Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: May 2014

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today has traditionally been referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.  And for good reason.  The gospels read at mass in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd, the real Shepherd of Israel.  Today’s passage questions us about the quality of pastoral leadership.  I couldn’t help but relate it to the desperate search for the young school girls who were abducted in Nigeria, and a number of other recent events make this theme particularly appropriate today, not least the unprecedented canonization of two popes in the presence of two living popes.

4th Sunday of Easter — Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother’s Day!

Acts 2:14, 36-41
Ps 23
1 Peter 2:20-25
John 10:1-10

Today has traditionally been referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.  And for good reason.  The gospels read at mass in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd, the real Shepherd of Israel.  Today’s passage questions us about the quality of pastoral leadership.  I couldn’t help but relate it to the desperate search for the young school girls who were abducted in Nigeria, and a number of other recent events make this theme particularly appropriate today, not least the unprecedented canonization of two popes in the presence of two living popes.

The readings begin with Peter’s inaugural sermon on Pentecost according to the Acts of the Apostles.  They move to the beloved 23rd Psalm and then to the first letter ascribed to Peter, which is so strikingly paschal in tone and purpose — a characteristically impetuous exhortation to new Christians to be true and faithful followers of the Lord they profess to love, much as Peter himself was challenged at the very end of John’s Gospel.

Actually, both Peter’s sermon and the selection from the first epistle are a patchwork of texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, stitched together to present a portrait of Christ as savior, particularly Isaiah 53:5: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The theme is repeated by Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  It would have been familiar to anyone who was paying attention.  At the end of the passage, the author significantly recalls Ezekiel 34: 6, “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”

The second reading is important in several respects, not least because it is one of the first texts that clearly refers to the elders of the community as the shepherds of the flock [1 Peter 5:2-4].  Peter also makes clear that Christ is their model as the true shepherd.  The passage ends with a curious phrase, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” For ‘guardian’ the Greek text has episcopos, which means “overseer,” and, of course, is the root of our word bishop.  We have to be careful not to read too much back into a first century document, which stands at the beginning rather than at the end of the process of organizing an institutional church on the personal rock of Peter.  But today, just after the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, it might repay some thoughtful consideration.

Each year, the gospels appointed to be read today are taken from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, although it is not the only source of the imagery of the good shepherd.  But it is central to the Easter message, that Jesus, the true shepherd of the flock of Israel, gave his life for his sheep, so that not even one would be lost.

This year, the focus is on Jesus as the model shepherd and what that means for us.  John multiples the images lest we mistake his intention.  But here, Jesus also contrasts himself with other leaders in words that at first sight seem harsh: “All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” [John 10:8]

By way of comparison, in the Book of Jeremiah God promises, and this, surely is the point of the allusion in John’s gospel, “…I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD.” [Jer 23: 3-4]

Who are those “others” who came before Jesus?  It is most likely a reference to the leaders of the people who thought mainly of their own safety and profit and in fact wound up collaborating with the Greek and Roman conquerors. But as St. Augustine would later point out, it means anyone whose pastoral care and leadership depart from the model Jesus has shown us in himself.

In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, the people knew as much about sheep as the good citizens of River Forest do.  Jesus may not have known much more, humanly speaking, but better animal husbandry is not the point.  All the talk about shepherds and sheep from Isaiah Jeremiah, and Ezekiel is, in the end, a way of dealing with leadership.  And the style of leadership Jesus proposes is not that of driving those we are responsible for ahead of us with a stick and dogs, using fear, intimidation, and excommunication to keep the flock in check and make them do as we want.  Rather, the image Jesus presents, whether good shepherding technique or not, is good pastoral psychology: get out in front, proceed calmly, and don’t look back too often.  But don’t get so far ahead that everyone loses sight of you.

There is a hint in these readings about what being a good disciple involves as well, although that is not the main point.  Nevertheless, it is one that many subsequent pastors have liked to dwell on.  The best of them get it right.  Following Jesus does not mean being docile, nose-to-tail, unquestioningly ovine followers.  It means imitating Christ.  One of the greatest of the shepherds to follow in Christ’s footsteps, St. Gregory the Great, put it this way, not by chance in a homily the church selected for a reading in today’s divine office:

Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds.  I assure you it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. [Homily on the Gospel of John, 14:3-6. PL 76, 1129-30.]

So whether we are leaders or members of the flock, let us pray with Pope Gregory that by following Christ in love, we will “finally reach [our] grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity.” For there, Gregory says, “the elect look on the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for evermore,” the banquet, permit me to add, that is the wedding feast of the Lamb of God.

