December 27, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, December 28, 2014, Year B

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

Note: I have chosen the readings from Sirach and Colossians

It is my custom on the feast of the Holy Family to offer “words of wisdom” for family life. Underlying them is what I call the Snowflake Principle: People are like snowflakes, no two are alike. Clearly, God loves variety. We need to respect God’s variety, respecting one another, “bearing with one another,” as St. Paul writes. We need to minimize our faults and capitalize on our strengths.

Other principles:

2. Elbows and Toes.

You can’t rub elbows with the same people day in and day out without sometimes stepping on each others’ toes. We need to be realistic about family life, learn to say “of course,” and “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” Tensions inevitable. What happens after is what really matters.

3. I’m nobody, who are you? (from a poem by Emily Dickinson).

We need a sense of honest humility, a sense of humor about ourselves, including the very difficult notion that we are not the center of the universe.

4. Remember to forget.

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, when reminded of a serious offense she had once received, answered, “You know, I distinctly remember forgetting that.” We need to let go, really let go, of ancient offenses.

5. The Home principle.

In “The Death of the Hired Man” (a poem by Robert Frost), the wife of a farmer tells her husband that a former worker has returned. The farmer doesn’t want him because the worker had walked out on him at the height of the harvest. The conversation continues as follows:

Wife: He has come home to die.

Husband: Home is the place where, when you have to go there,                        they have to take you in.

Wife: I should have called it something you somehow haven't                   to deserve.

There is a difference between a house and a home, between living together and encouraging life. A few days ago Pope Francis addressed the employees of Vatican City, and said: “Take good care of your family. Family is a treasure, children are a treasure. Young parents need to ask themselves whether they have time to play with their children, or whether they are too busy to spend time with them.... Play with your children. It’s so beautiful. This is how you sow the seeds of the future.”

The cruelest part of bullying is that is says: “You don’t belong!” We all belong. We all have our rightful place. We don’t have to deserve it.

6. Avoid Funagalo language.

In the first volume of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the father of the main character remembers his days of working in the mines. "They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground. It is a strange language.... It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning."

It is easy for practical concerns to take over in our dealings with others; so much needs “doing.” We can be too tired for anything else. We need to share more than work-related ideas and plans, but love of the arts, for example, and anything else that brings light into our life, even – why not? – our faith.

7. “Somebody’s Got to Do it”

There are some things I can’t do, or won’t do. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done. I can encourage those who are passionate about things that don’t move me or, at the very least, I can get out of the way!

But sometimes it ends up I am actually the somebody that’s got to do it! In Jeremiah 1:4-8 we read:

The word of the Lord came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. "Ah, Lord God!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young." But the Lord answered me, Say not, "I am too young." To whomever I send you, you shall go.


In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the princess Cordelia tells her father, “I love thee according to my bond.” She means she loves him exactly as she ought. For the King, that isn’t good enough, and he disowns her. He doesn’t realize till it is too late how deeply she really loves him.

Family life requires, more than anything else, that we love each another according to our bond, exactly as we ought.

The starting point is to recognize how deeply we are all accepted and loved by God. If we can then learn to accept and love ourselves and others as we and they are accepted and loved by God, our families will be transformed.

December 20, 2014

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014, Year B

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

(Click here for today’s readings

About 20 years ago I was asked to speak to a group of candidates in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, on the topic of “de-creation,” i.e., the fall of Adam and Eve and its negative impact of on creation and history. I began by showing them a very beautiful, truly artistic mug that had been given to me. It reflected the love of the artist, and of the one who gave it to me, just as the world created by God reflected his love.

A little bit later, I “accidentally” knocked the mug off the podium and it shattered on the floor. As it began to fall, everyone in the group gasped.

I concluded, “That is what creation did when Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit. All creation gasped, crying out: ‘No! No! No!’”

Almost 900 years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux delivered four homilies on today’s Gospel. Each one is easily four or five times as long as today’s average homily. In a translation published in 1909 the four homilies take up a total of 50 pages.

After various explanations of different parts of the text, St. Bernard comes to the decisive moment when Mary has to give her answer. At this point he places himself in the position not of commentator but of observer, even of participant.

He calls to her: “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

"The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

“Why do you delay? Why are you afraid?”

Finally, Mary speaks. " Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word."  Here St. Bernard takes himself out of the story and returns to his original role of commentator.

