(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Isaiah 35:4-7; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)
If you are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, you know that the second step reads: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This comes close to what we read in Isaiah: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.”
When we talk of salvation, often we mean getting to heaven. That is the ultimate goal, of course, but between now and then, can we not be saved? The answer is obvious: yes, we can.
Isaiah gives concrete illustrations of God’s saving power: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” The responsorial Psalm evokes the same theme. And the friends of the deaf man were inspired by that same tradition of seeing salvation in healing.
The Greek word for save, can be translated as heal, or make whole. It implies preservation (in advance) or deliverance (after the fact) from evil in any form. Thus, St. James’s insistence on not showing partiality within the Christian community is well within the prophetic proclamation of freedom from oppression.
The Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette stands squarely within this tradition. We need to be saved not only from external evils, but from our own sinfulness. We cannot do this alone, but Mary reminds us of the great news that salvation is ours for the asking.
Evangelical Christians speak of accepting the Lord Jesus as our personal savior. The Beautiful Lady uses different language but calls us to that same reality. The purpose of her visitation is that we might (again in the words of AA) make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
Miraculous cures, in the Gospels especially, are a sign of the salvation Jesus offers. More wondrous, however, is the conversion of heart, such as has been experienced since 1846 by countless pilgrims to the Holy Mountain of La Salette.
Sin makes our lives unmanageable. The saving grace of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ is our best hope, our only hope.
(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 4:1-8; James 1:17-21; Mark 7:1-23)
After their return from exile around 539 BC, the Jewish people adopted an attitude of strict observance of the Law of Moses. They had learned their lesson. They began, we might say, to protect the Law by surrounding it with practices making it less likely one would break the law.
For example, if you do not want to take the name of the Lord in vain, you never pronounce his name at all. Problem solved. Our responsorial psalm takes largely a similar approach, focusing on what not to do in order to be blameless.
The discussion in today’s Gospel revolves around a practice that we could summarize as “cleanliness is next to godliness.” The commandments about “clean and unclean” were reinforced by the traditional ritual washings we see described. Jesus opposes giving traditions the same weight as the Law. He condemns not ritual but ritualism.
In her message at La Salette Our Lady focuses on commandments, not traditions: honoring the Lord’s Name and observing the Sabbath rest are in the Ten Commandments; Lent and Sunday Mass are among the Commandments of the Church, based on very ancient Christian practice. This is not ritualism.
St. James writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” He adopts both a positive and a negative approach.
Blamelessness doesn’t lie merely in “getting it right.” It is a far cry from obsessive perfectionism.
The Eucharist, for example, is a celebration composed of many prescribed elements. It is a ritual. But if our participation is purely ritualistic, i.e., not accompanied by our mind and heart, its capacity to nourish our faith is seriously undermined.
Psalm 119, 9 asks, “How can the young keep his way without fault?” and answers, “Only by observing your words.” In verse 16 the psalmist exclaims, “In your statutes I take delight; I will never forget your word.”
Mary, who is utterly blameless, wept at La Salette, but one way we can dry her tears is to carry out God’s commands in joy.
Whom shall we Serve?
(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Joshua 24:1-18; Eph. 5:21-32; John 6:60-69)
When Joshua challenged the people to decide which gods they would serve, they answered, “We will serve the Lord.” That generation did their best to be faithful to keep that pledge.
Jesus asked the Twelve: “Do you also want to leave?” Peter answered with a question of his own: “To whom shall we go?” His profession of faith, which followed immediately, did not prevent his later denial, but preserved him from despair and prepared him to devote his life to the Lord’s service.
St. Paul also speaks of service. The word in our translation is “subordinate,” which sound more like servitude than service. He says that reverence for Christ should make Christians “subordinate to one another,” in other words willing to serve each other.
The question of choosing whom we shall serve finds a different expression on the lips of the Beautiful Lady of La Salette, in her use of the conditional “If my people refuse to submit” is equivalent to “will you submit or not?” or, to paraphrase Joshua, “decide to whom you will submit.” Let’s look at the alternatives.
