  I couldn’t disagree more. The scene presented here by Matthew is no game of wits!

Let me digress briefly with a little trip down memory lane:
[Click on this link:] Kyrie eleison from the Missa de Angelis

The point isn’t the music, the Gregorian chant or any other classic settings. The point isn’t the Latin Mass vs. English. It isn’t even that “Kyrie eleison” isn’t Latin at all, but Greek.

What is the point? It’s that we find those very same Greek words in today’s Gospel, and the point is especially what they mean.

The woman says “Eleison me kyrie.” This is translated in the Lectionary as “Have pity on me, Lord,” but it means equally well, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Now leave out the middle word, change the order and there you have it: Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy.

She knows that as a foreigner she really has no claim on the one she calls “Son of David.” That doesn’t stop her.

Maybe she’s stubborn by nature. Maybe she’s had a hard life and is used to fighting for what she wants. Personally, I think the simple answer is the best: she’s a mother. And even if she has to accept being insulted by a famous teacher and healer, she accepts it, for her daughter’s sake.

But there is another reason why she doesn’t hold back. Jesus recognizes it, tests it, praises it, and rewards it. It is her “great faith”! (This woman, by the way, is one of the two foreigners I alluded to last week who are described as having “great” faith in the Gospels.)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” we read in Isaiah. In this story we see a partial fulfillment of that prophecy. It’s no longer about a place, much less a single building situated in Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus and the community of believers gathered around him. It’s about the universal Church.

It seems everyone knows people who get in touch only when they need something. Often enough, however, that describes our prayer. The Canaanite woman might never have approached Jesus if her daughter hadn’t been sick. But in that moment, he saw her faith. and that was all that mattered. The same great faith that brought her to him in tears sent her back home to her daughter in grateful joy.

It is perfectly natural that we come to the Lord in our need. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?”

When we look at ourselves, and at our needs, and at what we actually deserve, and then we come to Jesus, what are we if not beggars at the Lord’s table?

No wonder we cry “Lord, have mercy!” at the beginning of every Mass! After that, however, reassured of his love, we are in a position to fulfill the other line in Isaiah’s prophecy where God predicts, “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer.”

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


Let’s start today with an informal survey about Scripture.

Of the following two prophecies from Isaiah, which one do you like better: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you;” or: “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil”?

Which of the following two verses from the Psalms do you prefer: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” or: “My only friend is darkness”?

What about the Gospels? “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest;” or: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”

You see the trend? It is the most natural thing in the world that our favorite Scripture texts are those that comfort and encourage. (My personal favorite is Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”) Nobody’s favorite is a verse of condemnation, and rarely even one of challenge. We know those things are there, we accept them and respect them, but we don’t go looking for them.

As we saw in our little survey, the prophets have good news and bad news. Today we encounter Elijah. He is a little different from other prophets. There is no “Book of Elijah.” His story is told in the two Books of Kings, in about 10 episodes. There are few “oracles” of the kind we find in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He was more a doer than a speaker.

The prophet’s job description is given by Balaam in the Book of Numbers. The prophet is one “whose eye is true, ... one who hears what God says, and knows what the Most High knows, ...  who sees what the Almighty sees, in rapture and with eyes unveiled.” That’s why, in today’s reading, Elijah, although he knew that God certainly could be in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, recognized in this case that God was in the “tiny whispering sound”—a pleasant image, don’t you think?

The prophets couldn’t limit themselves to pleasant sayings, however, and were often looked on as troublemakers. This was certainly Elijah’s case, and he had powerful enemies.

Paul encountered a similar phenomenon. His preaching was met with unbelief by his own people. Every place he went he couldn’t wait to share with the Jews there the Good News that the Messiah had finally come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Unfortunately, many of them took it as bad news. A crucified Messiah was a “stumbling block” to them, as Paul says earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians. Today we would say, a crucified Messiah “does not compute.”

From a very different perspective, it was good news for Peter that he had enough faith to get out of his boat and walk on the water with Jesus. He didn’t hesitate. The bad news was that he was a man of little faith, and allowed himself to be intimidated by the force of the wind, and down he went.