If I may go back to the image of my shattered mug and “de-creation,” I would add that, at moment of Mary’s fiat, her “Yes,” all creation breathed an ecstatic sigh of relief and cried out jubilantly, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

In the first reading, God says “No” to David’s plan to build a temple. But that was followed immediately by God’s magnanimous “Yes” to David’s faithful heart.

St. Paul writes about the “obedience of faith.” We find it in David. We find it in Mary. This isn’t merely doing what one is told. It is founded on the acceptance of God’s word and the deep desire to live by it.

We might call Advent an “attractive” season, with all its prophecies of hope and promises of salvation. If we can take full advantage of the few days remaining, we will be able to rejoice, joining our “Yes!” to that of all creation as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Let every Christmas carol, every Christmas gift, every Christmas greeting be a “Yes!” to his coming and to the meaning that his coming brings into our lives, not only at this time of year, but at all times and in all places.

December 14, 2014

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014, Year B

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

John the baptist
(Click here for today’s readings

The third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” It comes from the first word of the “Entrance antiphon” or “Introit” of the Mass. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the text of the antiphon is from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” It appears in a shorter form in today’s second reading: “Rejoice always.” More on this later.

Television shows have gone through many fads and phases. There was the age of quiz shows, the age of westerns, of variety shows, of situation comedies, of detectives, and so on. Today we are in the age of “reality shows.”

They are of two types. There are those where we simply observe people: litigants in small claims court, women buying a wedding dress, survivalists, home buyers, you name it. Others are competitions, in which each week someone wins and someone is eliminated.

Some of the competitions involve fashion designers. At the beginning of each episode they are given a challenge; they have to make a garment either using specific materials, or inspired by a work of art, a city, an animal, a famous person. In today’s first reading there is a text that would provide just such a challenge. Here it is:

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.

The designers’ challenge would be to create that “robe of salvation,” that “mantle of justice,” which at the same time would express the soul’s joy in God. I think it would make a great show.

As interesting as that might be, however, they could never come close. The robe and mantle in question are God’s work. He designed it special for his people. His inspiration was his own promise to restore them to their own land after the time of exile, and to make them faithful to him once again.

John the Baptist, featured in today’s Gospel, would not have fared well in one of those competition shows. He stated clearly and emphatically that he was not the Messiah, not Elijah (whose return was expected “before the day of the Lord,” according to Malachi 3:23), not “the Prophet” (perhaps the one promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15). And later on, when his disciples told him that Jesus had begun baptizing, his reply was: “He must increase, I must decrease.” In effect he was saying, “My work is done here.” It was a recognition that his work wasn’t really his work at all. He was just “a voice,” an instrument for announcing God’s word.

The same reality applies to our spiritual life. Sometimes when people seek spiritual direction they are under the impression that a spiritual director will simply tell them what to do in order to make progress in their life of faith. Actually, it is more like what St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “Test everything.”

I usually put it this way: follow what inspires and attracts; if that isn’t what God is calling you to, you will find out soon enough. In other words, as in John the Baptist’s case, it isn’t our work. It’s God’s work, God’s grace, God’s gift. St. Paul goes on: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

We don’t make ourselves holy. We can’t, on our own, preserve ourselves blameless. But God, who is faithful, will accomplish it.

He will—he really will—clothe us with a robe of salvation. He really will wrap us in a mantle of justice. He really will make us rejoice heartily in him, and, as St. Paul says, “rejoice always!”

December 6, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014, Year B

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

We read today in 2 Peter, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.” This salutary but unsettling reminder of what is to come makes me think of one of the “Holy Sonnets” of the 17th century poet and essayist John Donne. It begins with the words: “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

“What if?” indeed! If we knew we had such little time, how would we spend it? Rush to the nearest confessional? Seek out the people we love most? Just cower in fear?

The poet is not afraid. He invites his soul to look into his heart and see there the image of Christ crucified, which for him is beautiful and offers him assurance of mercy.

We should note that St. Peter’s imagery is not simply about destruction. He follows immediately with this: “But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Similarly Isaiah, who is quoted in Mark’s, is not suggesting that valleys be filled in and mountains be made low in a destructive way. The point is to make a straight, direct route for God to come to his people. Anyone living in a mountainous area knows how travel times can be doubled and tripled by winding roads.

