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.

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2014

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



All of us, at one time or another, have experience deep disappointment.

In this context, today’s words of St. Peter take on a special meaning:  “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”

When I started my theology studies, that was the very first text quoted in my very first class. Forty-five years later, these words have not lost their resonance.

The explanation we give for our hope will, ideally, be personal.  It really isn’t enough to say, “That’s what I was taught.”  Yes, of course there are reasons common to all believers, but we have our own reasons, too.  At some point, the hope we were taught became our own hope, probably at the moment when we realized that we really did believe in the Jesus Christ we profess in the creed.  Can you remember when that was?

Maybe it happened gradually, like the coming of spring, the blossoming of apple trees and lilacs; or suddenly, like the appearance of a jeweled rainbow.

What was the context?  Someone you admired?  (Just think!  You could be the first reason for someone else’s hope!)  Something amazing you witnessed, like the Samaritans in the first reading?  A narrow escape?  Nature?  Art?  Music?  A special act of kindness?  A Scripture text, like today’s  “I will not leave your orphans.”  Even if you can’t articulate the experience perfectly, that’s not essential.  You can communicate it through a hope-filled life.

This is not the same as just having a positive attitude.  It is much deeper.  It explains how disciples of Jesus can accept tragedy in their lives, how they can stand up for Christian values, how they can put up with being ridiculed for their beliefs, how they can even suffer and die for their faith.  In short:  it accounts for Christian courage.  St. Peter was writing to Christians who lived in just such a world.  Notice that he told them what to do “When [not if] you are maligned.”

St. Augustine said: “We have been promised something we do not yet possess, and because the promise was made by one who keeps his word, we trust him and are glad; but insofar as possession is delayed, we can only long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised, and yearning is over; then praise alone will remain.”

For me, ultimate hope isn’t getting what I want.  Ultimate hope isn’t heavenly banquets and eternal choruses.  It isn’t meeting my favorite saints, or getting all the answers to all my questions, or even being reunited with loved ones who have gone before me.  My ultimate hope is one thing only: meeting Jesus Christ face to face.

Whatever your ultimate hope is, always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks. And live in such a way that someone might actually ask.

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2014

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


In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes or, better, defines himself a number of times, in a variety of ways: “I am the bread of life... I am the light of the world... I am the resurrection and the life... I am the way, and the truth, and the life... I am the true vine.” Today we encountered another such saying. Without looking at it again, do you remember what it is?

If you thought, “I am the good shepherd,” you are close, but that saying comes in the first verse after today’s Gospel. We will hear it next year. The correct response is, “I am the gate,” and Jesus says it twice.


At first this might appear to be the least interesting of the whole list, the least illuminating. We are told he said this because “the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them” when he spoke about shepherds and sheep and thieves and robbers and gatekeepers and strangers. “I am the gate for the sheep” really doesn’t seem a lot clearer or simpler.

If you go to any website looking for pictures of Jesus as Shepherd, you will find them by the hundreds. Look for Jesus as Gate, and you will find none. Not one. It’s not surprising that this is the least quoted of all of Jesus’ “I am” sayings.

And yet, in many respects, it is more accessible to us today than the image of shepherd. Few of us have direct experience of sheep, but we all know gates.

Jesus describes his “gateness” this way: “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Gates—and doors, I guess—serve a double purpose. First, they keep us inside and others outside, they create a barrier that gives us a certain sense of safety, even of control. Secondly, they open to let us come and go as we please, so we can go about the business of our life.

This past week, my sister and brother-in-law had their yard fenced in so that the grandchildren will have a place to play outside. Naturally there’s a gate, and the children won’t have a care in the world. And when they are tired, someone will open the gate for them. They will “come in and go out” in perfect safety.

A “gated” community usually implies security based on exclusion. Only residents and their announced guests have access.

Based on today’s Gospel, however, we might say that the Church founded by Jesus is a “gated” community, but of a different kind, because he is the gate, and says, “whoever enters through me will be saved.”

In one of the most famous passages in his Inferno, Dante quotes the inscription he saw over the gate of hell. It ends with the words, “Abandon every hope, O you that enter.”

Jesus is our Gate: Discover every hope, O you that enter!  Or, as Jesus puts it: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.


Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), 2014

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


Don’t you hate ultimatums? Most of us have encountered (and maybe issued) them at one time or another. They usually begin with “unless” or “if” and threaten dire consequences if one’s expectations or demands are not met.

Thomas issued an ultimatum, inflexible conditions that had to be met in order for him to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to the other Apostles. It would be interesting to speculate as to why Thomas refused to believe—interesting but pointless.

Ultimatums generate frustration. Usually people throw up their hands and get angry. The inclination is to say, “Fine! Have it your way!” and then sit smug and wait for the inevitable comeuppance.

