Good Shepherd Sunday. World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
Well, we are still self-isolating and it seems we have a little further to go until we can reconnect in our usual ways. I look to God’s Word these Sundays looking for His helpful and uplifting message to us as we are. I heard an elderly wise lady pass commentary on the world of today in comparison with times past, she said: “Father, today there are too many celebrities and not enough heroes”. Her early life was obviously harder than it is for most of us today and herself and her generation had to live more simply within limited means and still perform their duties. The lady’s observation resonates in my mind as we try to get through the current trial we all face. We are certainly living more simply than we were before the crisis. I feel Good Shepherd Sunday is a powerful feast for us and offers great encouragement to each of us.
The Lord always saw Himself in a defining way as the Good Shepherd. Yet it seems a strange choice. The shepherd was an ambiguous figure, a bit of a mixed bag, not a so called paragon of society. Jesus knew this and still used the image of the Shepherd to help us to understand Him in relation to His love for us and His ministry to us. For sure, ‘shepherd’ was a strange title to adopt in the eyes of His hearers. Shepherds were of such low standing in society that putting the two terms ‘good’ and ‘shepherd’ together seemed a contradiction in terms. Why did Jesus use the shepherd image at all?
In the Old Testament, God related to His chosen people as a shepherd, calling His flock together, providing for them and protecting them. The People had been formed into the flock of God united by their belief in Him and, led by Him to the Promised Land and were always provided for and under His loving care. God looked for shepherd like qualities in those he called to minister to His people like King David and the prophets. The shepherd was identified by God as the person who could best show how God feels about us. There are other aspects of the shepherd that the Lord identified with. Importantly, the single minded, stubborn and unrelenting sense of duty to the flock in the shepherd’s care. They never stood down from their role. This was rooted in a sense of the vulnerability of the sheep. Sheep need help and we have a lot in common with them. They wander from safety. They follow the food, the trail of green, setting out without thought of consequences. This often leads them to falling into ravines or being helplessly entangled. If the shepherd doesn’t care for them, who will? We fasted during Lent to remind ourselves of the danger of allowing our appetites to direct our lives. Blessed are those not addicted to pleasure or the easy option. We need self-control and to be able to critically evaluate our values which inform the direction of our lives. Even then, we still get ourselves into a mess. We surprise ourselves and feel embarrassed, ”how could I be so foolish?’ We need the Shepherd to guide us to safe pasture and to intervene as we start to wander. If the devil can take charge of our appetites he will lead us astray, we will find ourselves isolated and vulnerable. We need the ever dependable Shepherd on duty at all times.
The nature of caring for the sheep clearly left the shepherd no wiggle room. This was the nature of his role and he accepted it. He had to be vigilant and concerned at all times. Evil and harm do not keep office hours or send a calling card, or come to you when you are strong. It was because the shepherd was so devoted to the good of the flock and on duty at all times that he wasn’t present in society. The shepherd couldn’t leave the flock to go and worship so he was regarded as irreligious and banned from the Temple.
The Lord puts great emphasis on trust. The shepherd had his call signs to his sheep and this daily language was his primary focus. The sheep were familiar with the shepherd’s voice and language, his was the only voice they would trust. His social conversation skills were not his priority which only increased people’s disdain for him. The Lord’s Words were often regarded as unacceptable for He spoke the language of loving mercy that shocked outsiders but was comprehensible to the weak and fallen, and greeted accordingly with joy and relief. The Lord’s message made infinite sense to those who needed Him and instinctively knew His voice which they loved and gladly followed. Jesus the Good Shepherd calls to us in His Word, in our prayer and the silence of our hearts. Our lives have been a process of voice familiarization informed by Divine Love. A mother or father can hear the gentle call of her/his baby which is inaudible to those who do not have the same parental affinity or love for the cry of the little life. In turn, a baby quickly attunes to the love that gave the baby life. I marvel at nature, how penguin parents and their baby identify each other in the throng of other cries, a wonderful challenge and mystery but they succeed. To hear the small, gentle voice of God in our noisy information filled world is a challenge. Let us pray people can hear God’s Voice in ours.
The shepherd didn’t seek being shunned or like it but it was an implication of his dedication so he just focused on his duty of care. He was practical. Jesus knew all this and accepted that rejection that was due to the indiscriminate embrace of His Word and ministry. Jesus was single minded in His love and concern for people even though this wasn’t readily understood by all. He had to take the criticism of some people caused by His concern for the possessed, the leprous, the sinful, the strangers, the outcasts, the morally frail, and all sentenced and classified as rejects. Jesus personified the duty of care. The shepherd was fundamentally different from the hired hand. The hired hand had no sense of dedication, vocation, or any affinity with the sheep. Circumstances could change enough for him to walk away and abandon his duty. As Jesus said, the hired hands runs away when the flock is threatened. Jesus dies on the cross to save the flock. He put Himself between us and all that would harm us and now we are safe. The Good Shepherd didn’t die for us a job lot or as an amorphous crowd of people. Where we see a flock of relatively indistinguishable animals, the shepherd sees individuals with their own tendencies, even personalities and names. He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Jesus died for each unique individual person, such was the Divine knowledge of the Good Shepherd Who knows us better than we know ourselves. A special love for the ‘black sheep’ is also a divine attribute. Remember the Father of the Prodigal Son. The son in the field didn’t understand his father’s shepherd like love for his errant brother, whatever others think, God’s approval is enough for us.