We can apply this easily enough to ourselves. With the Lord’s help maybe we have been able to deal with some major issue or overcome some serious temptation in our lives. Then, for whatever reason, our faith faltered, and we began to “sink.” Still, there’s some consolation in the fact that even “little faith” is true faith.

Only two persons in the Gospels are described as having great faith: not Apostles, not even disciples, but foreigners. We’ll meet one of them next week.

In the meantime, we can pray in the words we find in two other places in the Gospels. One is: “Increase our faith.” The other is: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


Note from Fr. Butler: As you may have noticed, the homily I sent to BigCCatholics for this past weekend was the wrong one (from last year, actually). With due apologies, I now submit the homily I did in fact preach on August 3.

Isaiah was surely an honest prophet, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped the economic principle of an honest profit. “You who have no money,” he says, “come, receive grain and eat; come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

Imagine if you owned a restaurant in town, and someone set up a local charity serving the same menu, or maybe even better, and offering it free of charge to one and all. At the very least, you would object that the charity was making a mess of the local economy.

Jesus wasn’t helping the local economy either. Surely local farmers and vendors were counting on a banner day when they saw the huge crowds gathered in the area. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel there is an account of Jesus’ casting out demons from two possessed persons into a large herd of swine. The entire herd ran down into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. When the locals arrived on the scene, they begged him to leave the area. He was not an asset to the local economy.

Pope Francis is immensely popular, but not all economists agree with his description of modern economy as “an economy of exclusion” and “idolatry of money” which lead to inequality and violence. Some months ago, when I walked into our church, I found Pope Francis’s picture covered over with a bulletin. I have no idea who did this, or why; but I speculate that it had something to do with the Pope’s persistent advocacy on behalf of the poor, which may have irritated someone who perhaps equates the poor with people living off entitlement programs. Be that as it may, Church teaching in such matters is rarely greeted with enthusiasm.

Now St. Paul tells us that not even famine can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But this doesn’t mean we can live on love. It’s true that we don’t live on bread alone, but we don’t live on love alone either.

It’s interesting that when the disciples suggested to Jesus to send the crowds away to get something to eat, he didn’t say, “Not to worry. I’ll take care of it.” Quite to the contrary. He said, “Give them some food yourselves.” In other words, You do it! It was only after they acknowledged their inability to do so with just five loaves and two fish that he said, “Bring them here to me.” After he blessed the food, then the disciples were in a position, after all, to feed the multitude.

Jesus didn’t have to do this. The crowds, at least in this account, are not fainting away and would presumably have been able to find food as the disciples suggested. Like so many of Jesus’ miracles, this was a sign.

To understand the sign, we need to return to the beginning of this scene in today’s Gospel. Jesus wanted to get away by boat to “a desert place,” but the crowd got there first, and when he saw them, “his heart was moved with pity for them.”

He then healed their sick. This is what his heart prompted him to do. And when evening came he fed them all. This was a symbol, a sign of the mission of the Messiah. In a very real way he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy which was also symbolic, as we can see from the words, “Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.”

When we look at the world around us, there is so much suffering. We ask Jesus to do something about it. He responds, “Why don’t you take care of it?”

We respond in turn, “We don’t have nearly enough.” He says, “Bring me what you have,” and then he blesses it.

What happens next is up to us. A few of us may actually be able to do something in the “big picture,” on the “world stage.” Most of us will only be able to work behind the scenes.

What will ultimately matter is that, like Jesus, we allow our heart to be moved with pity—Pope Francis notes how difficult that can be—and then allow that heart to guide us.

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


Put yourself in Solomon’s place. God says to you, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What criteria would you use for your request?

Solomon’s criteria were simple. He was King, he had to govern his people, but he was inexperienced. We commonly say he asked for wisdom; but his actual words were, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.

His values are clear. Yes, his royal position is important, but his responsibilities are not merely administrative; and judging justly is a sacred trust. The highest value, however, is expressed with the words, “I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen.” His service is to God first. And his governance is exercised not over just any nation, but over God’s chosen people.

Using the language we find in today’s parables, we could say that Solomon asked for a “treasure” or a “pearl of great price.” And he got it.

Let me be clear. When I say, “Put yourself in Solomon’s place,” I don’t mean you should think of yourself as a newly crowned king. Think of yourself as you are today, and God tells you to ask for anything you want.

