November 29, 2014

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, Year B

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

I have a revelation to make.

What does that statement make you expect? A personal confession? Some new scandal in the Church? An interesting secret, or some news that will amaze or disappoint you?

One way or another, the statement probably sparked your interest.

In today’s reading from St. Paul, we find a similar idea: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christians of Corinth, who are already believers, are waiting for another revelation.

As we begin a new year in the life of the Church, we do so with a sense of anticipation. In this respect Advent is quite different from Lent. Both use purple vestments, both omit the Gloria at Mass, both are meant to be a sober preparation for a great feast to follow. Still, have you ever heard of making “Advent resolutions”?

For whatever reason, Advent isn’t usually experienced as a time for taking stock, for conversion. From that point of view, today’s first reading from Isaiah comes as a surprise with its heavily penitential tone: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people... and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”

In Advent we look less inward than outward. Instead of recurring themes of mercy and forgiveness, we sing “O come, O come, Emmanuel!” In the responsorial Psalm we read, “Rouse your power and come to save us.” Even Isaiah cries out: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”

This is definitely an upbeat season. It is time for God to act. We perceive ourselves as needing only to be ready and waiting.

Now it is just possible that this need to be ready and waiting may challenge us to make some important changes in our life. There are, after all, so many distractions. Christmas itself, since it involves shopping and decorations and parties, becomes a distraction from Advent. These things are inevitable, so we do have to make a serious effort to maintain the focus on the revelation that is to come.

There is an almost seamless transition from the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next. Just last Sunday we had the perspective of the final coming of Christ as Judge. The week before that we had the parable of the master returning and settling accounts with his servants. Today we are told to be like servants expecting the master’s return.

There is a difference, nonetheless. Over the last few weeks we have been anticipating the final and definitive revelation in the Second Coming of Christ. As we say in the Creed: “He will come again in glory... and his kingdom will have no end.” This is the faith of the Church.

In Advent, our horizon is not so vast. While waiting for the Ultimate Revelation, we also live in expectation of what we might call intermediate revelations.

I am not talking about any new public or private revelation as distinct from that already received and transmitted by the Church. What I mean is that Advent is a perfect time for us to be especially attentive, for example, to the readings at Mass, so that we might experience that revelation in a new, personal way.

Ideally this would become our way of life as Christians, not limited to these four weeks. As Jesus says: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

Advent teaches us to expect God to surprise us, to expect him to say, “I have a revelation to make.” That should spark our interest!

November 22, 2014

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, November 23, 2014, Year A

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

This is one scary Gospel. It is part of the inspiration for the Sequence we used to sing at funerals, Dies irae, dies illa... “That day will be a day of wrath.” Near the end, the text reads:

Grant me a place among the sheep,
and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.

Can it be that our eternal fate depends on our response to those in need? Does faith no longer count for anything?

No, faith has not lost its preeminent place. It is precisely as believers that we are challenged to put faith into action. The Letter of James has the famous passage: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” And in the previous verse we read, “The judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy.”

There is, of course, the question of what to do.

Is it enough to admire the Mother Teresas and Dorothy Days and get out of the way and let them do their great work and applaud them?

Is it enough to give to good causes, from a safe distance, so to speak? This is not a bad thing, of course. No one could be condemned for it.

Is it enough to volunteer in various charities?

These are the wrong questions. It is not enough to ask what is enough. The question itself lends itself to settling for the minimum, to finding the exact placement of the fine line between “I can’t do everything” and “I won’t do anything.”

The starting point, you see, isn’t the what, the external actions and good works. It’s the attitude, more specifically, in our case, the Christian attitude that seeks to imitate Jesus in every way: his kindness, his respect, his welcoming way, his concern, his thirst for justice, etc.—in short, never the minimum, always generous, a kind of “magnificent obsession.”

There are those whose job description absolutely requires them to tend to the needs of the poor and oppressed. In the reading from Ezekiel. God says that he himself will tend the sheep, seek the lost, bind up the injured, and so on. The context, however, is a ferocious condemnation of the “official” shepherds who failed to do these things.

