January 27, 2014

Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

One of the most beautiful texts in the whole Bible reads: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried.”

People are sometimes surprised to learn that these words are not spoken between two lovers. They are the words of Ruth, to her mother-in-law, and simply mean: I will never leave you.

That hardly matters. The classical musical setting by Gounod is often heard at weddings. The Weston Priory version is sung by the monks to each other as a pledge of mutual fidelity in their monastic life. The text suits any commitment of persons to each other.

The response of Simon, Andrew, James, and John to the call of Jesus seems to have been wordless. They just left their family and way of life, and followed him, presumably in the spirit of that passage from the book of Ruth. Three years later, however, at the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, we read: “Then all the disciples left him and fled.”

What happened? In that moment they took their eyes off him and thought only of themselves.

Paul had to deal with something similar among the Christians of Corinth. At least three persons had preached the Gospel to them, and they thought this made a difference. There were rivalries based not on difference of teaching but on the fundamentally irrelevant difference of teachers! I am reminded of a family episode I witnessed many years ago where two children were fighting over which TV channel to watch. Both channels carried the same program!

With the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul we have just concluded the week of prayer for the Unity of Christians. The hostility among different Christian groups is, thanks be to God, not what it once was, but Unity is a long way off.

Paul’s response to the crisis in Corinth was to direct attention back to Jesus. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. We could compare those Christians to the people in the first reading who “have seen a great light.” But the Corinthians seemed to be turning away from the light.

Ecumenism has faded in recent decades. There were fewer joint Christian prayer services this past week than there used to be. Even common Thanksgiving services are becoming a thing of the past in some areas.

What is the best approach to foster Christian Unity? It can’t be “My Church is better than your Church.” It can’t be “We all believe in the same God, there’s really not much difference.” Rather, as Catholics, we need to be the best Catholics we can be; our Lutheran brothers need to be the best Lutherans they can be; and so with Evangelicals, and all the rest: we all need to be the best Christians we know how to be, within our particular tradition. That means being faithful to Christ first; only he can lead us to a unity we can’t really imagine.

Saint Richard of Chichester, who died in 1253, is best known today for a prayer he composed: “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.” That means knowing him, loving him, following him, not wondering or worrying if others are knowing, loving or following in exactly the same way.

Combining this with our opening quotation, let our prayer to the Lord this day be, “Wherever you go, I will go, ... day by day by day by day by day.”

January 18, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

“What is the meaning of this?”

That is, if I recall correctly, the last line of the strangest play I ever saw: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung you in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad. It was definitely in the category of the Theater of the Absurd, which challenges our sense of the meaning of life.

That question is open to at least two answers. 1.) Life has no meaning at all. (There are people who believe this sincerely.) Or 2. Life as most people live it has no meaning. We need to give it meaning. How? by creating something? helping people? leaving a legacy?

As Christians we believe that the meaning of life comes not from ourselves alone, but also and especially from Jesus who restored to humanity what was lost by sin.

In that sense the meaning of our life comes from the meaning of Christ’s life.

The meaning of Isaiah’s life was that he was called as God’s servant, and destined to be a light to the nations. For Paul it was that he was called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus. For John the Baptist it was to be the precursor of the Messiah. For all three , faithfulness is implied. Otherwise, their titles would be meaningless.

In today’s Gospel, an important dimension of the meaning of Jesus’ life is highlighted: he is the Lamb of God. It makes one think of the sacrificial lamb of Passover. Very deep faithfulness is implied.

The meaning of Christian life comes first from the fact that we are drawn to Christ. Any reason will do; Andrew and his companion heard John’s comment about Jesus being the Lamb of God, and followed him out of curiosity. (That is the section in John’s Gospel immediately following this one; we will read it next year.)

But then we have to continue to be drawn to Christ, in a relationship that goes deeper and deeper, wanting more and more of what he has to offer: hope, acceptance, strength, etc. We need to trust that this relationship will lead us and guide us. We place no conditions, no “ifs.”

We are not talking only about following “rules.” We are talking first and foremost about relationship, about being faithful to the person of Jesus, as he is faithful to us.

Just a few days ago, on January 16, Pope Francis made this very point in a homily. Speaking of those who have caused scandal in the Church, he said: “Where was the Word of God in those persons? They did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, even of comfort. But the Word of God, no!”

Faithfulness is implied. Without it, calling ourselves Christians is pretty meaningless.

January 4, 2014

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2014, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH
In 2013 I read Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. It is a philosophical analysis focused on that instant that marks the transition from not understanding to understanding.

“Epiphany” sometimes denotes that kind of “enlightenment,” a sudden grasp or revelation—an “Aha!” experience.

The Magi somehow grasped the significance of the star. First they had some kind of insight. But this was deeper than an intellectual insight. It was a “Light,” reminiscent of phrases in the first reading: “Your light has come... Nations shall walk by your light.”

Another aspect of insight is that it is usually a satisfying experience, and not just intellectually. It is a release of tension, when something finally makes sense. It is not just “Aha!” but also “Aah!” This experience is described when we are told that the Magi were “overjoyed,” and when the prophet says to Israel, “You shall be radiant at what you see.”

St. Paul expresses his insight about the gentiles. This is not insight in the usual sense, however. St. Paul didn’t figure it out for himself. He received a “revelation” to the effect that the light was no longer restricted to the people of Israel. Here we have not just “Aha!,” not just “Aah!” but also and especially “Wow!” It was unexpected, hidden till now. Who could have imagined it?

Some biblical scholars claim the event describe in today’s Gospel never happened, since there is no evidence for it outside this passage. Let’s suppose for a moment that this is a story that was circulating at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written. Notice, I don’t say “just” a story. Stories, after all, can communicate deep truths. In this case, various symbolic elements tell us much about who Jesus is and why he came. “Wow!” It is “Gospel truth,” the truth the Evangelist was inspired to communicate. A purely academic, historical approach to the story cannot bring us to bring us to that level of insight.

There are various kinds of epiphanies in life, when whole new horizons open up before us. I still vividly remember the first time I discovered how beautiful opera is. over 50 years ago. There was no intellectual insight, no release of tension, just the wonderful surprise, the “Wow!”

The arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem was a great surprise. We are told Herod was “troubled.” His reaction was neither “Aha!” nor “Aah,” much less “Wow!” but “Uh-oh!” and he set about trying to protect his own position.

Our position is described by St. Paul as “Coheirs.” This word shows up in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, where we pray “that we may merit to be co-heirs (with the saints) to eternal life, and may praise and glorify you.”

When you think about this in the light of the whole Gospel, it makes sense (“Aha!”), it’s a comfort (“Aah!”) and it’s wonderful (“Wow!”).

Sometimes it’s more one than the other; take your pick. The “mystery” St. Paul speaks of remains beyond our capacity to understand fully, or appreciate entirely, or admire sufficiently. We can always come back for more.