This isn’t one of those three-wishes jokes. It’s a serious question, first and foremost about what really matters in your life.

From one point of view, your answer isn’t all that important. St. Paul reminds us today that “all things work for good for those who love God.” That’s helpful, because it means we don’t have to worry too much maybe making a mistake. This is not “Jeopardy!”

Still, you would want to choose the right thing, the best thing for what matters most at this moment in your life, maybe even one of the things Solomon didn’t ask for. “Long life” and “riches” can’t be all bad, especially if they can be put to good use to accomplish your goals.

There we go again. Goals imply values, values imply what is most important.

We can be reasonably sure that God wouldn’t agree simply to satisfy our greed, or our lust for power and pleasure, or our desire for revenge. We can be reasonably sure that those things would not ultimately matter the most to us.

Our request, like Solomon’s, would have to be personal without being selfish. It would have to be concrete without being too specific, general without being ambiguous, realistic without being crass, noble without being a daydream. Here is an example from the Book of Proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; provide me only with the food I need; lest, being full, I deny you, saying, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or, being in want, I steal, and profane the name of my God” (30:7).

Interestingly, this request from Proverbs, just like Solomon’s, also has something to do with God. This is where the “Kingdom of God” comes in. Whether we think of it as treasure or as a pearl, its value is such that everything else pales in comparison. The Christian is prepared to sacrifice everything for it.

At the time the Gospel was being preached and then written, Christians were in fact forfeiting lands and freedom, being rejected by friends and family, and even being put to death, all for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus was their treasure. Nothing and no one else could even come close.

There’s a famous story about the ancient Greek thinker and inventor Archimedes running around shouting “Eureka! I found it!” What he had found was the solution to a practical problem put to him by the king.

Our problem is put to us by the Lord: “Ask for anything you want.” What shall we ask for?

Everyone wants world peace, for example. What gifts would you ask for if you felt called to be an effective peacemaker?

The best starting point is for each of us to recognize our unique place in the Kingdom of God, then work out what gift will enable us best to accomplish the work that has been given to us, and then ask for it—confidently, even boldly.

The treasure in the field and the pearl of great price are there for the finding. We can run around shouting “Eureka!” for a while, but then we have to put ourselves in Solomon’s place.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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



The three Parables we heard today all speak about growth of one kind or another, and so they also imply some level of patience. This dovetails perfectly with the first reading, from Wisdom, especially its concluding phrase, “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”

From that perspective, it might seem almost as if, in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, that the weeds will be given time to become wheat—impossible in nature, but possible in this kind of imagery, not so different really from other Scriptures, such as Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones being covered with flesh and returning to life.
 
When Jesus explains the Parable, however, we see that the patience on the landowner’s part is just to allow the wheat to mature. The wheat has had only to survive whatever threat might have been posed by the weeds. The final scene is one of judgment.

We do indeed proclaim in the creed that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” but something in us prefers to look away from the image of “the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Despite the number of times the notion of damnation turns up in the New Testament, despite the number of images used to describe it, we would rather not hear it. Even the famous judgment scene in Matthew 25, in which the Son of Man says, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” etc., is remembered and cited mostly for its call to treat others with Christian kindness, even though it ends with a reference to eternal punishment and eternal life.

Rather than linger on these unappealing truths, then, let us look at the very last words of Jesus’ explanation of the Parable: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” It echoes a passage from the prophet Daniel: “Those with insight shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”
 
These are pleasant truths. Just imagine:

There you are, leading many to righteousness and justice, by your exhortations, by your example.

There you are, a lighthouse, a beacon helping others avoid the shoals.

There you are, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless.

There you are, carrying out the lesson taught by God himself in today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom, “that those who are just must be kind.”

There you are, living a life of the Beatitudes, blessed indeed as you hunger and thirst for justice and serve as a meek and humble peacemaker, rejoicing when you are persecuted for the sake of Christ.

There you are (as we read today in Romans 8) counting on the Holy Spirit to come to the aid of your weakness and make your prayer what it ought to be.

There you are, like Mother Teresa, doing “something beautiful for God.”

What amazing thoughts!

What? Don’t you see yourself in them? If in fact you are finding it hard really to imagine yourself in these situations, behaving in these ways, what is the alternative?

