Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Goodness of the Shepherd

As I had only one opportunity to verbally preach on Good Shepherd Sunday (which we Roman Christians celebrate every Fourth Sunday of Easter), and given the quintessentially 'Paschal' character of our Lord Jesus Christ's title as 'the Good Shepherd,' I decided to post it here.

            I remember as a kid, going to my grandmother’s funeral and hearing for the very first time the Twenty-Third Psalm or, as we Catholics call it—like all the Psalms—by its first words, Dominus pastor meus, “The Lord is my Shepherd…”  But I was always puzzled by that very first sentence, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  I used to think, “That’s not very nice.  The Lord is my Shepherd, but we don’t want him?”  But, of course, the older meaning of ‘want’ is intended here, in the sense of ‘lack’ or ‘need.’  This Psalm is saying, really, “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I lack.”
            The Fourth Sunday of Easter always commemorates ‘The Good Shepherd,’ one of the titles of Jesus.  But the insertion of ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ during Eastertide has a specific function that the Church wants us to think about.  In the gospel, Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd” and He contrasts Himself with the hired hand who look after sheep who aren’t his own.  A hireling isn’t a shepherd, really; he’s just, well, someone from the temp agency.  Jesus, on the other hand, looks after His sheep, that is to say, you and me.  But that’s not all:  He refers to Himself as the ‘Good Shepherd.’
            So we have to ask ourselves, what makes Jesus a ‘Good’ Shepherd?  It is too superficial to say that Jesus is the ‘Good Shepherd’ just because He’s Jesus; the answer is found in the gospel itself and especially during the Easter Season.  It is found, more precisely, in a paradox about ‘Jesus-as-Shepherd’ that is, quintessentially, Easterly.
            I am the Good Shepherd, and I know Mine and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I will lay down My life for the sheep [Jn 10:14-15].  That’s the key.  That’s the paradox, right there.  Tthe paradox is this:  The Good Shepherd is, Himself, the Passover Lamb.  I hope you remember the Sequence of Easter Sunday:  “Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep / Christ the just one paid the price” [cbw iii, 690].  The paradox here is that the One who cares for the sheep is Himself the Lamb whose death saves the lives of the sheepfold:  The Lamb shepherds.
            Jesus often used metaphors to describe Himself; ‘Good Shepherd’ is one of them.  We know that He was actually a carpenter by trade, not a shepherd.  St John the Baptist metaphorically referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God.  We know that Jesus was a human being, the God-Man, not an animal that zoologists call ovis aries.  But the use of these metaphors about Jesus highlights something about Him.  Jesus is a Shepherd because He cares for the sheepfold—the Church by any other name—and he is Good because He is also the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection saves the rest of the sheep from the wolf—that is to say, Satan, who is determined to drag us into hell with him.
            A shepherd is always a human being; sheep are sheep.  But the paradox of the ‘Good Shepherd,’ especially during Eastertide, emphasises even more the Mystery of the Incarnation, of the ‘God-with-us’ in that just as God became man to save women and men; the Shepherd is like the sacrificial lamb whose death and resurrection has brought God to pass-over our sins.
            Let’s take this one step further.  Jesus sacrificed Himself for us.  When we say “Jesus sacrificed,” we mean to say that Jesus is our Priest because priests, by definition, are people who make sacrifices.  And, in “Jesus scarified Himself for us,” when we say “sacrificed Himself,” we mean to say that Jesus is the sacrificial Victim—not just in the sense of being on the receiving end of violence but in the sense of being the sacrificial offering.  Priests offer victims—such as lambs as in the Old Testament.  But Jesus is the ‘Good Shepherd’ precisely because ‘Jesus sacrificed Himself for us’ which means, really, that Jesus is Priest and Victim, the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  Hence:  The Good Shepherd is the Passover Lamb.
            Which brings us to our final point and our conclusion.  I hope you’ve been to St Joseph's Cathedral Basilica recently.  In the Lady Chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle, there is a new mosaic on the wall that shows a lamb holding a standard.  The lamb shows its pierced side and a flow of blood being poured into a chalice.  This is a very Easter symbol, the Passover Lamb who was slain but lives again.  In a few minutes, when we begin the Communion, I will be holding up the Host and say “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.”  ‘Host’ means ‘Victim’ in Latin.  In the Byzantine Church, the ‘Host’ is called, simply, ‘the Lamb.’  And it is here at this Table that we celebrate Easter every single time we gather, because we commemorate—we remember together—that we were born sheep in danger of sin, death, and hell, and that Jesus’ advent is like that of a shepherd becoming a sheep who allows himself to be devoured by the wolf so that the rest of us sheep would be spared.  But the Lamb who was devoured returned to life and in turn conquered the wolf—Satan—and his wolflings, sin, death, and damnation.  “This is My Body, which will be given up for you…This is the chalice of My Blood…which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in memory of Me.”  That’s why we come to Eucharist—that is to say, Thanksgiving in Greek—because that’s all we’re left with:  Being thankful to the Passover Lamb whose death saves us from eternal death, whose resurrection has raised us all up.  Truly, there is nothing we lack.

            Glory to You, Lamb of God, Lord Jesus Christ!