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.
(Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34)
A farmer’s wife once told me that the only legalized form of gambling in her state was farming. Jesus, on the other hand, presents farming as an act of faith. The seed is planted and is mysteriously transformed as determined by the creator to produce fruit and shade. It is God’s work. Such is the Kingdom of God.
None of this would have been lost on the communities around La Salette in 1846. Farming was their life, and now more of a gamble than ever, with the failure of both staples of their diet: wheat and potatoes.
“If you have wheat,” Mary said at La Salette, “you must not sow it. Anything you sow the vermin will eat, and whatever does grow will fall into dust when you thresh it.” The professors of the major seminary of Grenoble, writing to the bishop in December 1846, found this disturbing. “This recommendation appears suspect, contrary to the rules of prudence and the laws of the Creator… Did she really forbid sowing?”
The secular press said such an idea was an abuse of ecclesiastical authority to terrify the “less enlightened” portion of the population.
Indeed, taken out of context, Mary’s words seem almost cruel. But we must keep in mind the whole of the Apparition and the message.
Look at the second reading. St. Paul says that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,
so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” This is not a popular passage. But it is a reminder, a call to consider our way of life. St. Paul is here reinforcing what he said a few verses above: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
God says through Ezekiel that he will plant a majestic cedar on a lofty mountain of Israel, which will bear fruit and provide shelter for birds. He will restore Israel’s glory, and make them once again a faithful people. “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so I will do.”
Mary’s words are in the same prophetic tradition. We can be faithful, we can walk by faith, if we will offer the submission of faith (cf. also Hebrews, 11). The rest (planting, growth, fruit) is God’s work.
Brother, Sister, Mother
(Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Genesis 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13—15:1; Mark 3:20-35)
We have a strange Gospel today. Jesus’ relatives thought he was out of his mind. The Scribes said he was possessed. Jesus responded with a mysterious saying about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Then his relatives showed up to ‘seize’ him—accompanied by his mother!
This is the context in which Jesus utters a seemingly dismissive saying about his mother: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
The answer actually echoes Luke’s account of the Annunciation, where Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Whoever does the will of God is Jesus’ brother, sister, mother. This is high praise.
Our reading from Genesis also dovetails with this idea. As early as 100 A.D., Church authors began to compare Eve and Mary, noting the fruits of the disobedience of the one and the obedience of the other. As Jesus was the new Adam, they saw Mary as the new Eve. This parallels Romans 5:12-19, where St. Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus.
When Mary at La Salette calls her people to submit, she is inviting us to be like her. It was through her humble submission that she received the privilege of being the mother of the Savior. Can we not humble ourselves before the Lord, trusting in his grace and favor? Can we not accept the sufferings we experience in our ‘earthly dwelling, a tent’ while hoping for ‘a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven’?
But there is more here than the matter of submission and acceptance. Jesus calls ‘brother, sister, and mother’ those who do the will of God who is his Father, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,” as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:15.
God seeks a relationship with us. The Beautiful Lady weeps because her people have not responded, have not recognized and desired the wonder of intimacy with God.
Mystics and saints may have found the words to express this experience, but it is accessible to all those who do the will of God. We have Jesus’ word for that.
(Corpus Christi: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-26)
Two words stand out in today’s readings: blood and covenant.
A covenant is an agreement or treaty, in which the rights and responsibilities of the parties are stated clearly. It is something like a contract or a business arrangement.
It is much more than a contract, however, precisely because, in the Bible at least, it concerns first and foremost a relationship. The people of Israel understood what that implied, and said, “We will do everything that the Lord has told us.” Their relationship with the God who had delivered them from slavery meant everything to them.
The covenant between God and Israel is summed up in the words, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
“My people:” these words occur once at the beginning and twice at the end of Mary’s discourse at La Salette. She expresses herself in this way because she has a special place in the covenant, assigned to her at the foot of the cross. The people for whom her Son shed his blood are her people, too.
His covenant-blood is, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, more effective than the blood of any of the prescribed animal sacrifices. It is shed ‘for many,’ for the multitudes that will come to find salvation in him and celebrate that gift in the Eucharist.
“In the summer, only a few elderly women go to Mass. The rest work on Sundays all summer long.” At some point in their history her people had ceased to appreciate the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Instead of being the sign of the Covenant, the Mass had become an unwanted obligation, a burden to be cast off. The gift was no longer being celebrated.
Anyone who thinks that Mary came to La Salette only to demand obedience to obligations is missing the point completely. Her message is aimed at restoring an awareness of the covenant between her Son and her people, and an appreciation of the immense worth of that relationship.
Taking her words to heart, we can pray with the psalmist, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?”
Fear of the Lord
(Trinity Sunday: Deuteronomy 4:32-40; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20)
“The eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.”
If we could imagine the Blessed Virgin in heaven meditating on the Scriptures, we might think that these verses from today’s Responsorial Psalm made her decide to come to La Salette. She wanted her people to be preserved from the impending famine and delivered from the death of small children.
But there was a problem: her people were not among those who feared God. “Fear of the Lord,” is a recurring theme (about 750 times) in the Bible. It does not mean being afraid of God but being in absolute awe of him. (If you were being introduced to a famous person whom you greatly respected, wouldn’t want to avoid anything that might give offense?)
Mary told the children, “Don’t be afraid.” That did not keep her from trying to restore proper fear of the Lord among her people.
Clearly, like the generations after Moses, they had forgotten all the wonders God worked for them. They were baptized, as Jesus commanded, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but their adoption as children of God had lost its meaning. It did not make them disciples.
They did not put their trust in God or hope for his kindness. They showed little respect for their Savior, using his name to vent their anger. They rejected the gift of the Sabbath rest. They refused God the worship that was his due. They did not fear him.
Still, they were living in fear, not of God but of a bleak future. The Beautiful Lady even accentuated this by prophesying the failure of the wheat crop, the potatoes, the grapes, even the walnuts.
But she didn’t stop there. A brighter future was possible, if only they could understand that the relationship between God and us is essential, not optional.
Her message is like that of Moses: “You must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other. You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today, that you and your children after you may prosper, and that you may have long life...."