(Easter: Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9. Other options possible.)
In the first reading, Peter states that he and his companions were witnesses to three distinct realities: 1) Jesus’ public ministry; 2) the risen Christ; and 3) that Jesus has been appointed judge of the living and the dead.
Paul, in the second reading, bears witness to the resurrection of Jesus and, in a particular way, to its meaning for our Christian life.
Mary Magdalen, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved also were witnesses, in the account we read today from John’s gospel. Witness to what, exactly? To nothing, to absence, to emptiness—or, more accurately, to mystery.
The mystery of Jesus’ resurrection is so fundamental that it is not easy to express in words what it means to us. In 1972, Easter fell on April 2. That day, the truth of Easter struck me in a way I cannot adequately describe. I can say, however, that it was the most life-changing spiritual experience of my life.
The beloved disciple, John, entered the tomb, saw, and believed. In that emptiness he experienced the deepest possible faith. His goal from then on was to help others to experience the same. Near the end of his Gospel, he writes: “These [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”
“Life in his name”—Mary at La Salette does not use those words, but that is the meaning of her message. Like Moses in Deuteronomy, she places before us life and death, and begs us to choose life. Those who do so become witnesses to the transforming mystery of what St. Paul calls a life “hidden with Christ in God.”
Not knowing, not understanding, is not necessarily a bad thing. Mélanie and Maximin did not know who was speaking to them, nor did they understand everything they heard; but at the Beautiful Lady’s invitation, they entered into that mystery, into what a 14th century spiritual classic calls the Cloud of Unknowing.
In telling others, like Peter, what they had seen and heard, the children were actually witnessing to what they did not know. They drew others into the mystery of Mary’s love, revealing the fathomless depths of God’s mercy, of which we too can be witnesses.
(Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31)
The end of Chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles paints a picture of the first Christians as a perfect society. Chapter 5, however begins with the story of a couple who tried to perpetrate a fraud on the community, and Chapter 6 describes quarrels over the distribution of the donations brought to the apostles.
And in the Gospel, we find Thomas refusing to trust the other apostles.
This is not so surprising. Even today there are strong differences of opinions, and sometimes conflicts, among Christians. These have led to tragic divisions.
We are divided among ourselves because we are divided within ourselves. In other words, all of us are—and each of us is—always in need of conversion and reconciliation. None of us will ever be able to say, Now I’m perfect. But help is always available.
The Christian community in Acts received the grace it needed to overcome situations dangerous to their unity. Thomas received from Jesus himself the help he needed in his moment of crisis.
The first major divisions in the Church had begun in the fourth century, over matters of doctrine. Was Jesus really God? What does the Church believe about the Holy Spirit? The Nicene Creed goes back to those times.
Fast-forward to 1846. The grace of La Salette was given to the Church in response to a new danger, worse even than doctrinal differences. People had stopped caring about such things. They had become indifferent to doctrine, to the commandments, and to the practice of their faith. Either they had rejected these things outright, or they had simply drifted away from them.
Mary was rightly concerned about the impact of all this on her people. They could not afford to sever their relationship with her Son, their Savior.
At Mass, before the sign of peace, we pray, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.” Our sins and the faith of your Church refer to the same group of people. We are sinners, we are Church. These are not mutually exclusive.
Imperfect and weak our faith may be, but it is real and can grow if we will let it. That is the Beautiful Lady’s hope—and ours—as she calls us to reconciliation.
(Palm Sunday: Mark 11:1-10; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1—15:47)
The readings for Palm Sunday create unexpected pairings. In the first Gospel passage, Jesus is recognized by the crowd as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, before whom they shout ‘Hosanna.’ Later the crowd clamors for his crucifixion. On Calvary, the Roman centurion supervising the crucifixion of Jesus comes to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
The Psalm, which begins with a famous cry of despair, ends on a note of exultation. God’s servant described by Isaiah is treated shamefully, yet firmly believes he will not be put to shame. And St. Paul portrays Jesus as emptying and humbling himself, obedient to the point of death, but also as exalted, given a name above all other names—Lord.
It ought not to surprise us to find similar pairings at La Salette. Mary appears in heavenly light, but she weeps. She speaks of the dire consequences of lost faith, and yet does so with infinite gentleness. She gives an important mission to two children who can scarcely make sense of what she has said to them.