Now back to the what.

Most of us do in fact respond to the needs of those who are hungry and thirsty by donating money or food to various agencies, volunteering time at soup kitchens and community Thanksgiving meals, etc. The same may well apply to “I was naked and you clothed me,” while “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” is definitely more of a challenge.

Most of us visit the sick at one time or another. Visiting prisoners is a more specialized ministry, that some do choose to take on.

Is that the whole list? I am reminded of a hymn we used to sing when I was in a parish in England, in which we hear Jesus saying:

Look around you, can you see?
Times are troubled, people grieve.
See the violence, feel the hardness;
All my people, weep with me.

Walk among them, I'll go with you.
Reach out to them with my hands.
Suffer with me, and together
We will serve them, help them stand.

If we look around us, we can add to the list, and maybe see where our personal strengths lie for reaching out to “the least of Christ’s brethren.”

I was unemployed, and you hired me.
I was abused, and you rescued me.
I was lonely, and you gave me a call, you sent me a card.
I needed to talk, and you listened to me.

I was old and confused, and you were patient with me.
I was ignorant, and you treated me with respect.

This is not a checklist. It’s a list of hints and suggestions for creatively generous hearts.

November 16, 2014

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 16, 2014, Year A

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

If there is anybody here whose grandmother was (or is) a lousy cook, you may well be in a minority of one. Grandma’s (or Nana’s or Mémère’s or Nonna’s) cooking is the stuff of family memories and legends. No one cooks the way she did.

The “worthy wife” of the first reading is that kind of person. The text concludes, “Let her works praise her at the city gates.” The image here is a little foreign to us, so I’ll explain it briefly. In ancient times the city gates were the place where you were most likely to run into friends and catch up on the latest news and gossip. But when you spoke of “Mrs. Worthy,” you would be praising her, for her talents and her character, and everyone would think what a lucky man “Mr. Worthy” was.

In this context, you could reasonably take the “talents” of today’s parable to mean whatever you happen to be good at. That is not really so far off the mark, since that is the modern meaning of a word which in Jesus’ time meant an extremely large amount of money.

“Mrs. Worthy,” however, also helps us understand talents both as what you are good at, and as something that has significant value. I dare say many of you have talents that meet that criterion.

That said, the parable can’t really be just about developing our skills and using them well. That’s because the parable isn’t only about us. Yes, we can see ourselves as the “servants,” but there is also the “Master.” The parable is about both, about the relationship between them.

It’s especially the third servant, the one who hid his master’s money, that makes the point for us. His relationship toward the master was one of fear—not the abiding respect that is called “fear of the Lord,” one of the qualities we find in the worthy wife—but genuine craven fear. “I knew you were a demanding person,” he says, and so he chose not to take the risk of losing the one talent. The master had shown him, according to his abilities, equal trust with the other two servants; but he, the servant, apparently did not share his master’s trust in him.

The other two understood what was expected of them, and doubled their master’s money. Fear of the master did not paralyze them. On the contrary, they were highly motivated, perhaps because they anticipated some reward, or perhaps simply because they wished to please him.

Back to ourselves, we need to ask the same question. Not just, how can I best develop the talents have I been given, and use them? but, more importantly, why? St. Paul gives us one possible version of the answer: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night... Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do.”

The motivation is that we need to be ready when the Master returns, to give him an accounting of our stewardship. What we have received isn’t given to us only for ourselves. We are servants, after all, ideally eager to serve and anxious to show off how we have served.

Going back to Grandma’s cooking, what really made it so very special, after all? Secret spices? No. Fresh ingredients? No. Precise measurements? Certainly not!

It was the love, the same love that set the “worthy wife” apart, the same love that needs to set us apart as “good and faithful servants.”

The day came when Grandma wasn’t up to cooking any more. She minded that terribly, not because of the food, but because she could no longer demonstrate her love in that particular way.