John the Baptist is “the voice” calling for the straight path. There are many singers and actors famous for their voice. John is famous for his voice, but in a different way. He is the herald, not drawing attention to himself but to the one who is to come after him.

Have you ever had the experience of imagining what someone looks like, based only on the sound of his or her voice? I once was curious enough to search the Internet for a picture of Steve Zirnkilton, whose voice introduces every episode of all three Law & Order series on television (“In the criminal justice system...,” etc.). I was surprised and amused to see how far off I was! His appearance seemed so unlikely to me.

There are prophetic voices around us even today, calling us to fill in valleys and make mountains low. Often they are unlikely prophets, hard for us to recognize.

Mountains and valleys constitute obstacles. The valleys and mountains of Isaiah are not the physical ones that would require engineers to level out. The ups and downs and winding roads are in the “wasteland” that our hearts can sometimes be. Mountains of self-importance, of greed, of whatever makes us think we are above the human condition. Ravines of jealousy, of self-pity, of whatever drags us down and stifles hope. We all have them at times, and in an infinite variety of forms.

Maybe there is an unlikely prophet, a voice crying in our desert, to help us.

Be that as it may the question remains: How can I, how can you, make a straight path for the Lord into our lives and hearts? How can we prepare for the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”?

November 29, 2014

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, Year B

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

I have a revelation to make.

What does that statement make you expect? A personal confession? Some new scandal in the Church? An interesting secret, or some news that will amaze or disappoint you?

One way or another, the statement probably sparked your interest.

In today’s reading from St. Paul, we find a similar idea: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christians of Corinth, who are already believers, are waiting for another revelation.

As we begin a new year in the life of the Church, we do so with a sense of anticipation. In this respect Advent is quite different from Lent. Both use purple vestments, both omit the Gloria at Mass, both are meant to be a sober preparation for a great feast to follow. Still, have you ever heard of making “Advent resolutions”?

For whatever reason, Advent isn’t usually experienced as a time for taking stock, for conversion. From that point of view, today’s first reading from Isaiah comes as a surprise with its heavily penitential tone: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people... and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”

In Advent we look less inward than outward. Instead of recurring themes of mercy and forgiveness, we sing “O come, O come, Emmanuel!” In the responsorial Psalm we read, “Rouse your power and come to save us.” Even Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

This is definitely an upbeat season. It is time for God to act. We perceive ourselves as needing only to be ready and waiting.

Now it is just possible that this need to be ready and waiting may challenge us to make some important changes in our life. There are, after all, so many distractions. Christmas itself, since it involves shopping and decorations and parties, becomes a distraction from Advent. These things are inevitable, so we do have to make a serious effort to maintain the focus on the revelation that is to come.

There is an almost seamless transition from the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next. Just last Sunday we had the perspective of the final coming of Christ as Judge. The week before that we had the parable of the master returning and settling accounts with his servants. Today we are told to be like servants expecting the master’s return.

There is a difference, nonetheless. Over the last few weeks we have been anticipating the final and definitive revelation in the Second Coming of Christ. As we say in the Creed: “He will come again in glory... and his kingdom will have no end.” This is the faith of the Church.

In Advent, our horizon is not so vast. While waiting for the Ultimate Revelation, we also live in expectation of what we might call intermediate revelations.

I am not talking about any new public or private revelation as distinct from that already received and transmitted by the Church. What I mean is that Advent is a perfect time for us to be especially attentive, for example, to the readings at Mass, so that we might experience that revelation in a new, personal way.

Ideally this would become our way of life as Christians, not limited to these four weeks. As Jesus says: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

Advent teaches us to expect God to surprise us, to expect him to say, “I have a revelation to make.” That should spark our interest!

November 22, 2014

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, November 23, 2014, Year A

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

This is one scary Gospel. It is part of the inspiration for the Sequence we used to sing at funerals, Dies irae, dies illa... “That day will be a day of wrath.” Near the end, the text reads:

Grant me a place among the sheep,
and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.

Can it be that our eternal fate depends on our response to those in need? Does faith no longer count for anything?

No, faith has not lost its preeminent place. It is precisely as believers that we are challenged to put faith into action. The Letter of James has the famous passage: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” And in the previous verse we read, “The judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy.”

There is, of course, the question of what to do.

Is it enough to admire the Mother Teresas and Dorothy Days and get out of the way and let them do their great work and applaud them?

