September 26, 2014

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

When is the last time you used the word “vainglory”? We all know what it means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it. You know, the people with bloated self-esteem, the people who are Presidents of their own fan clubs.

St. Paul says vainglory is to be avoided. But then he goes too far: “Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.” Isn’t that just the other extreme? Is it honest? Is it fair?

It may well be true that a humble attitude is better than an arrogant one. But surely St. Paul can’t be saying we should adopt a false attitude, putting ourselves down and beating ourselves up.

And yet, consider the following quotation: “I was at prayer one day when suddenly, without knowing how, I found myself, as I thought, plunged right into hell. I realized that it was the Lord's will that I should see the place which the devils had prepared for me there and which I had merited for my sins.”

These words are found in the autobiography of one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila. Elsewhere she says that the place prepared for her in hell was actually less horrible than she had really deserved.

What is going on here? It is an awareness that both of the sons in the parable represent all of us. We’ve all been there, promising to do something and not doing it, refusing to do something and then doing it after all; resolving to give up some old bad habit or adopt a new good one, and failing on both counts. Each of us is capable of the greatest holiness or the most abject evil. But both the first reading and the Gospel show there is no guarantee in the first case and no irremediable doom in the other.

St. Paul goes on to give Jesus as example: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,” who “emptied himself” and “humbled himself.” That doesn’t mean Jesus had low self-esteem.

What is being asked is that we empty ourselves of self, not just of selfishness but of self-full-ness, of self-importance, and that we humble ourselves at least by acknowledging the equal worth of others.

The chief priests and elders, as we often see in the Gospels, were full of self-importance, so faithful to the observance of the Law that they felt no need for repentance, for humbling themselves before God, much less before others, as would have been the case if they had publicly presented themselves to John for baptism.

The bad news is: we can’t rest on our laurels, on any good we have done. The good news is: we aren’t doomed by our past sins. We simply have to recognize God’s work in our lives, understand that our salvation is his work, that the best we can do is accept the gift, and cooperate with God’s will in our own imperfect way.

One of God’s greatest gifts is that he makes his will known to us. Another is the grace that makes it possible for us to say yes. Another is that he is always ready to forgive us when we say no, and take us back when we return to him.

It’s all his work. It’s all his grace. Not just in you, not just in me, but in all of us. We have ample grounds for genuine humility.

Next time you look in the mirror, say to the person looking out at you, “You are the center of the universe.” If that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, it should. As I said at the beginning: we all know what vainglory means and, I dare say, we know it when we see it.

September 20, 2014

Homily for the Feast of Our Lady of La Salette, 2014

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

The anniversary of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette is September 19. As La Salette Missionaries around the world we celebrate the event on the nearest Sunday. My homily today is therefore not based on the readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary time but on special readings for the Feast.

One might find the story from Genesis, about the rainbow after the flood, to be an odd reading for a feast of the Blessed Virgin.

The rainbow makes its appearance as the sign of the covenant that God makes with Noah. The bow, an ancient symbol of war, now becomes a sign of peace. God is starting over, re-creating, reconciling humanity to himself, promising he will never again give up on us.

Other covenants followed, with Abraham, with Moses, until the definitive, final covenant was ratified in the blood of the Cross. As the flood in Noah’s time both destroyed creation and cleansed it for a new beginning, so too Jesus’ blood marked not only his death but a new beginning of life for all of us. Entrusting us, in and through the Beloved Disciple, to his own Blessed Mother, he puts us all in a new relationship to one another as he reconciles us with the Father.

St. Paul, passionate about everything in his relationship to the Lord, pleads emphatically: Be reconciled to God! Five times in five verses he speaks of reconciling and reconciliation. There is no new covenant after Christ, but we often need to renew our relationship with Christ within the covenant he has established.

It is not surprising that all the readings for today’s feast point to the reality of reconciliation. The whole purpose of the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette was reconciliation. Like the prophets of old she uses language that is sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh— whatever it takes to restore the relationship between her people and her Son.

Some twenty-five years ago I was a curate in the Parish of Our Lady of La Salette in Rainham, England, east of London. Over a period of several weeks I visited a man named Sydney who had been diagnosed with cancer. Each week I found him weaker.

Meanwhile, there was another parish staffed by La Salette Missionaries, in Dagenham, the next town to our west, and on Mondays at noon the priests of both parishes would get together for dinner at the rectory in Dagenham. One Monday the three of us in Rainham drove there, but after the meal two of us decided to walk the two and a half miles back home. After a while it began to rain lightly, and as we approached our destination, there appeared before us one of the most glorious rainbows I have ever seen. Sydney died that same day.

I decided to use the image of the rainbow to begin the homily at Sydney’s funeral: “On the day that Sydney died,” I began, “a magnificent rainbow was shining over Rainham.” I noticed as I said this, however, that his widow and her son looked strangely at each other; but I didn’t give it another thought until we were leaving the cemetery, and she asked me, “How did you know?” “About what?” I replied. “About the rainbow.” “I saw it.”