The pursuit of pleasure, power or wealth is easily confused with the pursuit of happiness, and yet none of those good things can ensure we will be happy.
Knowledge, wisdom, and the arts have the power to uplift us. Practical skills can bring satisfaction, especially when placed at the service of others. But even here a certain self-sufficient, self-serving arrogance can creep in, undermining the good we do.
After Peter’s question, “To whom shall we go?” we read, “You have the words of eternal life.” This is more than a declaration, it is a commitment.
We must not assume that the Twelve understood Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life, especially the part about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, any better than those other disciples who said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” and who no longer accompanied him.
And notice that Peter calls Jesus Master, a word indicating submission. That means Peter sees himself as both disciple and servant.
Mary’s words at La Salette, even her hard sayings, call us to submit to him who has the words of eternal life.
Eating and Drinking
(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)
As often happens, there is a common theme in the first reading and the Gospel. Wisdom says, “Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!” Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
To us today, these texts might not appear so different. Jesus’ words do not shock us as they did the people to whom he spoke that day in Capernaum. The crowd could not have been expected to understand the sacramental meaning of this discourse. Their horrified reaction was perfectly appropriate.
There is much about La Salette also that is disturbing: “the arm of my son... a great famine is coming... children will die... I warned you... etc.” To this day many theologians take exception to parts of the message.
Mélanie and Maximin, on the other hand, once reassured by Mary’s invitation to come closer, seem not to have been bothered by the portions of the discourse spoken in their own dialect. In fact, I have often seen them quoted as saying, “We drank her words.”
This is something like St. Paul’s reference to drinking: “Do not get drunk on wine... but be filled with the Spirit.” I like to think the children drank in the Spirit along with Mary’s words.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ ... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”
For people facing the prospect of famine, this attitude requires real faith.
That said, for Catholic Christians, seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness is intermingled with eating and drinking. Which brings us back to the Eucharist. In John’s Gospel today we read, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
The Beautiful Lady wants her people to have life within them. Drinking her words, we are reminded of the life her Son offers us in Holy Communion.
Food for the Journey
(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 1 Kings 12:4-8; Eph. 4:30—5:2; John 6:41-51)
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick used to be called Extreme Unction. Today, Catholics understand that the sacrament is in view of healing, not death. There are, however, certain rites to be observed when death is imminent.
Among these is Viaticum. The Latin word originally meant provisions (money, food, etc.) for a journey. In the Church, it refers to Holy Communion brought to a dying person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it in these terms: “Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’”
When Elijah was discouraged and wanted to die, God provided food for his journey, to strengthen him and help him continue his prophetic mission.
The message of Our Lady of La Salette was addressed to “her people” who, among other things, paid little importance to the Eucharist. Not only had the Church in general suffered from the persecutions of the French Revolution, but even before that, anticlericalism had entered deeply into French culture as a result of the Age of Enlightenment.
In that context, “Taste and see how good the Lord is” would find little resonance. “Only a few elderly women” took it seriously, it seems.
And yet, there is something about the Beautiful Lady and her message that has touched even the most hardened hearts. Maximin’s father, originally hostile to the Apparition, came to understand God’s love, and afterward went to Mass every day. His conversion was due to an episode in his life which involved bread, and of which Mary had reminded Maximin.
St. Paul writes: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Yes, the practice of faith has always faced challenges, but it is especially difficult in secular cultures.
So, we all need Christ’s food for the journey. It’s not just for the dying; it strengthens all of us to go on.
Futility of Mind
(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 16:2-15; Ephesians. 4:17-24; John 6:24-35)
St. Paul writes that the Gentiles live “in the futility of their minds.” His audience, the Christians of Ephesus, used to live this way but ought not to do so any more. He does not explain the term in detail but associates it with the “corruption of evil desires.”
