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.
The Tipping Point
(1st Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 23:37-44)
“I snatched up the book, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: ‘not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.’”
Augustine had heard what sounded like a child’s voice chanting, “Pick it up, read it.” This was no children’s game, and he understood the words to be addressed to him. He picked up the book that lay on a nearby table, which contained Paul’s letters.
At this moment in his life, Augustine was at the tipping point in his conversion. Opening the book at random, he read the words quoted above from Paul’s Letter to the Romans—today’s second reading—and his transformation was complete!
Those words are part of an exhortation which begins: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Jesus’ call to stay awake is likewise a reminder not to dwell in darkness. The Christian is to remain vigilant, ever ready and eager to “walk in the light of the Lord,” as Isaiah says.
The Advent season begins today. It prepares us to celebrate the coming of Christ, the Light of World.
But even in faithful Christian hearts there can remain shadows, places of darkness that hold us back from entering fully into the light. Our Lady of La Salette appeared in dazzling brightness. Mélanie and Maximin were terrified, but she called them, and enfolded them in her radiance. Her words, too, were an invitation to her people to throw off the darkness that enshrouded them.
Like Augustine, perhaps we know what we have to do to follow Christ more perfectly, but remain hesitant, at the tipping point. It might be helpful, in that case, to close our eyes and imagine ourselves standing with the two children, so close to the Beautiful Lady that, as Maximin said, “no one could have passed between her and us.”
As always, she will draw us closer to her Son. In her company, we will be able to make ours today’s psalm refrain: Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
(Christ the King: 2 Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1:12-20; Luke 23:35-43)
Crucifixion was designed to inflict capital punishment with maximum pain and humiliation. Jesus, falsely condemned as a criminal, had been brutally scourged, and was now displayed naked and powerless for all to see as they passed by. The insults of his enemies completed the scene.
Two real criminals, crucified with him, were in the same situation. One of them joined in the mockery. But the other’s compassion for Jesus moved him to faith, to which the Lord responded: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In 1957 a condemned criminal named Jacques Fesch, 27 years old, wrote: “In five hours I will see Jesus. Our Lord is so good!” He knew the exact time, because he had been sentenced to die by the guillotine for a murder committed during a robbery in 1954.
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin was an essential part of his return to the faith he had abandoned in his teens. It was his lawyer, a committed Christian, who helped him to find his way back to God, so that, at the time of his death he had truly become a “good thief.” In 1993 he was officially recognized as a Servant of God. (This is the first step on the way to beatification and canonization.)
There are probably many other criminals whose conversion stories could inspire us to believe in the power of grace to save.
The clearest connection between today’s readings and La Salette is near the end of the text from Colossians, where Paul writes of reconciliation and peace. When Mary said to the children, “I am here to tell you great news,” this is surely what she had in mind.
The unusually large crucifix she wore, seven or eight inches long, was no adornment, but a reminder of her Son, to save us.
Earlier in Colossians we read: “He [God] delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” What better example of deliverance, redemption and forgiveness can we find than in the stories of two “good thieves” who died fixing their gaze and their hopes on Jesus?
(33rd Ordinary Sunday: Malachi 3:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19)
In 2008 a letter was sent from the Vatican to all bishops, concerning the use of the Hebrew name of God (written with the four letters YHWH). It points out that among the Jews before Jesus’ time, the practice of pronouncing the name disappeared. YHWH, “as an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of Sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: Adonai, which means ‘Lord.’”
This is reflected in the ancient translations. Only Kyrios (Lord) occurs in the Greek, for example, and Dominus in the Latin. And, the Vatican letter insists, the same must be the case in the Liturgy and in modern translations of the Bible.
The Beautiful Lady of La Salette was not concerned about this particular issue. But the abuse of her Son’s name troubled her deeply. For Christians, the name of Jesus is also “an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God,” especially as related to our salvation.
How could we not hold his name in the very highest respect? “For you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays,” we read in Malachi. Mary implies a similar promise.
But in the Gospel we find another prophecy, on the lips of Jesus: “You will be hated by all because of my name.” Although this is followed immediately by certain reassurances, the prospect of persecution is terrifying.
And yet we find examples of saints who desired it. One of the North American martyrs, Jean de Brébeuf, made a vow never to fail in the grace of martyrdom, if it were offered to him: “My God and Savior, I will take from your hand the cup of sufferings and call on your Name: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
His prayer was heard, and he died amid unspeakable tortures.
This is not what Our Lady asks of us, and I pray that we may never be called upon to suffer in this way for the sake of the Lord’s name.
Rather let us so live as to be worthy of the name of Christian, loving and beloved disciples of her Son.
Context is Everything
(32nd Ordinary Sunday: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16—3:5; Luke 20:27-38)
If you have time, read the entire sixth and seventh chapters of 2 Maccabees. That will not only make better sense of the story of the heroic woman and her sons, but also provide a context for understanding why this story is included.
In particular, we read in 6:12-13: “Now I urge those who read this book not to be disheartened by these misfortunes, but to consider that these punishments were meant not for the ruin but for the correction of our nation. It is, in fact, a sign of great kindness to punish the impious promptly instead of letting them go for long.”
The reading from 2 Thessalonians also benefits from reading the verse immediately preceding today’s text. Here it is: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.” It reflects a difficult time in the Christian community, calling for the strength Paul mentions twice in the next verses.
