Weakness and Power

(5th Ordinary Sunday: Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16)

In many cultures, people prefer to shed tears in private than where others can see them. Perhaps this is because tears are sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. From that point of view, Our Lady could say, with St. Paul, “I came to you in weakness.”

In fact, much of what St. Paul says in today’s second reading could be said of Mary at La Salette. This is especially true of her wearing the crucifix: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

We have often noted that, according to Maximin and Mélanie, the light of the Apparition emanated from that crucifix. In John 8:12 Jesus says of himself, “I am the light of the world.”

In this week’s Gospel, he reminds us that we, too, are the light of the world. He also describes us as salt of the earth.

It is hard for us to imagine tasteless salt. The Beautiful  Lady talks about blighted wheat, literally, but the image could apply figuratively to her people. When put to the test, what was their faith? It crumbled, like the ears of wheat.

St. Paul also states, “I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom,” and “My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power.” At La Salette, Mary went so far as to speak the patois, the local dialect, typically associated with uneducated rural classes, in contrast with the French that she used at the beginning. And she spoke of things that her people could understand.

Coming in weakness is not the same as being powerless. It means that the power that we might show is not ours, but comes from God. Mary’s simple words had power, which she communicated to the children, empowering them to make her message known.

How bright our light could shine, quoting Isaiah now, “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted.” 

All this and more we may be empowered to do, but, always remember, the glory is God’s.

Fr. René Butler, M.S. and Wayne Vanasse

Redeemed

(Presentation of Jesus: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way.” There is a text in Galatians 4:4-5 that points in the same direction: Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law.”

The Gospel account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple refers twice to the Law, at the beginning and near the end. The legal requirement Joseph and Mary were fulfilling is found in Exodus 13: “Consecrate to me every firstborn; whatever opens the womb among the Israelites, whether of human being or beast, belongs to me.” In the case of smaller animals, the firstborn was to be slaughtered as a sacrifice; a donkey could be ransomed with a sheep.

The text adds: “Every human firstborn of your sons you must ransom.” Remember that Moses was leading God’s people to Canaan, a land where child sacrifice was not unheard of. Here God expressly forbids that practice.

There is a delicate irony here. Jesus, who came to ransom us, first had to be ransomed himself! The Redeemer had to be redeemed—bought and paid for, so to speak— “to ransom those under the law,” as quoted above.

This has consequences in our life of faith. La Salette can help us understand them.

We have to recognize the gift of redemption that has been won for us. The Beautiful Lady indicates means for achieving that goal: prayer, the Eucharist, penance, respect for the Lord’s Name and the Lord’s Day.

Then we need to recognize our own need of redemption. Mary uses the term “submit.” This will involve purification, a sometimes painful process. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read: “Jesus himself was tested through what he suffered.” And old Simeon told Mary in the temple, “you yourself a sword will pierce.” (“How long a time I have suffered for you,” she said at La Salette.)

Finally, like Mary, we must welcome the Redeemer into our life. We can make ours the words of today’s Psalm, expressing the desire “that the king of glory may come in!”

Division Problem

(3rd Ordinary Sunday: Isaiah 8:23—9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Matthew 4:12-23)

In the face of the confusion and even rivalry that we find reflected in our second reading, Paul goes to the heart of the matter: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

As we can see in this and various other texts of the New Testament, disunity among believers was an ongoing concern. As it happens, we have just concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25).  The fact that this is an annual event is a sign that the problem, unfortunately, still exists.

Separation, of course, is natural. People who have been joined by bonds of affection may move to different cities or countries; couples vow to be faithful “until death do us part,” and so on. Peter, Andrew, James and John left their families to follow Jesus. Separation is part of every human life.

Division is different. It implies a kind of separation that has a different kind of cause, usually conflict, the sources of which seem virtually endless. 

Our Lady of La Salette addresses one sort of division in particular, occasioned by the indifference of those whom she calls “my people” toward the one she calls “my Son.” As La Salette Religious and Laity, whenever we see division, we feel a desire to draw people back together again and, if necessary, back to God.