Evil desires are expressed in the first reading: “Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!” There’s nothing wrong with hungry people wanting food, but in this case the evil resides in their lack of trust, in their accusing Moses of making the whole community die of famine, in their ingratitude.
God had rescued them, with strong hand and outstretched arm, from their oppressors, and yet they failed to place their trust in him. Nonetheless, he saved them once again. But in the very next chapter of Exodus, the people fell back into the futility of their minds, complaining that Moses brought them out of Egypt only to have them die of thirst.
As one listens to the discourse of Our Lady of La Salette, one senses that she is addressing a similar situation. Her people have fallen into a kind of futility of mind, blaming God for their troubles. As St. Paul says in another place (Romans 1:21), “Although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.”
In the Gospel, Jesus sees the vain thinking of those who had witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It was not out of faith that they were looking for him, but because they desired to be fed again. He tells them to work for food that endures for eternal life. The ‘work’ in this case is faith: believing in the one sent by God. He then goes on to proclaim himself the bread of life.
In the coming weeks we will have occasion to reflect on this more deeply. For the moment, let us rest with the importance of the ‘work’ of faith.
At La Salette, Mary speaks much of religious practice, not because it constitutes faith, but because its absence shows a lack of faith. Without this vital relationship with the Lord, even religion can be little more than futility of mind.
Moved with Pity
(16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)
The word “shepherd” in Church usage refers to priests, and Jeremiah’s “Woe to the shepherds” text may well make us think of the scandals continuing to rock the Church. But in the Old Testament, it was the rulers who were called shepherds, and it is they whom Jeremiah condemns.
God promises his sheep that he will “appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them,” and give them a king “who will reign and govern wisely.” We can easily see this prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, whose “heart was moved with pity for the crowd.”
Many centuries later, a Beautiful Lady’s heart was moved with pity for her people. And, like Jesus, she “taught them many things.”
St. Paul writes, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.” Our Lady of La Salette sorrowfully reverses this saying in her message. Her people, who once had become near, were now far off from her Son.
Simply by speaking of her Son, who “is our peace,” she “preached peace” as he did. Just as St. Paul cannot seem to find enough ways to say how Jesus brought reconciliation to Jewish and Gentile Christians alike, so Mary finds abundant ways to describe how her people need that reconciliation. She also shows how they might encounter it, namely by honoring the Lord’s Name, respecting the Lord’s Day, turning to him in prayer, participating in the Eucharist.
All of these, and more, are expressions of the trust expressed in today’s Psalm. The God who spreads a table before us is the same God who saw Maximin’s anxious father give him a piece of bread. This is the compassionate God whose goodness and kindness follow us all the days of our life.
Instead of suffering famine, those who respond to Mary’s message shall not want. Instead of being like sheep without a shepherd, they will walk in right paths, their souls will be refreshed, they will fear no evil. This is not a dream. It is a prophetic vision.
Pity is not just a feeling. It leads to action. Jesus taught the people looking to him for hope. Mary came to renew that hope. Look around you. Whom do you pity? How will you act?
Strength in Weakness
(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6)
We often experience our tears as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. We struggle against them, we hide them if we can. In many cultures, it is extremely rare for adults to cry in front of other persons, and only the most intense grief or pain can cause them to do so.
At La Salette, the Blessed Virgin showed herself in tears. Far from demonstrating weakness, however, they are one of the strengths of the Apparition, an important part of its appeal.
When we are in the presence of someone crying, most often we want to find a way to comfort or console. But Mary said, “However much you pray, however much you do, you will never be able to recompense the pains I have taken for you.” Before such words we feel powerless ourselves.
St. Paul, however, encourages us when he writes, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” In the notion of weakness he includes “insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints,” such as Jesus experienced even in his visit home and Ezekiel was told he could expect to encounter as a prophet.
It is in this context that St. Paul quotes the Lord’s words to him: “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the source of our strength does not, cannot lie in ourselves.
