May 31, 2014

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 2014, Year A

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.

May 25, 2014

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2014, Year A

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

All of us, at one time or another, have experienced 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.

May 10, 2014

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

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

(Click here for today’s readings

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.