April 26, 2014

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

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’ (Acts 4: 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 mercygoodnesskindnesslovefaithfullovesteadfastlovepity loving kindnessfavor endures forever.

All this endures forever. That is our comfort. That is why can say, confidently and endlessly, “Jesus, I trust in You.” 

April 21, 2014

Homily for Easter, 2014, Year A

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 temptation, 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.)

April 12, 2014

Homily for Palm Sunday, 2014, Year A

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.

April 5, 2014

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

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?