Is it enough to give to good causes, from a safe distance, so to speak? This is not a bad thing, of course. No one could be condemned for it.

Is it enough to volunteer in various charities?

These are the wrong questions. It is not enough to ask what is enough. The question itself lends itself to settling for the minimum, to finding the exact placement of the fine line between “I can’t do everything” and “I won’t do anything.”

The starting point, you see, isn’t the what, the external actions and good works. It’s the attitude, more specifically, in our case, the Christian attitude that seeks to imitate Jesus in every way: his kindness, his respect, his welcoming way, his concern, his thirst for justice, etc.—in short, never the minimum, always generous, a kind of “magnificent obsession.”

There are those whose job description absolutely requires them to tend to the needs of the poor and oppressed. In the reading from Ezekiel. God says that he himself will tend the sheep, seek the lost, bind up the injured, and so on. The context, however, is a ferocious condemnation of the “official” shepherds who failed to do these things.

Now back to the what.

Most of us do in fact respond to the needs of those who are hungry and thirsty by donating money or food to various agencies, volunteering time at soup kitchens and community Thanksgiving meals, etc. The same may well apply to “I was naked and you clothed me,” while “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” is definitely more of a challenge.

Most of us visit the sick at one time or another. Visiting prisoners is a more specialized ministry, that some do choose to take on.

Is that the whole list? I am reminded of a hymn we used to sing when I was in a parish in England, in which we hear Jesus saying:

Look around you, can you see?
Times are troubled, people grieve.
See the violence, feel the hardness;
All my people, weep with me.

Walk among them, I'll go with you.
Reach out to them with my hands.
Suffer with me, and together
We will serve them, help them stand.

If we look around us, we can add to the list, and maybe see where our personal strengths lie for reaching out to “the least of Christ’s brethren.”

I was unemployed, and you hired me.
I was abused, and you rescued me.
I was lonely, and you gave me a call, you sent me a card.
I needed to talk, and you listened to me.

I was old and confused, and you were patient with me.
I was ignorant, and you treated me with respect.

This is not a checklist. It’s a list of hints and suggestions for creatively generous hearts.

November 16, 2014

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 16, 2014, Year A

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

If there is anybody here whose grandmother was (or is) a lousy cook, you may well be in a minority of one. Grandma’s (or Nana’s or Mémère’s or Nonna’s) cooking is the stuff of family memories and legends. No one cooks the way she did.

The “worthy wife” of the first reading is that kind of person. The text concludes, “Let her works praise her at the city gates.” The image here is a little foreign to us, so I’ll explain it briefly. In ancient times the city gates were the place where you were most likely to run into friends and catch up on the latest news and gossip. But when you spoke of “Mrs. Worthy,” you would be praising her, for her talents and her character, and everyone would think what a lucky man “Mr. Worthy” was.

In this context, you could reasonably take the “talents” of today’s parable to mean whatever you happen to be good at. That is not really so far off the mark, since that is the modern meaning of a word which in Jesus’ time meant an extremely large amount of money.

“Mrs. Worthy,” however, also helps us understand talents both as what you are good at, and as something that has significant value. I dare say many of you have talents that meet that criterion.

That said, the parable can’t really be just about developing our skills and using them well. That’s because the parable isn’t only about us. Yes, we can see ourselves as the “servants,” but there is also the “Master.” The parable is about both, about the relationship between them.

It’s especially the third servant, the one who hid his master’s money, that makes the point for us. His relationship toward the master was one of fear—not the abiding respect that is called “fear of the Lord,” one of the qualities we find in the worthy wife—but genuine craven fear. “I knew you were a demanding person,” he says, and so he chose not to take the risk of losing the one talent. The master had shown him, according to his abilities, equal trust with the other two servants; but he, the servant, apparently did not share his master’s trust in him.

The other two understood what was expected of them, and doubled their master’s money. Fear of the master did not paralyze them. On the contrary, they were highly motivated, perhaps because they anticipated some reward, or perhaps simply because they wished to please him.

Back to ourselves, we need to ask the same question. Not just, how can I best develop the talents have I been given, and use them? but, more importantly, why? St. Paul gives us one possible version of the answer: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night... Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do.”

The motivation is that we need to be ready when the Master returns, to give him an accounting of our stewardship. What we have received isn’t given to us only for ourselves. We are servants, after all, ideally eager to serve and anxious to show off how we have served.