The question of the Sadducees has a double context. First is the fact that this particular question was a popular topic in the debates between Sadducees and Pharisees who, respectively, denied or believed in the resurrection. Second is the desire—often recorded in the Gospels, but always futile—to best Jesus in an argument.
The story of La Salette, likewise, is best understood by studying the world in which it took place. Some of this can be inferred from the Beautiful Lady’s words: the devastation of the local economy, her people’s indifference toward the things of God, the urgency of conversion.
Then there is the history of France, especially the French Revolution and its philosophical, religious, social and economic aftermath.
The most important context for understanding La Salette is, however, the Bible. Every part of the Message reflects that world. Without the Scriptures, La Salette is subject to every sort of interpretation.
For us who love La Salette, one other context is also important: our own lives and the world in which we live, here and now.
Glorify the Lord with me
(31st Ordinary Sunday: Wisdom 11:22—12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11—2:2; Luke 19:1-10)
The author of Wisdom says to God, “You have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.” The psalmist declares, “The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” The story of Zacchaeus illustrates the same truth.
Jesus took the initiative in Zacchaeus’ case. Repentance (submission, conversion) is God’s gift. At La Salette, Mary came to offer it to her people.
If all goes well, a major change takes place in the heart and life of those touched by this grace. Zacchaeus proclaims publicly the difference his encounter with the Lord has made. He breaks with the greed that has marked his life until this moment, and his new life is marked by justice and generosity. Who knows where that may lead him?
There is yet another dimension to all this, which we find in our second reading: “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.”
Imagine! Whoever responds to God’s call to conversion will not only turn away from sin and towards a faith-filled life, but will actually be able to glorify the name of Jesus.
After all, no one ever became a saint only by giving up a sinful way of life. The Beautiful Lady did not envision that her people would merely stop abusing her Son’s name, but that they would return to the practice of the faith, in all sincerity. She speaks of submission and conversion. These are not negative notions. See how Zacchaeus was transformed when he submitted to God’s grace and was converted.
Why Jesus came, why Mary came, was not just to take us away from something evil, but to offer us something good and beautiful and wonderful. Both came because we are loved by God. They want us to respond to that love with all our heart.
Psalm 34:4 reads, “Glorify the Lord with me, together let us praise his name.” This applies more to our way of life than to our words.
(30th Ordinary Sunday: Sirach 35:12-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-18; Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee in today’s famous parable is not making anything up, but telling the truth about his good deeds: he has indeed gone above and beyond the call of duty.
The tax collector doesn’t list his sins. By the nature of his job as an agent of the hated Roman occupiers, he is a “public” sinner. That is enough for the Pharisee to draw the odious—and false—comparison between himself and the other man.
Our Lady of La Salette described her own unceasing prayer on our behalf. It is easy to imagine her taking the words of the tax collector and paraphrasing them: “O God, be merciful to them, sinners that they are.”
Last week’s readings helped us focus on prayer, on the need to pray always and well. This week adds another notion with respect to the quality of our prayer: honesty.
We hear today St. Paul’s celebrated words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Isn’t he boasting, like the Pharisee? No, because time and time again he makes it clear that it is only by God’s grace that he has been able to accomplish anything. “To him be glory forever and ever,” he writes.
The Pharisee begins his prayer with “O God, I thank you,” but everything that follows shows that he is not really glorifying God but himself, and drawing the conclusion that he is better than others. His “truth” is not the “whole truth.”
When Mary reminds us of our faults, she isn’t saying that we are worse than anyone else. The only comparison to be made is with her Son. On her breast we see him crucified, suffering for our sake, and in our place.
The reading from Sirach, where we hear, “The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,” reminds me of a lovely 2010 song, “Better than a Hallelujah.” It begins:
God loves a lullaby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.
Surely God loves Mary’s tears at La Salette, soul-born, whole-truth tears shed for all her people.
The Virtue of Persistence
(29th Ordinary Sunday: Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14—4:2; Luke 18:1-8)
“Patience is a virtue,” we are told. But today’s readings show us that patience is not a passive attitude. Equally important is the virtue of persistence. It may be annoying, as it was to the judge in the parable, who finally did the right thing, only because he wanted to put a stop to the widow’s pestering.
The scene is very different in the story of Moses praying on a hilltop. His prayer required a demanding posture, which he couldn’t manage by himself. He had help. Perseverance doesn’t mean going it alone.
Our Lady of La Salette speaks of her own prayer: “If I want my Son not to abandon you, I am obliged to plead with him constantly.” She also encourages us to pray daily, “at night and in the morning.” Fidelity to prayer has always been considered essential for a healthy spiritual life.
In another context, St. Paul presents a different perspective. He writes to Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus: ... proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”
But how could Timothy hope to fulfill his responsibilities without placing his life and work in God’s hands?
In the Church, some religious communities are dedicated to a contemplative life centered on prayer and worship. Others are called to the apostolate in a great variety of ministries. Some have both a contemplative branch and an apostolic branch. (This third model was proposed as an option rather early in the history of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette. It was not adopted.)
What all of these have in common is the intensity that ought to characterize them. Once we answer God’s call, we must commit ourselves totally to that vocation, like Moses, like Timothy, Like Mary. One of the prayers in the Roman Missal sums this up nicely, asking God “that we may preserve in integrity the gift of faith and walk in the path of salvation you trace for us.”
That goal is the reason why the Beautiful Lady is so persistent in her prayer for us.