Before you throw up your hands in despair and cry, “I’m doomed!” stop and think again about the three Parables. You aren’t doomed. You have time to grow. You have time to meet  the challenge issued by all these inspiring images.

You have time. Make the most of it.

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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


Before my present assignment, I was pastor in a small parish in Vermont. The former pastor, Fr. Paul, lived with me, and one of his greatest interests was his garden, one of the most famous in town, not huge—just four raised beds—but always early and always lush. One of the secrets of his success was the soil, just the right mix of soil and his own rich home-made compost, completely organic, no chemicals. Just like the fourth illustration in the Parable of the Sower. Not for nothing he used to say he never felt so close to God as in his garden.

I don’t suppose the yield was a hundredfold, but there were plenty of fresh vegetables through the summer, and plenty for canning and freezing. (My specialty was soups.) We ate well on a very moderate budget.

One thing Fr. Paul couldn’t plan. The weather. If it was dry, he could water his garden. If it was too cold, the eggplants would complain; too wet, and the tomatoes would sulk and fail to produce as expected.
 
That’s where Isaiah’s prophecy comes in. God compares his word to the rain and snow that do not return to him until they have accomplished their purpose and his. We find a similar image in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (or, if you prefer: “God gave the increase”). Today’s reading from Romans uses a very different image: labor pains.

Seed, soil, rain, and labor pains, all ultimately evoke the same image: producing fruit.

The fruit itself is not just one thing. Jesus’ parable refers to grain, probably wheat or barley. No tomatoes, no eggplant, though cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic are mentioned in the Old Testament; but it seems unlikely they would be planted in the way described.

From a figurative point of view, the fruit can be many things. One thinks immediately of good works, after the manner of Blessed Mother Teresa and St. John Bosco. One thinks also of conversions, like that of St. Augustine or Edith Stein.

St. Teresa of Avila saw the fruit as prayer. Instead of focusing on the quality of the soil, however, she considered the watering of the soil. Just as in our parable of today, she reflects on four options.

Option 1: You go to the well, back and forth, back and forth, until your garden is properly watered. This is good, but requires a lot of effort. You pray a lot, you reflect a lot, you stave off distractions as best you can.

Option 2: You set up a system of water wheels and aqueducts. You turn a crank until the garden is watered. (You might also think of a hand-pump at a well.) This requires less effort. You get more water in less time. Your prayer has become simpler and easier.

Option 3: You set up an irrigation system from a nearby river or stream. You just need to keep the system maintained.

Option 4: Rain. Here, of course, you actually do nothing. God gives the increase. Your prayer becomes his work.

Unlike the four kinds of soil, these four levels of prayer all produce fruit. The difference lies in how much we do and how much God does. The more our prayer becomes God’s work, the better the quality and more abundant the quantity of fruits.

Still it is not a choice of which “option” I shall choose. Everyone begins at the beginning. There are no deadlines. Nor is there any expectation that everyone move through all four levels. A spiritual director can help a person discern if and when the passage from one kind of prayer to another is taking place. Sometimes the transition is an uncomfortable experience. But remaining at any one level is never a failure. Prayer of any kind is the fruit of good seed sown in good soil.

Years ago I attended a series of talks on prayer by the Director of the Jesuit Center for Spirituality in Rome, Fr. Herbert Alphonso, S.J. I will never forget the conclusion of the last talk. “How should you pray?” he asked, and then answered his own question, “Pray as you can.”

This applies ultimately to more than prayer. If we are good soil ready to receive good seed, there is so much possible fruit of so many varieties to bear, and God’s word will not return to him empty.

What fruit should bear? Bear the fruit that you can.

Homily for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014

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

 
When you hear the expression “sins of the flesh,” what kind of sins do you think of?

That’s what I thought.

Do you suppose that was all St. Paul had on his mind when he wrote to the Romans, “We are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh”? Remember what he wrote to the Galatians about what he calls the “works” of the flesh. The list is impressive, fifteen sins. Yes, it includes  impurity and licentiousness, but also idolatry, rivalry, factions, outbursts of fury, and selfishness, to name only half of them.

What these all have in common is that they take what is good and honest in our nature and then twist them and distort them. Let me give a few examples to explain what I mean.