Some divisions are of a specifically religious character. Just as the Beautiful Lady could not stand by and simply allow us to suffer the consequences of our sins, just as St. Paul could not be indifferent to the divisions among the Corinthians, so also we feel the need to respond to the divisions and suffering in our Church. But there are many situations in our world as well and, probably, much closer to home, in need of our charism of reconciliation.

Matthew sees the move of Jesus to Capernaum as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In responding to his call, and to Mary’s desire that we make her message known, we can do our part to bring light into the darkness.

How? That depends on the uniqueness of our individual call, personality and gifts. Be creative!

Called, Formed, Sent

(2nd Ordinary Sunday: Isaiah 49:3-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34)

St. Paul presents himself as “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus,” and reminds the Corinthians that they are “called to be holy.” In the first reading, we read of one who says that the Lord “formed me as his servant;” John the Baptist speaks of “the one who sent me to baptize with water.”

All of these are reflected in the Psalm response: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”

God’s servant further declares: “I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord.” He claims no merit other than what the Lord has done for him and promises to do through him: “I will make you a light to the nations.”

When God chooses persons for his service, it is not necessarily because they possess special skills. On the contrary, he looks upon them, makes his choice and then bestows his gifts on them. John the Baptist, for example, was empowered to recognize Jesus as Lamb of God and Son of God.

We have often observed that the children chosen by Our Lady of La Salette had no special talent for the mission she confided to them. She provided what they lacked, and they were remarkable in resisting bribes and threats, in answering objections and trick questions. Thus did she call them, form them, and send them.

We may say the same for ourselves. Whatever our vocation may be, however we were attracted to it, it was God’s doing. Thus, one of the most important principles of the spiritual life is this: go where you are drawn. Discernment, after all, is precisely the prayerful discovery of the answer to the question asked by Saul on the road to Damascus: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10)

A La Salette vocation is often, so to speak, inserted into or overlaid onto another vocation. In the varied circumstances of our life as laity, religious or clergy, we find ourselves drawn to the Beautiful Lady. She who declared herself the handmaid of the Lord, invites us to serve the Lord with her.

Like Maximin and Mélanie, we might not be the candidates we ourselves would choose, but we can trust Mary to provide guidance and inspiration.

Voice of the Lord

(Baptism of the Lord: Isaiah 42:1-7; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

Great singers and speakers know how to modulate their voice. In this way they can communicate the subtleties and depths, the infinite variety of emotions  of the words they say or sing. God knows this.

This explains why there are so many books in the Bible. As varied and ‘modulated’ as they are, they all speak with God’s voice, which in today’s readings is heard from the heavens, from a prophet and from an apostle. The psalmist hears it in the thunder, perhaps, and describes it as mighty and majestic.

We cannot hear God’s voice as we do those of the people around us. At Mass we rely on lectors and priests (or deacons) to announce the word eloquently but simply, to speak it in such a way that the word may live, and so touch our hearts and minds directly.

The Scriptures do not hesitate to speak with a woman’s voice, most notably in the Song of Songs, and in the books of Ruth, Judith and Wisdom. La Salette is well situated within this tradition.

As we listen to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, we might wonder what he means when he says to John, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Many scholars, ancient and modern alike, agree that it means carrying out God’s will.

This principle lies at the heart of Mary’s message at La Salette. God’s will for us is always for our good. Giving thanks to him is, as we say just before the Preface at Mass, right and just. But this justice goes beyond the fulfillment of legal requirements.

The biblical concept of justice refers to a state of being in which all is as it ought to be, where everyone does what is right and just. It brings joy and peace to all.

Without using the word, the Beautiful Lady was describing the injustice of her people. In neglecting the things of God, they had placed themselves in a state in which all was not as it should be, and found themselves far from joy and peace.

Like Jesus, God calls us to be his beloved children,  with whom he is well pleased. By modulating her voice to that message, Mary communicates it to us anew, in a wondrous way.