Going back to Grandma’s cooking, what really made it so very special, after all? Secret spices? No. Fresh ingredients? No. Precise measurements? Certainly not!

It was the love, the same love that set the “worthy wife” apart, the same love that needs to set us apart as “good and faithful servants.”

The day came when Grandma wasn’t up to cooking any more. She minded that terribly, not because of the food, but because she could no longer demonstrate her love in that particular way.

When and if the time comes that we can no longer exercise the skills we have used in the Master’s service, we will lay down our various tools of the trade, and all that will be left is love. And the Master will still be well served, and well pleased.

November 8, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

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

Today we celebrate the dedication of the oldest Church in the West, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, the Pope’s cathedral. This provides us also the opportunity to celebrate our catholic identity.

The word “Catholic” is most often distinguished from “Orthodox” and “Protestant,” referring to “Roman” Catholics as opposed, for example, to “English Catholics” (Anglicans), or the “Polish National Catholic Church,” etc. “Big C Catholics,” the blog on which this homily is being published, refers to especially faithful members of the “Roman” Catholic Church.

Every Sunday in the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Notice that “catholic” here is not capitalized. That is because the Creed as we know it was originally composed in 325 AD and revised in 381 AD, long before there was even such a thing as Orthodox or Protestant. The word “catholic” comes from two Greek elements meaning “according to the whole,” i.e. “universal.” Everywhere in the world, Christians held the same beliefs. The only ones excluded were those heretics whose errors led to the composition of the Creed in the first place.

That’s enough technical information for one day. Now let’s take a look at the Scriptures.

Jesus was seriously grieved to see all the merchants in the temple precincts. He drove them out and told them, presumably not in a gentle tone, to stop turning his Father’s house into a marketplace. The house in this case was a physical building, the Temple of Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place among his people.

Two or three years later, at the Last Supper, again in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses a similar expression in a very different context. Comforting his disciples, he says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled... In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” This is no physical house, not the Temple of Jerusalem, but the broadest possible expression of where God resides.

St. Paul writes that we are God’s building, “the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells.”

With each quotation we draw closer to the notion of Church as the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Assembly of Believers—the “universal Church” that once we were, and that we hope one day to be again.

The reading from Ezekiel uses the image of the stream flowing out from the temple, becoming a river and bringing life wherever it flows. I would like to apply this to ourselves.

Wherever we go, we are Church. Wherever we are, we can bring life. Just imagine the world, in so many ways a desert place, being watered by our compassion, our works of charity, justice and peace, our faith, hope and love, freely and universally shared.

Two of the formulas for dismissal at the end of Mass are particularly eloquent in this context. “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” and “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Take your pick.

November 2, 2014

Homily for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), 2014, Year A

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

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

I often quote this poem of Emily Dickinson as the best description of what we go through in a time of mourning. We have all had this experience.

As we remember today all those who have gone before us, we are aware of an ever growing store of Love that we shall not want to use again until we are reunited with those we have lost.

Anyone who deals with those who grieve knows there is little we can say to ease their pain. Fortunately, the best that can be said has been said, in the Scriptures and by many poets.

From the Bible, we have in today’s readings at least two well known comforting texts. The first is, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them... They are in peace.” Not surprisingly, this is the text most commonly selected from among the options for the Mass of Christian Burial.

Then there is the 23rd Psalm, where we read, in the incomparable King James version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Many New Testament passages offer the same hope:

1 Corinthians 15: 51-52: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (I wish I could quote the whole of chapter 15. It is magnificent.)

John 16:22: “You are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” These words were spoken by Jesus to his Apostles at the Last Supper, but it is easy to apply them to the Christian experience of grief in general.

The list of “favorite” texts goes on and on.

Another poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was not a Christian. We sense the difference in a deeply moving poem called “Dirge without Music.” It begins:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

And the last stanza reads:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

This is far from what St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”

Grief, yes, of course. Anyone who tells others they are wrong to grieve but should be happy that their loved one is in heaven, has not grasped the Bible’s deep understanding and acceptance of humanity.

Grief, yes, but not hopelessness. We do not grieve “like the rest, who have no hope.”

“We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him,” writes St. Paul to the Romans.

And so death ultimately has no power over us, not now, not ever. We cry out, again in Paul’s words:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:54-55)

Returning to the poets, I conclude with a text from John Donne, which I use often at funerals, and which I quoted also in my homily last Easter.