Impurity and licentiousness are a distortion of the natural and beautiful mutual attraction between men and women.
Selfishness is a distortion of appropriate self-esteem.
Factions are a distortion of the need for community and cooperation.
Outbursts of fury are a distortion of a proper sense of self-preservation.

Why does this happen? Because of our fallen nature, also known as our tendency to want what we want when we want it.

Nothing could be further from the way Jesus describes himself in the Gospel. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he says, “for I am meek and humble of heart.”

When you hear the word “meek,” what image comes to mind? Self-effacing? Jesus wasn’t self-effacing. Timid? Quiet? Shy? Passive? None of those, obviously.

The first reading, from the prophet Zechariah, gives us a clue. There we read, “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass.” No chariots, no warrior’s bow. In fact, he will banish them, along with the horse. He rides a donkey, not an animal associated with battle. He will proclaim peace. No military hero he. Meek is the opposite of warlike.

The dominant image of a hero has been, in most of human history and not surprisingly, a military one. Exceptional bravery, above and beyond the call of duty, has always been recognized and admired. Even in the Bible, most of the “heroes” are found in the Book of Judges, the most famous being Gideon and Samson. They saved the Hebrews from their oppressors. They were saviors.

Sometimes people who do something exceptional to help others are called “heroes.” There is no reason to begrudge them the honor, especially when it comes from the persons they have helped. They themselves, however, are often meek in the face of the attention they get, insisting they just did what anyone might have done. A good example is Louis Zamperini, who died last Wednesday at the age of 97. He was called a hero because he survived, incredibly, against impossible odds in World War II. His response: “They gave me three medals. What for?”

Jesus was no Samson. Nevertheless he is the Savior, the great hero. He fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy not only in a literal sense with his solemn entry intro Jerusalem before his passion, but also in many ways throughout his life and ministry.

And yet, he calls himself meek, perhaps because the last thing he wants is for us to fear him. “Come to me,” he says, “I will give you rest.”

So we have in Jesus a “meek hero”—oxymoronic as that might sound.

If we look back at St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we find that he speaks of neither meekness nor courage. But his call “not to be debtors to the flesh” actually requires both. It takes courage not to live “by the flesh;” it takes meekness, too, the honest recognition that we are too easily tempted.

Meekness and courage, therefore, are not opposites. In fact, it can require a lot of courage to remain meek in certain circumstances, as Jesus himself demonstrated. And Jesus, here as always, is our model.

Sometimes we need courage. Sometimes we need meekness. Most times we need both.

Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, 2014

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


I wonder how long I will be remembered after I die. I wonder, too, what I will be remembered for. Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

What would you like to be remembered for? What do you think you will actually be remembered for? You might have to write your memoirs to ensure that the answer to both questions is the same.

What will guarantee that remembrance? Photos? Mementos? The day will surely come when someone will look at those pictures and say, “They should have written the names on the back.” And the mementos will end up in a box and someone for whom they no longer have meaning will one day discard them.

A monument would be nice!

The Statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial was sculpted by Daniel Chester French. It’s a “memorial” precisely because it guarantees that Lincoln’s memory will live on; but where is Daniel Chester French’s memorial? Actually, his memorial is... that same statue of Lincoln! It’s his greatest achievement, for which he will be forever remembered.
 
There are different ways, of course, to make your mark. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, for example, will certainly never be forgotten.
 
Neither will Florence Nightingale or Rosa Parks, but for totally different reasons.
 
In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses’ first word is “Remember,” which he repeats a few verses later with the negative phrase, “Do not forget.” The saving acts of God on behalf of his people were not to be taken lightly. The Passover and many other festivals were meant precisely to keep the memory of them alive.

Jesus did not want to be forgotten. So he “left us a memorial,” as we heard in the opening prayer of today’s Mass. The memorial Jesus left us is unique, because it doesn’t point only to the past. It’s much more than a reminder. In it we believe that he is actually present among us. We believe that he gives himself to us, truly, as food and drink. As St. Paul reminds us, “The cup of blessing that we bless is a participation in the blood of Christ, and the bread that we break is a participation in the body of Christ.”

