December 27, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family, December 28, 2014, Year B

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

Note: I have chosen the readings from Sirach and Colossians

It is my custom on the feast of the Holy Family to offer “words of wisdom” for family life. Underlying them is what I call the Snowflake Principle: People are like snowflakes, no two are alike. Clearly, God loves variety. We need to respect God’s variety, respecting one another, “bearing with one another,” as St. Paul writes. We need to minimize our faults and capitalize on our strengths.

Other principles:

2. Elbows and Toes.

You can’t rub elbows with the same people day in and day out without sometimes stepping on each others’ toes. We need to be realistic about family life, learn to say “of course,” and “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” Tensions inevitable. What happens after is what really matters.

3. I’m nobody, who are you? (from a poem by Emily Dickinson).

We need a sense of honest humility, a sense of humor about ourselves, including the very difficult notion that we are not the center of the universe.

4. Remember to forget.

Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, when reminded of a serious offense she had once received, answered, “You know, I distinctly remember forgetting that.” We need to let go, really let go, of ancient offenses.

5. The Home principle.

In “The Death of the Hired Man” (a poem by Robert Frost), the wife of a farmer tells her husband that a former worker has returned. The farmer doesn’t want him because the worker had walked out on him at the height of the harvest. The conversation continues as follows:

Wife: He has come home to die.

Husband: Home is the place where, when you have to go there,                        they have to take you in.

Wife: I should have called it something you somehow haven't                   to deserve.

There is a difference between a house and a home, between living together and encouraging life. A few days ago Pope Francis addressed the employees of Vatican City, and said: “Take good care of your family. Family is a treasure, children are a treasure. Young parents need to ask themselves whether they have time to play with their children, or whether they are too busy to spend time with them.... Play with your children. It’s so beautiful. This is how you sow the seeds of the future.”

The cruelest part of bullying is that is says: “You don’t belong!” We all belong. We all have our rightful place. We don’t have to deserve it.

6. Avoid Funagalo language.

In the first volume of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the father of the main character remembers his days of working in the mines. "They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground. It is a strange language.... It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning."

It is easy for practical concerns to take over in our dealings with others; so much needs “doing.” We can be too tired for anything else. We need to share more than work-related ideas and plans, but love of the arts, for example, and anything else that brings light into our life, even – why not? – our faith.

7. “Somebody’s Got to Do it”

There are some things I can’t do, or won’t do. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done. I can encourage those who are passionate about things that don’t move me or, at the very least, I can get out of the way!

But sometimes it ends up I am actually the somebody that’s got to do it! In Jeremiah 1:4-8 we read:

The word of the Lord came to me thus: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. "Ah, Lord God!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young." But the Lord answered me, Say not, "I am too young." To whomever I send you, you shall go.


In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the princess Cordelia tells her father, “I love thee according to my bond.” She means she loves him exactly as she ought. For the King, that isn’t good enough, and he disowns her. He doesn’t realize till it is too late how deeply she really loves him.

Family life requires, more than anything else, that we love each another according to our bond, exactly as we ought.

The starting point is to recognize how deeply we are all accepted and loved by God. If we can then learn to accept and love ourselves and others as we and they are accepted and loved by God, our families will be transformed.

December 20, 2014

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014, Year B

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

(Click here for today’s readings

About 20 years ago I was asked to speak to a group of candidates in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, on the topic of “de-creation,” i.e., the fall of Adam and Eve and its negative impact of on creation and history. I began by showing them a very beautiful, truly artistic mug that had been given to me. It reflected the love of the artist, and of the one who gave it to me, just as the world created by God reflected his love.

A little bit later, I “accidentally” knocked the mug off the podium and it shattered on the floor. As it began to fall, everyone in the group gasped.

I concluded, “That is what creation did when Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit. All creation gasped, crying out: ‘No! No! No!’”

Almost 900 years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux delivered four homilies on today’s Gospel. Each one is easily four or five times as long as today’s average homily. In a translation published in 1909 the four homilies take up a total of 50 pages.

After various explanations of different parts of the text, St. Bernard comes to the decisive moment when Mary has to give her answer. At this point he places himself in the position not of commentator but of observer, even of participant.

He calls to her: “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

"The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

“Why do you delay? Why are you afraid?”

Finally, Mary speaks. " Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word."  Here St. Bernard takes himself out of the story and returns to his original role of commentator.

If I may go back to the image of my shattered mug and “de-creation,” I would add that, at moment of Mary’s fiat, her “Yes,” all creation breathed an ecstatic sigh of relief and cried out jubilantly, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

In the first reading, God says “No” to David’s plan to build a temple. But that was followed immediately by God’s magnanimous “Yes” to David’s faithful heart.

St. Paul writes about the “obedience of faith.” We find it in David. We find it in Mary. This isn’t merely doing what one is told. It is founded on the acceptance of God’s word and the deep desire to live by it.