The shepherd cared for his sheep. He had his home cures, ointments, bandages, and simple treatments for the inevitably injured animal. How Jesus the Good Shepherd loved to bind the wounds of broken hearts, damaged spirits, diminished lives, and the fractured relationships of people with each other and with their God. Jesus was the Shepherd because he was the only help the sheep had or needed. If the sheep couldn’t manage, the shepherd would put it on his shoulder and carry the animal to safety and rest. Nothing can come between us and the love of Jesus. The Lord’s Voice leads us to His loving arms when it’s all too much. Whatever it takes, He will do. He is with us through it all. The Lord is God Who goes the distance. He revives our drooping spirit when we are overwhelmed. He addresses our thirst when our mouth is dry from shock, fear or grief leading us by still waters. The shepherd is there with His crook and His staff when we have lost our way, have become disorientated, panic, or do not see the peril we are in. When our only hope is to be found we will be retrieved. Whatever state our weakness has put us in, how wonderful to hear the Lord’s loving voice growing clearer and stronger as He penetrates our isolation; to feel His strong arms around us healing and restoring our hope.
I’m glad that the term Good Shepherd is an ambiguous one. You see, I too am a mixed bag. Jesus wanted to share His duty of care with ordinary, imperfect people. He didn’t want them feeling inadequate, not up to the task, lacking competency, worthiness or the necessary skill. “How can He use the likes of me?” we wonder. It doesn’t matter – He can and does. Remember what St. Mother Teresa said: “The only ability God wants of us is availability”. Each of us are called to be good shepherds. Each of us have a duty of care. For some it is very hands on and for others their duty is one of prayer, intercession and encouragement. We are all weak, yes, but we are baptised members of the flock of Christ. The Spirit is upon us and we are given graces and gifts for the Lord’s work.
We have the Lord’s Voice to guide and call to us, His grace and Spirit to feed and nourish us, and His loving mercy to bind our wounds and heal us. The spirit of gathering we experience at Mass remains with us as we return to our duties and tasks. Spiritually the flock is inseparable, we are never ‘not together’, even though it may ‘seem’ that way at times.
Jesus wants us all today to feel intensely His loving, all embracing, all providing love for each and every one of us. Of course this strength and assuredness we feel must express itself in our desire that others feel the same sense of security. I read somewhere: if you can’t hear the voice of the person beside you, you are singing too loudly. Our sensitivity to God’s Voice must be echoed in our listening to the concerns of those around us.
Like the shepherd, we must be single minded. We must focus on the task of loving and serving in the Kingdom of God while we have the opportunity of life. If we do not we will be off track, like a derailed train. Jesus asks us today to enter by the narrow door. This will require concentration. I want my train on track and full of people, as many as can fit, to get all I can into Heaven. One thing is for sure, the shepherd was glad when he completed each single day of feeding and protecting his sheep. One day at a time seems about where many of us are. As a carer/advocate, I have never been a person who planned further than a day or two ahead and I always marvel at people who were planning their lives in terms of years. Circumstances change so quickly for me. Life has taught me not to overreach and to trust God putting everything in His Providence and safe hands. Lord for tomorrow and it’s needs, I do not pray; let me not overlook one aspect of the duty you ask of me just for today. I will pray this, God willing, again as I begin tomorrow. I have learned to journey in small short steps.
With trust we must put the need for stickability. The shepherd never gave up, no matter what, how true this is of The Lord. It is wonderfully reassuring that whatever state I may find myself in, Jesus will search until He finds me, lift the stone of issue pressing upon me, lift me up, put me on His shoulders, and press me to His Sacred Heart, the eternal home for all weary wanderers. I am reminded of a story told me by Fr. Mike a priest friend. When he was a small child in Ireland, he would love to accompany his father and visit neighbours in the evening. It was in the depths of the country and there were no lights. One night they were returning during a terrible storm of rain, lightning and loud claps of thunder. My friend was petrified even though his hand was firmly clasped in his father’s hand. The next thing he knew, his father picked him up and buttoned him into his overcoat and he was held securely by his father’s strong arms. He remembers he could see nothing of the flashes and the thunder seemed less booming. He could hear his father’s reassuring voice, picking it seemed the moments of most fear, seeking to distract his child’s focus from the storm. Fr. Mike said he could sense the beating of his father’s heart and his steady breathing, both gave him the greatest sense of comfort and safety. In no time the two had arrived, journey over, and he was unbuttoned from his father’s breast into the warmth, light and love of his home. Such is a father’s love. How much more this is true of Our Father in Heaven and His Loving Son. The Trinity have buttoned us into their Life with their loving arms around us. Let us hear the gentle voice of God speaking to us reassuringly, telling us we are safe, do not be afraid. Let us sense the breathing of God in the Holy Spirit rhythmically soothing our fears accompanied by the beat of the Divine Heart. Let us take the reassurance necessary to confidently live our Christian lives from this Good Shepherd Sunday.
Also, I mustn’t forget to mention, today is also the world day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Many priests felt the call of the Lord around the age of 11 or early teens. I wonder if Fr. Mike’s vocation began when he was buttoned into his father’s coat? It seems a very fertile place for the call of God to be heard, a good Christian family always is. Please pray that those lovingly targeted by God’s call will hear Him and respond generously not worrying about their suitability. They may be just the mixed bag God is looking for.
I began this reflection with the comment of the lady about a surfeit of celebrities and a shortage of (or lack of emphasis on) heroes. How true for us at this trying time. The whole cult of celebrity has faded and it is the heroes in the health service, the carers and ‘do the shopping for others good neighbours’ and suchlike who are the heroes. The lady is long gone to her reward in Heaven. I am sure as she looks down on us and prays for us in these terrible times, she will be pleased that something has changed.
May the Risen Lord bless you all,
Fr. Gerard xx