“No,” she answered, and then went on to explain. On the day before Sydney died, he had been unresponsive most of the day. Then he awoke and said to his wife, “I’ve just seen the most beautiful rainbow.” With tremendous compassion and courage she told him, “Go to the rainbow.” That was their last exchange. You can imagine the comfort she found in learning that there was just such a rainbow on the day he died.

A rainbow, you see, is not just a thing of beauty. It radiates not only color but hope. That is the point of today’s reading from Genesis. That is the point of the Apparition and the Message of Our Lady of La Salette.

September 13, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 2014, Year A

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

What do Judas, and the leaders of the Sanhedrin, and Pontius Pilate, all have in common with God the Father?

You might find the question confusing, even bizarre, if not downright blasphemous, but the idea came to me when reading a commentary of St. Augustine on the First Letter of John, which I also referred to in last week’s homily.

Note the following passages, all from the New Testament: 

“Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:15-16) 

“As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1) 

“So he [Pilate] released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.” (Luke 23:25) 

God “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.” (Romans 8:32) 

The common thread is the verb “hand over.” In more classical translations we read that Judas “betrayed” Jesus, the Sanhedrin “delivered” Jesus to Pilate, Pilate “delivered” Jesus to be crucified, and God “delivered him up.” The use of the identical verb easily goes unnoticed. 

What we have then is this: 

Judas so loved money (see also John 12:4-6) that he gave Jesus in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. The leaders of the Sanhedrin so loved their authority and so feared losing it that they gave Jesus as the price to keep it.  Pilate so loved his power that he gave Jesus to his executioners rather than risk a riot. 

But God so loved the world... 

In John 3:16, the verb “gave” is not quite the same as “handed over,” but it is the same reality. That’s why Jesus uses the phrase, “When the Son of Man is lifted up.”

Today’s feast is called the Exaltation, that is, the “Lifting High” of the Holy Cross. Moses “lifted up” the bronze serpent, and those who looked at it lived. Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, humbling himself, becoming obedient to death, uniting his will to that of the Father and loving the world just as much as the Father did, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  

And there’s more. 

In the Third Eucharistic Prayer, at the Consecration of the bread, the priest says: 

“For on the night he was betrayed
he himself took bread,
and, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
for this is my Body,
which will be given up for you.” 

Following the same idea as with the New Testament passages quoted above, this could be translated just as accurately, “For on the night he was handed over he... broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: ... This is my Body, which will be handed over for you.” 

When you see the Host “lifted up” at the Consecration, always remember: God so loved the world then, God so loves the world today.

September 6, 2014

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2014, Year A

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

((Click here for today’s readings.)

I have always thought I would like to be on a jury. There is something fascinating about trying to find the truth amid the conflicting claims. I was called to a jury pool only once, but it was a Friday, and by 1:00 p.m. everyone was sent home.

The scenario in today’s Gospel at first seems the same. But in this case I would not be at all interested. What is the difference? A jury is anonymous, unacquainted with the persons involved, and can ideally be objective. In a local Christian community, however, people know each other, have personal opinions on the issues, etc.

I am told (but have been unable to verify) that there was a time in French Canada that Catholic families would take their disputes to the pastor for him to adjudicate. Often enough the result was disastrous, not resolving the issue but only creating hostility toward the Church.

Theoretically it makes sense, of course. At the end of today’s Gospel Jesus gives the power of “loosing and binding” not only to Simon Peter (as in two chapters earlier), but this time using the plural “you,” addressing at least the other Apostles and very probably all his disciples. It isn’t quite as dramatic as the responsibility given to Ezekiel in the first reading, where God warns him that it will be his fault if he fails to challenge a sinner and the sinner dies in his sin. But it isn’t to be taken lightly either.

Ideally situations of conflict ought not to arise among Christians. St. Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another,” the context just before it reads: “Pay to all their due, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” In other words, don’t go looking for trouble.

Jesus apparently understands that people who rub elbows sometimes step on each other’s toes. And although in the Sermon on the Mount he had said, “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well,” here he is being perhaps more realistic.

St. Paul complains in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth that when they have a conflict, they take each other to civil court instead of to members of the Christian community. It is clear that the situation described in the Acts of the Apostles, where “all the believers were of one mind and one heart,” didn’t last very long. At a certain point, the honeymoon was over.

St. Paul’s “solution” is before the fact. “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

That might sound like he is saying we should always do the “loving thing.” Maybe the loving thing would be not to pursue one’s rights at all.

Well, yes and no. “Things” are not loving or unloving in themselves. The same act can be loving or unloving. It isn’t the act that is loving, but the person. Circumstances differ. Personalities differ. The “thing” that may work for one may not work for another, or at one time and not another. Anyone who has raised children knows this. Sometimes—rarely, I hope—one really must be cruel to be kind.

We mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “nice thing;” that can be dishonest, or even truly unkind. On the other hand, we mustn’t confuse the “loving thing” with the “right thing” in an absolutist way; sometimes you can be so right you’re wrong.

St. Augustine points out that a parent will punish a child, whereas a would-be kidnapper will lure the child gently. The first is loving, the second is anything but. Not every nice gesture proceeds from a loving heart, not every harsh word bespeaks hatred.

To sue or not to sue? To punish or spare? To protest or accept? The answer is: whichever really carries out the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”