Tomorrow, by the way, is Mother’s Day, of course, and we could well meditate on the leadership role mothers perform in leading their little flocks to those green pastures.  Over and over, my students write in their papers and common assignments how important their moms were in instilling deep faith in their hearts. The grief and desperation of the mothers of the children of Nigeria and those hundreds of high school kids who perished off the coast of South Korea likewise serve to remind us all that it is not wide of the mark to say that often, perhaps most often, the real leader of the little flock, is the Good Shepherdess.

Third Sunday of Easter

The mystery of Easter involves learning to see Jesus with the eyes of the heart, a lesson learned in the school of faith.  And don’t we wish we knew what Peter heard!

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14, 22?28
1 Pt 1:17?21
Lk 24:13?35

At this time of year much of the nation’s attention is fixed, for a while, on the Kentucky Derby.  And there are usually wars and rumors of wars to excite and frighten people. This year is no exception.  But extraordinary events sometimes overshadow even sports events and international violence.  On this Third Sunday of Easter [8 April] in 2005, the world had just marked the funeral and burial of Pope John Paul II.  That single ceremony accounted for the greatest gathering of heads of states in history, the largest-ever single Christian pilgrimage as more than 4 million people gathered in Rome.  In 2011, exactly three years later, on the first of May, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were beatified.  And we have just witnessed another extraordinary week which began with the unprecedented canonization of the two popes in the presence of two living popes, again on Divine Mercy Sunday. Vatican sources estimated the crowds last Sunday in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area to be in excess of 1,300,000. [http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/27/popes-john-paul-ii-and-john-xxiii-saints-canonisation]

The world will gradually let these amazing scenes to fade from memory, just as the violence in Ukraine and the disappearance of flight 370 will be displaced by other events that captivate and enthrall us for a while.  Donald who?  Sterling or Trump?  But some things do not fade.  Some things remain as an indelible impression on the mind not just of a few or even a million people, but of humanity itself. They sometimes start in very small, encounters, little noticed and even incredible on first hearing.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not just one of those, it is above all, the pivotal event upon which history itself turns. And yet belief in the Resurrection, and everything that flows from it over the course of history, itself depends on the memories of a very few people.  Unlike the funerals of popes and kings and princesses, only a handful of frightened mourners attended the burial of Jesus.  No one witnessed the Resurrection.  But beginning with Mary Magdalene and her companions, the good news of the Resurrection of Christ began its world-transforming history.

Simon, or as Jesus nick-named him in Aramaic, Kephas, and we know as Petros, Peter “the Rock,” stands very much at the heart of today’s readings.  The first reading is taken from Peter’s long Pentecost sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, the first public preaching of the gospel.  The second reading is from a letter ascribed to Peter himself, and while Peter does not appear personally in the gospel, he is there in an important and mysterious way.  And it’s all about the Resurrection of Jesus and how we come to faith.

The gospel tells the story of two early disciples walking back to Emmaus, a village some miles from Jerusalem.  One of them, the fellow named Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early Christians to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. For like the Apostle Thomas, he and his companion could not bring themselves to believe the women’s report that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.  Like Thomas, they won’t or can’t believe unless they see for themselves.

Of course, they do come to faith, after they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, after which he is simply gone.  Beside themselves with joy, they rush back to Jerusalem, which would have taken hours, and burst in on the still-trembling disciples and their companions with the news and the proclamation of their faith.  And this is where it gets interesting.

They were saying “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 24: 34-36]

“…he has appeared to Simon.”  Familiarity may have dulled our perception of how strange that little sentence is. For we know nothing from the gospels about an appearance of Jesus to Peter.  But we hear of it again, in fact the first time we learn of it is in St. Paul’s first letter to the little Christian community at Corinth in Greece:

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he appeared to Kephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [1 Cor 15:3-7]

We know nothing about Jesus’ appearances to James, either, or, and this is especially interesting, to those 500 people who were witnesses.  Not everything has come down to us.  But the mere record of it is telling.  It tells of the faith of the early Christians, a faith founded on living encounter with the risen Christ.  But the words of Jesus in John’s gospel are even more important for that very reason:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

Without doubt, great crowds are impressive, especially in today’s world.  Still, the immense and impressive gatherings in Rome a week ago and in years past seem a far cry from the quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus.  The gospel reminds us that these huge gatherings are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that occupy our attention in this Easter season, in breaking open the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.  God breaks through to each of us in our own way and in our own time.  Or, rather, God’s time, when not our eyes, but our minds and hearts need only to be opened by the willingness to believe in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere and everywhere.