Jesus did not take that attitude. On the contrary, he accepted Thomas as he was, and accommodated his weak faith. He gave a very gentle reproof, to the effect that it would have been better, after all, if Thomas had believed without seeing.

This was a lesson that Thomas surely never forgot. Actually there were two lessons: one about faith, one about mercy.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Blessed, of course, in their faith and in the salvation that it brings. But blessed also in the transformation that takes place as a result. On April 30, 2000, when Pope John Paul II established Divine Mercy Sunday, he said: “To the extent that humanity penetrates the mystery of [God’s] merciful gaze, it will seem possible to fulfill the ideal we heard in today's first reading: ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather everything was held in common’ (Acts4: 32). Here mercy gave form to human relations and community life; it constituted the basis for the sharing of goods.”

This blessedness is by no means contradicted by the reading from St. Peter, who speaks, on the one hand, of faith’s being tested by suffering and, on the other hand, of suffering endured with indescribable joy! And this, because God “in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope.”

At every Mass we pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  We ask the Lord to give us his mercy, in two ways:

First, we ask him: “Take pity on us, show us your mercy.” Mercy is one of those Bible words that can be translated in a great variety of ways. Depending on the context and the translator, the same word for mercy in the opening verses of Psalm 118 can be rendered as goodness, kindness, love, faithful love, steadfast love, pity, loving-kindness, favor.

At the same time we are asking the Lord, “Put your mercy in us.” We want him to make us merciful with his mercy, his goodness, kindness, love, faithful love, steadfast love, pity, loving-kindness, favor.

We might even think of it as a single word, something like the made-up word in Mary Poppins: “supercalifragilisticexpialadocious.” The difference is that the Mary Poppins word is designed as “"something to say when you have nothing to say," while this “mercy word,” actually means something—something wonderful and beautiful, that goes on and on, endlessly coming from the Lord.

To paraphrase our Reponsorial Psalm, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his mercy-goodness-kindness-love-faithfullness-lovingkindness-favor endures forever.
 
All this endures forever. That is our comfort. That is why can say, confidently and endlessly, “Jesus, I trust in You.”

Homily for Easter, 2014


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


(Note: This homily is based on the readings for the Easter Vigil. The Old Testament readings cited are the third, fourth and seventh of those proposed in the Lectionary.)

Where to begin? There are so many readings to choose from, a real embarrassment of riches. A preacher can almost “pick a text, any text,” and just start talking.

There are, however, certain phrases that jump out at me this year. Let’s see where they lead.

In Romans, Paul declares emphatically: “Death no longer has power over Jesus.” A famous poet has expressed it even more powerfully and absolutely: “Death shall have no dominion.”

That is what the women in the Gospel story found out. There they were, on their way to pay their final respects by completing the anointing of Jesus’ corpse. And then, out of the blue, an angel says, “He is not here,... he has been raised!” The message is the same as in St. Paul: death no longer has power over Jesus.

So, following the angel’s instruction, the women hurry off to tell the other disciples, and then, out of the blue, “Jesus met them on their way!” Now they saw for themselves that what the angel said was true. Jesus had really shattered the bonds of death.

In Ezekiel, the issue is another kind of death, namely, exile. Here God seems more concerned about his own reputation: “Not for your sakes do I act, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name.” In other words, God wonders what people will think of him when they realize, “These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave their land.” They might wonder what kind of God this “Lord” is, to let his own people languish in exile.

But God also has a plan to preserve his reputation in the future: “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you.” Worship of alien gods will no longer be a tempation, exile will no longer be a threat.” He will shatter the bonds of sin, and his reputation will be safe!

The Lord had earned his reputation in Genesis and especially in Exodus. After the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses and all the people sang: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant.”

But some 700 years later, Isaiah (long before Ezekiel), witnessed the damage being done to God’s reputation by his people. He foresaw a time of punishment, but he foresaw also a time of reconciliation. And here we find the blessed, heart-easing words, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back..., with enduring love I take pity on you.” Tenderness, not punishment, will be the last word. Enduring love, not exile, will be the bottom line.

Which takes us back to Romans: Death no longer has power over Jesus. And so it no longer has power over us. This is true first in the literal sense, for St. Paul writes, “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”

And it is no less true in the figurative sense. Nothing that we think of as a kind of death has power any longer. Not the loss of loved ones. Not the loss of friendships. Not the loss of our most precious possessions. Not even the loss of health. Death shall have no dominion!
 
Death’s reputation is forever ruined. In one of his “Holy Sonnets” the poet John Donne mocks death with these words:
 

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;...

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

 

It’s all so wonderful. Where to begin?
 
And where does it end? (Hint: It doesn’t.)

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?