“Do this in memory of me.” These are the words that conclude the Consecration of the Bread and Wine, taken from St. Luke’s and St. Paul’s accounts of what Jesus did at the Last Supper. They are a command, but they can also be taken as a plea, a solemn request, that we never forget him. On the eve of his death, he gave us something to remember him by. He wanted to be remembered for his gift of self.
 
The memorial is the Sacrament. The memory, however, resides in the whole Church, which passes on the story and the teaching of Jesus from generation to generation. Every time we share in the memorial, our memory is refreshed.
 
In the Eucharist, however, the concept of “memorial” is turned upside down. Listen again to Jesus’ words: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Instead of just keeping someone’s memory alive, this memorial actually gives life—and eternal life, at that—to those who engage in the act of remembering.
 
Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem with the recurring refrain:

Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

From a Catholic perspective, that prayer is answered perfectly in the Eucharist!

Homily for Trinity Sunday, 2014

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


Pictured above is a stained-glass window found in Blessed Trinity Church in Orlando, Florida. It was designed by James Piercey. What do you see? It’s easy enough to find the head of a dove near the center, and a hand above and behind it. They represent respectively the Spirit and the Father. Can you see the Son? (If you can work out a way to enlarge the image, that might help.) Look for a yellow eye just above the crossbeam, a white eye opposite it, a nose below the crossbeam, mustache, lips. When you see the dove, you lose the face; when you see the face, you lose the hand, and none of them is completely delineated. All three are lost when you focus on the colorful rays filling each quadrant, which represent the one divine essence of all three Persons.


This image may not suit everyone’s taste, but I find it fascinating. I use it to illustrate the fact that although we attribute certain qualities and works to each of the divine Persons, as in the Creed, the overlap is such that clear distinctions are really beyond us.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 259) we read: “Everyone who glorifies the Father does so through the Son in the Holy Spirit; everyone who follows Christ does so because the Father draws him and the Spirit moves him.” In other words, the whole Trinity is involved, all the time.

In the Scriptures, too, we find this blending. For example, today’s second reading has the familiar text from which we get one of the greetings used at Mass: “The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” But there are several passages in the New Testament that speak of grace coming also from the Father, and in one place the Spirit is called the “Spirit of grace.”

Similarly, in many places we read that “God (the Father) raised Jesus from the dead,” while many others say that Jesus rose from the dead, i.e. by his own power. The Spirit is associated with resurrection also in Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Instead of a visual illustration, we might try a verbal one. The following phrases all have something in common:

            Honor, Pity Half-Sister,
            A Tiny Fresh Polo Shirt,
            Sporty Shiloh Fire Ant.

Can you see it? Answer: All three have the same letters, and all three are anagrams of “Father, Son, Holy Spirit.” When they are spelled out correctly, we see them, but whether we see them or not, there they are.

O.k., but what’s the point? We might think anything so obscure can’t really matter to us at a personal level, something like nuclear physics and splitting atoms and the Higgs Boson. That would be true if the important thing is to understand it. But that is not the case here.

The first reading isn’t even remotely academic when it describes the Lord as “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” And the Gospel reminds us that “God so loved the world.” That changes everything.

What we are invited to do is to enter into the mystery of the Trinity—to wonder at it, to admire it, to revel in it, sink into it, contemplate its wonder and beauty, and cry out, “O my God!”


Homily for Pentecost, 2014

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




Has it ever struck you as strange that the disciples were gathered “when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,” i.e., on a Christian feast,? There couldn’t have been any Christian feasts yet, so soon after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. The explanation is simple. The feast we celebrate today already existed long before the time of Jesus. It was not unlike our Thanksgiving, a harvest celebration, celebrated fifty days (seven weeks) after Passover. In the Old Testament it is called the Feast of Weeks.

Be that as it may, for us Pentecost means only one thing: the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Lord.

The Spirit’s first appearance in the Bible is in the second verse of the the first book: “The earth was formless and void... and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Spirit’s last appearance in the Bible is in Revelation 22:17, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” The Bible ends four verses later. In between those two, there are dozens and dozens more. So we can safely say that the Spirit is really important.

In today’s first reading the Spirit is manifested in tongues—in two senses of the word: tongues of fire, referring to a tongue-like shape, and “tongues,” meaning languages. The Apostles apparently learned new languages instantaneously, without boring grammar drills and vocabulary lists. (This is not to be confused with the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues. But that’s another homily.)