Mystery of the Magi

(Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

For a brief time, all Jerusalem was talking about mysterious foreigners who had arrived from the East, asking a strange question. Biblical Scholars of the day found the answer, and King Herod sent them on their way.

Who were they? How many? How did they recognize the star? What identified it with the birth of Jesus? How could it move in a southerly direction from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? Theories abound, some quite interesting.

But none of these things really matters. They can easily distract us from the essence of the text, the object of the Magi’s quest: Jesus.

It seems unlikely that St. Paul had ever heard of the Magi. But he makes the point of their story most effectively: “The mystery was made known to me by revelation... that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Thus is fulfilled the promise of Isaiah to Jerusalem: “Nations shall walk by your light.”

In late 1846, everyone in the diocese of Grenoble, and beyond, was talking about a mysterious Beautiful Lady who had arrived, it would seem, from heaven. Her objective was similar to that of the Epiphany star: to point the way (in this case, to point the way back) to the one whom she calls “my Son.”

The Wise Men “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.” At La Salette, Maximin and Mélanie saw a different Madonna and Child, where Jesus is represented not as a babe in arms but as the crucified Savior. The universal salvation anticipated in the accounts of Jesus’ birth was accomplished on Calvary. 

As we reflect on the Gospel story and on the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette, we look to the past. But both invite us to enter into the mystery of the present, and of the future as well.

The Church reminds of the Magi for a reason. We remember La Salette for a similar reason. Both hold the hope expressed in the refrain of today’s Psalm: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” Can we play a part in bringing that about?

What to Wear, How to Behave

(Holy Family: Sirach 3:2-12; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

One of the first things one notices about Our Lady of La Salette is her attire. Besides the typical women’s garments of the locality—long dress, apron, shawl, shoes and bonnet—there are roses, a broad chain, a smaller chain supporting a crucifix, and a particularly bright light around her head, usually depicted as a crown.

But that is not all. She has also put on “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” as St. Paul recommends to the Christian community of Colossae, whom he calls “God's chosen ones, holy and beloved.”

In the first reading, these qualities are expressed by the verb “honor,” specifically towards parents. The Gospel reminds us that no family is without its crises.

Paul even acknowledges a painful reality, “if one of you has a grievance against another,” and emphasizes the need for mutual forgiveness. It is a fact of life that, even in the best families and the best communities, we don’t always like the people we love.

I suppose this is true in the greater La Salette family as well: Missionaries, Sisters, Laity. When we often rub elbows with the same people, we sometimes step on each other's feet. As apostles of Reconciliation, this is especially troubling to us. What to do about it?

First, while such moments are indeed inevitable, they can to a certain extent be anticipated. We can cultivate the attitudes proposed by St. Paul, especially the readiness to forgive. Sometimes, dialogue can lead to better understanding; forgiveness may not be necessary. Desiring to put things right among us, we can be creative in using the tools of charity at our disposal (see also 1 Corinthians, 13).

Mary recommended reciting at least an Our Father—where we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—and a Hail Mary—in which we are reminded of “the hour of our death.” These should help us put personal tensions into proper perspective.

In her own words, the Beautiful Lady echoes the rule of thumb enunciated by St. Paul: “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Being and Doing Amen

(4th Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24)

In the verses preceding our first reading, we learn that Judah’s enemies were joining forces to attack Jerusalem. At this news, “the heart of the king and heart of the people trembled.” So God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz to tell him, “Take care you remain calm and do not fear... Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm!”

This last sentence translates the same Hebrew verb, “Aman,” twice. This is the source of the word, Amen, which we use, for example, to express our firm faith in the Eucharist as we receive Communion. Depending on context and grammatical form, “Aman” can be translated in a dozen or more ways.

Taking certain liberties, I propose a translation that you will never find elsewhere in print: “If you are not Amen, you shall not Amen.” In the first part, as a noun, it indicates faith in all its dimensions; the verb in the second part indicates standing fast. King Ahaz was not Amen. Unwilling to trust God’s promise, he refused to seek a sign.