When we look at the Church, we find much the same. The brilliant English author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) pointed out many paradoxes which one finds in the Church: variously criticized as “the enemy of women, and their foolish refuge;” a “solemn pessimist and a silly optimist,” who produced “fierce crusaders and meek saints;” the list goes on at some length. He sums up his thoughts with the central paradox of Christian theology: “Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.”
This pairing of “true man and true God” is indeed at the very center of our faith. Hard as it is to understand, we proclaim it in our creed.
These are not simply theological musings. They say a lot about us as well. As Christians we are a paradox; we are aware of the contradictions within ourselves, sinners and saints that we are, individually and as Church. The La Salette call to conversion must be taken seriously, but we will never be able to say: Now I am holy. And yet we do not despair of reaching that goal under the watchful eye of the Beautiful Lady.
Saved by Grace
(Fourth Sunday of Lent: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21)
Growing up in Nazareth, the Blessed Virgin must have learned the history of her people, the people of God. Remembering what had happened to them because of their infidelity, she came to La Salette to warn her other people, given to her at the foot of the cross, of what was about to happen to them, and for the same reason.
God had compassion on his people, but they ignored his kindness and suffered the consequences. Even then, he did not abandon them altogether. After 70 years of exile, he brought them back to their homeland.
From this point on, they took God’s law very seriously. Although eventually this led to the legalism that we associate with the Scribes and Pharisees, it was nevertheless better than the situation that is described in the first part of today’s reading from 2 Chronicles.
John’s Gospel says that God showed his love for the world by sending Jesus, so that we might have eternal life. This dovetails perfectly with Paul’s words about the richness of God’s mercy and the free gift of salvation.
It also dovetails with the La Salette event. Mary’s words and gentle demeanor, the light that surrounds her, her proximity to the children—everything reflects what John says: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that world might be saved through him.”
Even her language about the strong, heavy arm of her Son does not contradict this merciful attitude. Why would she speak in this way, if not to set us on the right path and spare us the punishment we deserve, to shield us from the justice of God? As St. Paul says, even when we were dead in our transgressions, God still had great love for us.
He asks only that we love him back and live accordingly. This is a form of submission—to authority, certainly but, at a deeper level, to grace. Think of the scene of the Annunciation, where Mary, full of grace, says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.” The desire to do God’s will makes it easy to submit to it.
This is perhaps what St. Paul means by saying we are created for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.
(Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 22:1-18; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10)
At the conclusion of the dramatic story of what transpired on a mountain in the land of Moriah, Isaac’s life is spared, a substitute is found for the holocaust, and Abraham, who was willing to offer up his beloved son at God’s command, is rewarded for his unstinting faith. In Old Testament and New Testament times, the place where it was believed Abraham went to sacrifice his son continued to be venerated. The Temple of Jerusalem was built there.
In our second reading, St. Paul alludes indirectly to another small mount within easy walking distance of the Temple. The evangelists call it Golgotha.
And on an unnamed mountain, somewhere in Galilee, Jesus appeared in his glory, along with Moses and Elijah.
These various elements all find a resonance at yet another mountain, in the French alps, called La Salette.
In remembrance of the Passion of Jesus, the Beautiful Lady wears a large crucifix on her breast. It is the brightest point in the Apparition, the source of its light. The hammer and pincers, instruments of the Passion, draw attention to it in a unique way.
Reminding us of the covenant proclaimed through Moses, and calling us to the steadfast commitment of Elijah, she speaks in the manner of the prophets. (It is interesting to note that in 2 Peter 1:18, the place of the Transfiguration is referred to as ‘the holy mountain.’ We use the same phrase when we speak of La Salette.)
Finally, like God speaking to Abraham, Mary also makes a grand promise of hope and prosperity to those who will live by faith.
More important than any of these similarities, however, is the word Son. “Take your only son, whom you love, and offer him up as a holocaust;” “God did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all;” “This is my beloved Son.”
When Our Lady of La Salette speaks of her Son, it is to reproach her people for their ingratitude to him and their disrespect for his Name. We must never allow ourselves to forget that her Son is God’s beloved Son, handed over for us.
As he is at the heart of Scripture, he must be at the heart of our faith, of our way of life. Lent is a good time to ask ourselves if this is really the case.
(Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:23-25)
Every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we say, Hallowed be thy name. This is raised as a concern by Our Lady of La Salette, in two distinct contexts. First she expresses her sadness at the abuse of her Son’s name. Later, she encourages the children to say at least an Our Father and a Hail Mary in their night and morning prayers.
This is also her way of reminding us of the Commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
Interestingly, the notion of “hallow” occurs in the next commandment: Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. Our Lady reminds us of this commandment as well. ‘Hallow’ and ‘holy’ are what linguists call cognate words. Like ‘strengthen’ and ‘strong,’ one is a verb and the other an adjective to express the same idea.
In the Gospel, Jesus was angry that the Temple, his Father’s house, was being turned into a marketplace. The very place that contained the Holy of Holies was not being kept holy. The sellers of sacrificial animals had forgotten God’s word to Solomon: “I have consecrated this house which you have built and I set my name there forever; my eyes and my heart shall be there always” (1 Kings 9:3).
The reading from St. Paul is from the first chapter of First Corinthians. The letter opens with Paul addressing “the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” Coming so early in the letter, it states the theme of much that is to follow. Later In the same letter he writes: “The temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
Without using those words, Mary surely has that same notion in mind when she speaks of “my people.” There can be no doubt that she means the people ransomed by her Son, called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2:9).
Jesus taught us to pray, “Hallowed be thy name.” This is a promise on our part to hallow it. In that same spirit of commitment we might add:
Hallowed be thy day;
Hallowed be thy house;
Hallowed be thy people.
Peace with God
(First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 9:8-15; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)
The noun “bow” occurs 77 times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. It always refers to a weapon of war, even in today’s first reading. But God says he will set his bow in the clouds as a reminder of the covenant between himself and humanity, a covenant of peace.
After the flood, God had made a resolution: “Never again will I strike down every living being as I have done.” He was now renouncing forever the violence with which he had wiped out all but eight persons on the earth.
This explains why this passage from Genesis is the first reading at the Mass for the Feast of Our Lady of La Salette. One might even wonder whether Bishop de Bruillard had this same text in mind when he wrote of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette: “Their institution and existence shall be, like the Shrine itself, an eternal monument, a perpetual remembrance, of Mary’s merciful apparition.”
There are many Scripture passages after the story of Noah, in which God fights with the armies of his people, and Psalm 24 says that God is “mighty in war;” but Psalm 46 presents a different image. God “stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, splinters the spear… [saying,] ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”
‘Be still’ can be variously translated as let go, stop, desist. It is not so much an invitation to be quiet as a call to refrain from acts of war and violence.
“Know that I am God” means acknowledging and, above all, respecting God. This is an important element in the Beautiful Lady’s words. She twice laments the abuse of her Son’s name and the failure to give God the worship and honor that is his due.
Today, Mark’s Gospel gives no details about the tempting of Jesus in the desert, but we know them through Matthew and Luke; there we find that Jesus holds fast to the importance of worshiping God alone.
There is always the temptation to forget who God is and who we are. This does not mean we are unimportant. On the contrary, God tells us, “I, the Lord, am your God, … you are precious in my eyes” (Isaiah 43:3-4). We are meant to be at peace with God. That is the message at the heart of the message of La Salette.
A Reconciling Touch
(Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Leviticus 13:1-2 and 44-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)
St. Paul may appear to be vain when he writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” But he was, in fact, a good model of discipleship, and all of us are called, likewise, to be imitators of Christ, doing everything for the glory of God.
Very recently I met a woman who had a wooden sculpture, a gift from a missionary Sister. It was carved by a leper, who gave it to the Sister to acknowledge his special gratitude, because she was the only person who had ever touched him. She was an imitator of Christ as we see him in today’s Gospel.
His touch produced more than the physical healing. It was surely unexpected, perhaps even shocking, and, therefore, a very powerful sign, an example to follow. It was a healing and reconciling touch.
Normally we think of reconciliation as the restoration of a relationship between persons separated by some deep offense. It is, as you know, a key word in the vocabulary of La Salette Missionaries, Sisters, and Laity, who desire all to be reconciled to God and fully incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ.
How does this apply to leprosy? Apart from two clear examples (Miriam in Numbers 12, and Gehazi in 2 Kings 5), there was no offense associated with the disease.