Believe it or not, that original gift of languages still exists today, but in a less spectacular form. Where? In the Church, which proclaims the Gospel in every language!

So… what else does the Holy Spirit do exactly, besides giving language? Well, let’s see. In the Creed we read that he “has spoken through the prophets,” that, in other words, he took possession of them, much as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “enabling” them to proclaim God’s word.

In the Creed the Spirit is also called “Giver of life,” the One who stirs everything to life. We see this in a broad sense in the sacraments. At Mass, just before the Consecration, the priest extends his hands over the bread and wine and asks the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon them, so that they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. The same “imposition of hands” and calling down the Spirit occurs at Ordination and at Confirmation. In the Anointing of the Sick, the gesture stands on its own, wordlessly invoking the Spirit to descend with gifts of hope, patience, courage, acceptance.

Today’s Gospel associates the Spirit with the Sacrament of reconciliation. “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

The second reading goes beyond the Sacraments to many manifestations of the Spirit, described as different… different… different. It appears that there is nothing the Spirit can’t do, while remaining unpredictable. As we read elsewhere in St. John’s Gospel: “The wind (exactly the same word as Spirit) blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

So many “different” gifts are attributed to the Spirit, that we might be tempted to ask, “What does God really want?” Words or silence? Action or contemplation? Does he want one thing today and something else tomorrow, one thing here and something else in another place? And especially, who does he give the gifts to?

Well, to you, of course! Whether you realize it or not, you have a gift of the Spirit, and probably more than one. You and I can bear the “fruits of the Spirit” listed in Galatians 5: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because the Spirit penetrates the very fiber of our being. The Spirit is the great enabler!

We don’t get to pick and choose the gifts we want, but we can discover over time what gifts we have received. After that we do get to choose if, when and how we will use them in the Church and the world or, as St. Paul writes, “for some benefit.”

The gifts of the Spirit are given in proportion to our willingness to receive them, which invites the question: Do I really want them?

And they are given in proportion to our desire to deserve them, which invites a second question: Am I really ready to live in the Spirit?

The answer is by no means automatic.

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2014

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



(In New Hampshire the Solemnity of the Ascension was celebrated last Thursday. This homily is based on the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-14; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 17:1-11.)

There is a saying you may have heard, which goes, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would they find enough evidence to convict you?” I don’t much like it, actually, because of its accusatory tone, but it certainly fits the context of today’s second reading from 1 Peter, which reflects a time when believers were in fact being punished for the crime of being Christians.

There are not a lot of reliable statistics about the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, but there is ample evidence of the fact. For example, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in what is now northern Turkey, wrote the following to the Emperor Trajan around the year 111 AD:


“In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly.

“Soon accusations spread... An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image..., and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged.”


About 100 years later, a Christian named Tertullian wrote a defense of Christians which reflects the attitude of pagans toward them:
 

“Monsters of wickedness, we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it; in which, after the feast, we practice incest... [People consider] the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, Away with the Christians to the lion!... [But] The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”

 
Returning to Pliny:
 

“[Those who had once been Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”


And that is precisely the attitude of St. Peter. “But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.” In other words, suffer for being a Christian if you must, but please! never be arrested for a real crime. That would be a scandal and would only justify our accusers (as we know only too well in our time).


Martyrdom was the case with ten of the persons listed in the first reading. Of the Apostles, only John was not put to death.

The Gospel and the reading from Peter have a total of eight references to glory. This reminds me of another famous quotation from a martyr, St. Irenaeus, who died about the year 200, about 25 years before Tertullian. His most famous saying is usually given as “The glory of God is man fully alive,” but that translation is neither accurate nor complete. It actually reads: “The glory of God is a living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.”

The vision of God is not only the beatific vision we will enjoy in heaven. It is also and already the vision of faith that lights our path on earth. In that light we can accept being falsely accused, being mocked and stalked and talked about, while maintaining our Christian integrity and dignity.

The “glory” we have been given is to be worthy of the name of Christian by being faithful to the name of Christ.
 
I close with one last quotation, adapted from Shakespeare:
 

This above all: to thine own CHRISTIAN self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to GOD OR any man.