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.

Good Thieves

(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?

The Name

(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.

Whole-truth Prayer

(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.

Transformations

(28th Ordinary Sunday: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-18; Luke 17:11-19)

Naaman had no personal reason to expect the prophet to help him. He was a leper. Furthermore, he was a foreigner. It was a Hebrew slave-girl that suggested he go to Samaria to be cured by the prophet there. And he had no other options. 

On his arrival, he was disappointed when Elisha didn’t meet him but just sent a message to tell him to bathe seven times in the Jordan; and at first he refused. But ultimately he submitted, and his transformation was complete, physically and spiritually.

The unnamed leper of the Gospel story likewise had no personal reason to expect that the itinerant prophet named Jesus would help him. He was, after all, a Samaritan. Even if he had gone to show himself to the priests, they would have had nothing to do with “this foreigner.” But he, too, was transformed, in body and spirit.

It almost seems that the other nine lepers cured by Jesus assumed that “of course” he cured them, since he and they shared the same religion and nationality.

At La Salette, neither Mélanie nor Maximin, nor any other person of the locality had any reason to expect a visit from the Mother of God. It was not until the evening of that day that anyone understood who had appeared to the children and spoken to them. The elderly “Mother Caron” exclaimed: “It is the Blessed Virgin these children have seen, for in heaven there is none but she whose Son reigns!”

Since then, hundreds of physical healings and countless spiritual transformations have taken place through the encounter with the Beautiful Lady.

Both Naaman and the Samaritan returned after being cleansed, to glorify God and give thanks. Each had received the gift of faith. The same may be said of many pilgrims to La Salette.

The more we recognize how undeserving we are of God’s blessings, the deeper our gratitude will be. Ideally, it will express itself both as an abiding feeling, and as a determination to show the Lord that we are truly thankful.

In this way, transformations will continue to occur our whole life long.

Increased Faith

(27th Ordinary Sunday: Habakkuk 1:2-3 & 2:2-4; 2 Tim. 1:6-14; Luke 17:5-10)

The book of Habakkuk has only three chapters. The first begins with a complaint: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen!” The last ends with an expression of unshakable faith. In the face of every conceivable disaster the prophet exclaims, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, and exult in my saving God. God, my Lord, is my strength.”

When the Apostles said to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” he assured them that faith the size of a mustard seed could work wonders. But the faith of the Christians Mary was addressing at La Salette was not only small; it  lacked viability as well. It was unable to germinate, incapable of producing fruit.

St. Paul uses a different symbol in his letter to Timothy. “Stir into flame the gift of God.” In other words, don’t let it die out. He goes on: “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.” 

Faith is indeed a rich trust, a great gift, but it needs to be nourished and renewed regularly, through prayer and the sacraments. First, however, it must be accepted.

There is a saying, “Reject the gift, reject the giver.” The message of La Salette makes the same point. Abuse of the Lord’s name, making a mockery of religion, etc.—these are a form of rejection. 

The second part of today’s Gospel seems to have no connection with the conversation about faith. There is, however, a certain logic. Simply put, if faith is a gift, we cannot take credit for it.

It is only by God’s grace at work in our lives that, as believers, we can do good or endure evil. Never can we stand before God and say, “Look what I did for you!” In that sense we are unprofitable servants, even despite our best efforts. Many saints have considered themselves among the worst of sinners, and marveled at the mercy God showed them, often including the gift of tears.

We have received the gift of another’s tears, those of our Mother, moistening the seed of her people’s faith, that it may be increased.

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