March 30, 2014

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2014, Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23, 2014

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2014, Year A

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

One of my favorite Scripture quotations is, “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (Proverbs 25:25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me

Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance...

Yea, and death, and this for me.
And thou couldst see me sinning!

The water of baptism cleanses us. The blood of the Eucharist saves us. The Holy Spirit is present in both.

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

Spirit, Spirit everywhere. And always more to drink.

March 15, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2014, Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 9, 2014

First Sunday of Lent, Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So switch on your spiritual GPS, and recalculate.