We might call Advent an “attractive” season, with all its prophecies of hope and promises of salvation. If we can take full advantage of the few days remaining, we will be able to rejoice, joining our “Yes!” to that of all creation as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Let every Christmas carol, every Christmas gift, every Christmas greeting be a “Yes!” to his coming and to the meaning that his coming brings into our lives, not only at this time of year, but at all times and in all places.

December 14, 2014

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 2014, Year B

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

John the baptist
(Click here for today’s readings

The third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” It comes from the first word of the “Entrance antiphon” or “Introit” of the Mass. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the text of the antiphon is from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” It appears in a shorter form in today’s second reading: “Rejoice always.” More on this later.

Television shows have gone through many fads and phases. There was the age of quiz shows, the age of westerns, of variety shows, of situation comedies, of detectives, and so on. Today we are in the age of “reality shows.”

They are of two types. There are those where we simply observe people: litigants in small claims court, women buying a wedding dress, survivalists, home buyers, you name it. Others are competitions, in which each week someone wins and someone is eliminated.

Some of the competitions involve fashion designers. At the beginning of each episode they are given a challenge; they have to make a garment either using specific materials, or inspired by a work of art, a city, an animal, a famous person. In today’s first reading there is a text that would provide just such a challenge. Here it is:

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.

The designers’ challenge would be to create that “robe of salvation,” that “mantle of justice,” which at the same time would express the soul’s joy in God. I think it would make a great show.

As interesting as that might be, however, they could never come close. The robe and mantle in question are God’s work. He designed it special for his people. His inspiration was his own promise to restore them to their own land after the time of exile, and to make them faithful to him once again.

John the Baptist, featured in today’s Gospel, would not have fared well in one of those competition shows. He stated clearly and emphatically that he was not the Messiah, not Elijah (whose return was expected “before the day of the Lord,” according to Malachi 3:23), not “the Prophet” (perhaps the one promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15). And later on, when his disciples told him that Jesus had begun baptizing, his reply was: “He must increase, I must decrease.” In effect he was saying, “My work is done here.” It was a recognition that his work wasn’t really his work at all. He was just “a voice,” an instrument for announcing God’s word.

The same reality applies to our spiritual life. Sometimes when people seek spiritual direction they are under the impression that a spiritual director will simply tell them what to do in order to make progress in their life of faith. Actually, it is more like what St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “Test everything.”

I usually put it this way: follow what inspires and attracts; if that isn’t what God is calling you to, you will find out soon enough. In other words, as in John the Baptist’s case, it isn’t our work. It’s God’s work, God’s grace, God’s gift. St. Paul goes on: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

We don’t make ourselves holy. We can’t, on our own, preserve ourselves blameless. But God, who is faithful, will accomplish it.

He will—he really will—clothe us with a robe of salvation. He really will wrap us in a mantle of justice. He really will make us rejoice heartily in him, and, as St. Paul says, “rejoice always!”

December 6, 2014

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014, Year B

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

We read today in 2 Peter, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.” This salutary but unsettling reminder of what is to come makes me think of one of the “Holy Sonnets” of the 17th century poet and essayist John Donne. It begins with the words: “What if this present were the world’s last night?”

“What if?” indeed! If we knew we had such little time, how would we spend it? Rush to the nearest confessional? Seek out the people we love most? Just cower in fear?

The poet is not afraid. He invites his soul to look into his heart and see there the image of Christ crucified, which for him is beautiful and offers him assurance of mercy.

We should note that St. Peter’s imagery is not simply about destruction. He follows immediately with this: “But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Similarly Isaiah, who is quoted in Mark’s, is not suggesting that valleys be filled in and mountains be made low in a destructive way. The point is to make a straight, direct route for God to come to his people. Anyone living in a mountainous area knows how travel times can be doubled and tripled by winding roads.

John the Baptist is “the voice” calling for the straight path. There are many singers and actors famous for their voice. John is famous for his voice, but in a different way. He is the herald, not drawing attention to himself but to the one who is to come after him.

Have you ever had the experience of imagining what someone looks like, based only on the sound of his or her voice? I once was curious enough to search the Internet for a picture of Steve Zirnkilton, whose voice introduces every episode of all three Law & Order series on television (“In the criminal justice system...,” etc.). I was surprised and amused to see how far off I was! His appearance seemed so unlikely to me.

There are prophetic voices around us even today, calling us to fill in valleys and make mountains low. Often they are unlikely prophets, hard for us to recognize.

Mountains and valleys constitute obstacles. The valleys and mountains of Isaiah are not the physical ones that would require engineers to level out. The ups and downs and winding roads are in the “wasteland” that our hearts can sometimes be. Mountains of self-importance, of greed, of whatever makes us think we are above the human condition. Ravines of jealousy, of self-pity, of whatever drags us down and stifles hope. We all have them at times, and in an infinite variety of forms.

Maybe there is an unlikely prophet, a voice crying in our desert, to help us.

Be that as it may the question remains: How can I, how can you, make a straight path for the Lord into our lives and hearts? How can we prepare for the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”?