When and if the time comes that we can no longer exercise the skills we have used in the Master’s service, we will lay down our various tools of the trade, and all that will be left is love. And the Master will still be well served, and well pleased.

November 8, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

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

Today we celebrate the dedication of the oldest Church in the West, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, the Pope’s cathedral. This provides us also the opportunity to celebrate our catholic identity.

The word “Catholic” is most often distinguished from “Orthodox” and “Protestant,” referring to “Roman” Catholics as opposed, for example, to “English Catholics” (Anglicans), or the “Polish National Catholic Church,” etc. “Big C Catholics,” the blog on which this homily is being published, refers to especially faithful members of the “Roman” Catholic Church.

Every Sunday in the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Notice that “catholic” here is not capitalized. That is because the Creed as we know it was originally composed in 325 AD and revised in 381 AD, long before there was even such a thing as Orthodox or Protestant. The word “catholic” comes from two Greek elements meaning “according to the whole,” i.e. “universal.” Everywhere in the world, Christians held the same beliefs. The only ones excluded were those heretics whose errors led to the composition of the Creed in the first place.

That’s enough technical information for one day. Now let’s take a look at the Scriptures.

Jesus was seriously grieved to see all the merchants in the temple precincts. He drove them out and told them, presumably not in a gentle tone, to stop turning his Father’s house into a marketplace. The house in this case was a physical building, the Temple of Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place among his people.

Two or three years later, at the Last Supper, again in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses a similar expression in a very different context. Comforting his disciples, he says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled... In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” This is no physical house, not the Temple of Jerusalem, but the broadest possible expression of where God resides.

St. Paul writes that we are God’s building, “the temple of God in which the Spirit dwells.”

With each quotation we draw closer to the notion of Church as the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Assembly of Believers—the “universal Church” that once we were, and that we hope one day to be again.

The reading from Ezekiel uses the image of the stream flowing out from the temple, becoming a river and bringing life wherever it flows. I would like to apply this to ourselves.

Wherever we go, we are Church. Wherever we are, we can bring life. Just imagine the world, in so many ways a desert place, being watered by our compassion, our works of charity, justice and peace, our faith, hope and love, freely and universally shared.

Two of the formulas for dismissal at the end of Mass are particularly eloquent in this context. “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” and “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”

Take your pick.

November 2, 2014

Homily for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), 2014, Year A

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

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

I often quote this poem of Emily Dickinson as the best description of what we go through in a time of mourning. We have all had this experience.

As we remember today all those who have gone before us, we are aware of an ever growing store of Love that we shall not want to use again until we are reunited with those we have lost.

Anyone who deals with those who grieve knows there is little we can say to ease their pain. Fortunately, the best that can be said has been said, in the Scriptures and by many poets.

From the Bible, we have in today’s readings at least two well known comforting texts. The first is, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them... They are in peace.” Not surprisingly, this is the text most commonly selected from among the options for the Mass of Christian Burial.

Then there is the 23rd Psalm, where we read, in the incomparable King James version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

Many New Testament passages offer the same hope:

1 Corinthians 15: 51-52: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (I wish I could quote the whole of chapter 15. It is magnificent.)

John 16:22: “You are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” These words were spoken by Jesus to his Apostles at the Last Supper, but it is easy to apply them to the Christian experience of grief in general.

The list of “favorite” texts goes on and on.

Another poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, was not a Christian. We sense the difference in a deeply moving poem called “Dirge without Music.” It begins:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

And the last stanza reads:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

This is far from what St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”

Grief, yes, of course. Anyone who tells others they are wrong to grieve but should be happy that their loved one is in heaven, has not grasped the Bible’s deep understanding and acceptance of humanity.

Grief, yes, but not hopelessness. We do not grieve “like the rest, who have no hope.”

“We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him,” writes St. Paul to the Romans.

And so death ultimately has no power over us, not now, not ever. We cry out, again in Paul’s words:

Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:54-55)

Returning to the poets, I conclude with a text from John Donne, which I use often at funerals, and which I quoted also in my homily last Easter.

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.