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.

October 23, 2014

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

Christ answers the Pharisees
(Click here for today’s readings

The Pharisees are at it again, putting Jesus to the test, but this time they seem to be off their game. They had to know what to expect. The answer was obvious. In fact, in Luke’s version of this episode, it is the Scribe, not Jesus, who gives this very answer.

Even the addition of the “Second Greatest Commandment” in Jesus’ reply could not have come as much of a surprise. Apparently this pairing may not have been rare among rabbis in Jesus’ day. Again, in Luke’s version, the Scribe himself includes it.

Note that neither the question nor the answer implies that other commandments could be neglected. All the commandments were to be observed with equal care. Jesus simply notes that the Two Great Commandments are the foundation for all the rest. The first reading illustrates this fact with unambiguous examples.

It is a curious fact that the Commandment to love God is given differently in the three Gospels that quote it. Here in Matthew, we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Mark has heart. soul, mind, and strength, while Luke changes the order to heart, soul, strength and mind.

Stranger still, none of these corresponds exactly to the original Hebrew. It reads: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” No mention of “mind” at all.

Scholars naturally have their theories to explain these variations. They are interesting but ultimately irrelevant. The insistent repetition of the word “all” makes it obvious that the commandment is meant to be all-inclusive.

The word “wrath” shows up in the first two readings. God’s wrath will flare up against those who wrong aliens, orphans and widows, or treat the poor unkindly. Jesus, writes St. Paul, will deliver us “from the coming wrath,” that is, the judgment, a theme Paul develops at greater length in his letter to the Romans.

What does wrath have to do with those who keep the Two Great Commandments? Living in love of God and neighbor, observing in sincerity the laws that depend on those two, becomes so natural that wrath is not even a speck on the horizon.

St. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their full commitment to the faith of Christ, since they turned from idols “to serve the living God.” The context makes it clear that they have not held back, but have become “a model for all believers.”

Would that this could be said of us!

October 18, 2014

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already passed two “tests”— spot quizzes, if you like —concocted by his adversaries. Apparently they haven’t learned their lesson. In their malice they have come back, only to be confounded once again.

The issue wasn’t just whether one ought to pay taxes. It had to do with the Imperial Tax, the tribute levied on peoples subject to the Roman empire. The moneys raised were not for services provided, but to keep the people in subjection and enrich the empire. It was certainly perceived as an unjust tax, an unlawful tax.

We can relate to that. In our own experience, the law is everywhere. It is intended to guarantee our rights and protect our freedom. But we like some laws better than others, depending on the extent to which they affect our property and our freedom.

Here is an interesting case in point. There was an article in last Monday’s local paper on a shooting range in Vermont, near the Connecticut River. The noise can be heard, loud and clear and all day long, across the river in New Hampshire. We would all agree that the right to bear arms does not bestow the right to disturb your neighbors in their own home; nor does the right to tranquility in one’s own home violate the right to bear arms. Nevertheless, the situation has had a polarizing effect, to say the least, and it will probably be quite some time before a solution is found that will be both “lawful” and just.

The second half of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians says that we must repay to God what belongs to God. Now there was such a thing as a “temple tax,” but it would be ludicrous to think Jesus meant that.

Very often this passage is interpreted as applying to situations where civil law and Church teaching are in conflict. It is even used sometimes as a sort of club to beat Christian politicians into submission. I cannot believe that is what Jesus intended.

There is a challenge in this text, certainly. But if we look at the context of the overall relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, it is a prophetic challenge, much broader than the political sphere. Twice in the first reading God says, “I am the Lord, there is no other.” The Pharisees and company seem to have forgotten that, setting themselves up as legislator, police, judge and jury.

The challenge, then, is much more along the lines of the words of St. Paul in the second reading, the “work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.” This is not first and foremost about life in the political sphere, but it is certainly not divorced from the political sphere either.

If we are to return to God what belongs to God, let our starting point be the attitude of Psalm 116: “How can I repay the Lord for his goodness to me?... My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all his people.”

What vows? In Jesus’ world, the commitment to the two Great Commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. In our Christian and Catholic world, the baptismal promises: rejecting Satan and espousing the faith as a way of life. It doesn’t stop on the day of our baptism, does it?

No. It’s everywhere, every day. We  must repay to God what belongs to God, in our personal life, our social life, our professional life and, yes, even our political life.