St. Paul writes that, as an Apostle, he was sent “to bring about the obedience of faith.” He was Amen himself and wanted all to be Amen.

The story of Joseph is an Amen story of faith. “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.”

Mary at La Salette called for the obedience of faith: “If my people refuse to submit,” she said, and, later, “if they are converted.” She who had said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” found among her people an attitude that responded No to the things of God, not Amen.

Our Gospel today recounts “how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” It is a wondrous story, requiring the obedience of faith. That is true of every aspect of Jesus’ life.

At La Salette the Virgin Mother displays her crucified Son on her breast. It is especially in his passion that he is, as he is called in Revelation 3:14, “The Amen, the faithful and true witness.”

I pray that the coming feast of his birth will lead us all not only to say Amen, but also to be Amen and to do Amen, always and everywhere, like Mary, like Paul, like Jesus himself.

What do you See?

(3rd Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11)

The notion of sight dominates today’s Scriptures. Isaiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened;” the Psalm: “The Lord gives sight to the blind;” James: “See how the farmer waits...;” Matthew: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight...,” and: “What did you go out to the desert to see?”

The meaning of the verb “to see” ranges from simple visual perception, to attentive observation, to intellectual understanding. That is how science works, isn’t it, as it seeks to reveal the mysteries of the universe?

There are, however, mysteries that science cannot reach. It is not equipped to explore the world of love, faith, the meaning of life. Here we need a different kind of revelation, the Word of God.

That is why we find so many quotations and paraphrases of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Jesus’ response to John’s disciples, for example, evokes various texts from Isaiah. James refers more broadly to the prophets. We are often reminded that Jesus came not to abolish the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).

There is also what is known as private revelation. The apparition of Our Lady of La Salette, formally approved in 1851 by the Bishop of Grenoble, falls into that category. No one is obliged to believe in it; but for us who do, it sheds light on our relationship with the Lord, opens our hearts to contemplate his love, and helps us understand both the meaning and the concrete implications of the Christian life.

These weekly reflections might perhaps serve as an example. Through them we approach the Sunday readings from the perspective of the message and the event and, above all, of Mary herself.

Any one of us can do this. First, place yourself in her company, renewing your affection for her and remembering her affection for you. Recall to mind those elements of the apparition that have the most meaning for you. 

Then, look at the readings. Observe the resonance between them and La Salette. Ultimately the question is: when you look through the eyes of the Beautiful Lady, what do you see?

The Full Picture

(2nd Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12)

The peaceful language of the first two readings and the Psalm stand in marked contrast to the words of John the Baptist in the Gospel. 

But none of these exists in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Isaiah and Paul also have harsh words in other places; other verses of today’s Psalm contain relatively violent images; and the Gospel is, as we well know, more hope-filled than Matthew’s account of John’s preaching might lead us to expect.

We gravitate naturally towards those Scriptures that comfort us. This is not a bad thing.

The same is true of La Salette. I am sometimes amazed to find persons devoted to the Beautiful Lady who can quote only the beginning of the message, “Come closer, my children, don’t be afraid,” and the ending, “You will make this known to all my people.” Submission, famine, the death of children—yes, we know they are there, but we are not inclined to dwell on them.

Ideally, encouragement should be enough to keep us on the right path. But, as every parent and teacher knows, guidance inevitably includes correcting faults and warning of dangers. Thus, John the Baptist was honest, and he was imprisoned and put to death because he preached unwelcome truths. 

We recognize that from time to time it is good for us to be tested. We might even set difficult goals for ourselves in order to improve our skills or our health, and we monitor our progress. It can be quite a different matter when the challenge comes from others.

The Pharisees and Sadducees had the Law as their standard, and did their utmost to be faithful to it. They may have come for John’s baptism as a sign of repentance for any failings in their observance. It is easy to imagine their shock and displeasure on hearing: “You brood of vipers! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”

John did not hate them. He spoke as he did to make sure they got the message. 

Our Lady’s message is all love but, to reach all her people, it was necessary for her to paint a complete picture, calling to repentance and hope both.

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