The fact remains that, by law, as we read in Leviticus, lepers lived in a state of alienation. Unclean, they could have no association with others, and anyone who had contact with them became unclean as well, though only for a short time. That situation was here reversed. By a touch the leper was restored to health and to a normal life. He could once again enter the temple. His alienation was over. This was an act of reconciliation.
In the 1960’s the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette founded a leprosarium in Burma. Fr. William Doherty wrote: “We established a leprosarium for the many people afflicted by this dread disease—people until that time unwanted and uncared for.” This was perfectly in keeping with our mission of reconciliation. These persons, unfortunately, could not be restored to their families. But their total alienation was ended.
Not only sin committed or offense given, but any form of alienation, calls for a reconciling touch.
Purpose in Life
(Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 7:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39)
“Woe to me,” writes St. Paul, “if I do not preach the Gospel.” He is not complaining, just stating the fact that this responsibility, laid on him without his being consulted, had become the all-consuming purpose of his existence.
Jesus says something similar: “For this purpose I have come,” namely his preaching.
Job takes us to the other extreme. His life has become a drudgery, and he finds no purpose in it. He expects that he will never know happiness again.
The tears of Mary at La Salette, such a beautiful and powerful image, are troubling in a way. They can make us repent our sins; that is good. But some wonder how Mary, in heaven, can experience unhappiness.
And yet she talks about the trouble her people’s infidelity have caused her personally: “How long a time I have suffered for you! … You pay no heed… You will never be able to recompense the pains I have taken for you.” More than a sign of unhappiness, her tears are a sign of her compassion, which she cannot possibly have set aside in heaven.
Peter’s mother-in-law can help us understand the situation. Once healed, what does she do? She waits on Jesus and his companions. In her illness she was, so to speak, enslaved and without purpose. The Lord restored her to her dignity as the lady of the house. Her honor lay in honoring her guests. The same could probably be said of all the persons Jesus cured that day, especially those he delivered from demons.
The purpose of the Beautiful Lady is the same: to restore us to our dignity as Christians. She came to speak to those who were Catholics in name only—including Mélanie and Maximin. Were they even aware of the promises made on their behalf at baptism?
We might paraphrase St. Paul and the message of La Salette together by saying, “Woe to me if I do not live the Gospel.” Mary lists her people’s woes, the consequence of their religious indifference.
In 1980, St. Pope John Paul II issued a challenge to the Christians of France: “France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to your baptismal promises?”
Indeed, what purpose can Christians find in not living and practicing their faith?
New and Old
(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28)
Jesus was, to say the least, an interesting personality, a phenomenon. People were amazed at his power and the authority with which he presented a new teaching.
In our second reading, we find a specific new teaching, a novel idea put forward by St. Paul. He thought that it was better not to marry, so as to devote oneself more to pleasing God than to pleasing a wife or husband.
That was nearly 2000 years ago. While most of St. Paul’s writings are normative for Christian faith, his idea about marriage never really caught on. The teachings of Jesus have, of course, been around for a very long time. In a sense, the Good News isn’t news any more.
When Mary told Maximin and Mélanie, “I am here to tell you great news,” she really did not have anything new to say, but what she had to say was vitally important, nonetheless. Her message echoes the Good News, as well as the Old Testament. But she did not just repeat Bible teachings; she had to get us to hear them in a new way. That is the prophetic approach.
If you read Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, you will find very similar messages, but the language and the personality of each individual prophet is different. How true this is of the Beautiful Lady as well!
We may reasonably expect some similarity between her words and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and indeed the tragic image of dying children recurs there quite often. In Jeremiah 14:17 we read, “Let my eyes stream with tears, day and night, without rest.” This evokes for us not only Mary’s weeping, but also her praying for us without ceasing.
Still, certain dimensions of the Apparition are unique: the unusual elements of Mary’s costume, her choice of witnesses. The newness of her message lies in the direct application to current events. Critics say that potatoes are not a suitable topic for the Blessed Virgin to address. True enough in the abstract, perhaps, but potatoes and wheat represented life to her people, and so constituted an effective way to get their attention.
The ’new teaching’ of Jesus is ancient, but not old, never passé. La Salette reminds us of the importance of finding new, more effective ways to announce it.