When the Beautiful Lady calls us to conversion, she highlights prayer and the Mass because these are the best ways to obtain from the Lord the strength that can come only from him—strength to make necessary changes in our lives, to accept the hardships or rejection they may entail. If we rely on our own efforts, we will fail.
The hardest part for us is giving up. I don’t mean abandoning hope but acknowledging how powerless we are. This is painful. It may even lead to tears.
In the confessional at La Salette Shrines we often encounter penitents who weep as they confess their struggles with sin. They apologize for their tears, but one of our priests has learned to say to them, “This is La Salette. Tears are welcome here.”
Death, Faith, Life
(13th Sunday in Ordinary time: Wisdom 1:13-15 & 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43)
The Book of Wisdom acknowledges death as an unhappy fact of life. Our Lady of La Salette tearfully acknowledges the death of children in the arms of those who hold them. We, too, understand instinctively that this is not how things were supposed to be.
In today’s Gospel two persons in dire need approach Jesus. Jairus desperately wants his daughter to live. The woman in the crowd has been sick for twelve years and wants to live a normal life. They come to Jesus because they believe in his power to heal.
But their immediate reaction after each of the two miracles is not what we would expect. The woman tries to disappear into the crowd, but then feels obliged to come to Jesus “in fear and trembling” to tell him “the whole truth,” as if she feels guilty. Later, when Jesus raises the 12-year-old girl, her parents and the few disciples present are “utterly astounded,” as though they had not really believed it possible.
Does this mean their faith was insincere? By no means. It was real, but perhaps they were also “hoping against hope” (cf. Roman 4:18), like Abraham, the model of faith. This is why Jesus encouraged Jairus: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”
When the Beautiful Lady enumerated the ills afflicting her people, she wept also over their response to their sufferings. Far from turning to God in faith, they abandoned hope, speaking blasphemies when they should have been saying prayers.
Mary’s tears reflect the words from Wisdom, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” We find the same in Ezekiel 33:11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” She wanted her people to understand that “God’s anger lasts but a moment; a lifetime, his good will,” as we read in today’s Psalm.
When we are open to experiencing God’s good will, especially in hard times, we can live again, and join the Psalmist (and the sick woman, and Jairus) in singing, “You changed my mourning into dancing; O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks.”
Called from Birth
(Birth of John the Baptist: Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26: Luke 1: 57-77, 80)
Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives wondered what her child would be. Now we know his story. His role was to go before the Lord to prepare his ways. He was well aware of his unworthiness. He seems even to have passed through a moment when he shared the sentiment of God’s servant in Isaiah: “I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength“ (cf. Matthew 11:2-6).
Mélanie Mathieu and Maximin Giraud were, we can say, called from birth to announce the event of La Salette. The later lives of both were largely unstable, partly because people around them thought they must be destined for a vocation in the Church. They were willing to try, but neither one succeeded.
From contemporary descriptions of Maximin, he might have been what is today called autistic, incapable of sitting still. He never did settle in any of the occupations he pursued and often found himself deeply in debt. He died in 1875, only 40 years old.
Mélanie was taciturn and excessively shy but, over time, there came a shift in her relation to the Apparition, as she herself became increasingly the center of attention. In later life she published writings describing her childhood as that of a mystic, in terms that have nothing in common with any of the early documents about the Apparition and its witnesses.
My purpose here is not to focus on the unworthiness of Mélanie and Maximin. That goes without saying. Like John the Baptist, through no merit of their own they were objects of God’s favor and plan.
Yes, we are all called to be saints. That doesn’t change who we are. The children’s flaws actually lent credibility to their account. Ignorant as they were, they were incapable of inventing such a story, much less such a message, and in a language they barely knew! But their simplicity, humility and constancy in telling the story made them more trustworthy still.
No one could have predicted what their lives would be after the Apparition. But now we know their story. At the heart of it we find an encounter with the divine, to which they were destined by God, and fidelity to the mission received, despite their faults. The Beautiful Lady’s witnesses are good models for us all.