Sunday, April 29, 2012

Heads Up

Of course, when I gave this homily for the first time (last evening), it was in our one and only church without a window of the Good Shepherd. Go figure...

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   B 

St. Helen's Church, Chasm Falls, NY
Every year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter,
the gospel reading focuses in on the Good Shepherd.
It’s one of the most popular images of Jesus.
In fact, three of our four churches 
here in the Malone Catholic Parishes
have stained glass windows of the Good Shepherd.

How did this get to be such a popular image of Christ?
It’s kind of surprising, really.
During Jesus’ lifetime,
shepherds were not very highly regarded.
They were considered rough characters—dirty and stinky—
generally viewed as not very religious
and not at all trustworthy.
(Many believed that sheep weren’t the only ones
that shepherds were fleecing…)

It’s no wonder Jesus had to specify 
that he’s the Good Shepherd!

So how is it that Christians—both early on and still today—
have come to treasure this image in particular?

In those first centuries, 
when Christians were still living in hiding
Hermes Kriophoros ("Ram-bearer")
5th century B.C.
and the symbols they used to share the faith 
had to be secret ones,
the shepherd was a perfect fit.
You see, in the predominant Greek religion,
there were many gods—and Hermes was one of them.
Among his supposed duties
was to lead the souls of the dead into the afterlife.
And so his picture—understandably—
was painted or carved on many tombs.
Hermes was often depicted 
carrying a ram on his shoulders
because, according to a Greek myth,
in order to save a city from the plague,
Hermes once appeared and circled the city carrying a ram
which was to be offered in sacrifice.
The story was reenacted every year
with the handsomest youth in the city 
chosen to do the same:
carrying a ram around town on its way to sacrifice.

All that is to say:
the early Christians could paint and carve pictures
of Jesus the Good Shepherd in their catacombs
without arousing any suspicion at all.
And so they did—a lot.
Christ, the Good Shepherd
3rd century A.D.
Many of them survive to this day.

But if you look closely, there are some differences.
For one, the ram is replaced by a sheep,
which is a simple enough thing to do: just lose the horns.
And the sheep is often not alone:
other sheep lie down and graze at the shepherd’s feet;
we’re dealing with a flock here, not just one.
But the most important difference
is in the way the sheep holds its head.
In the pagan Greek depictions,
the ram often has its head downcast:
it’s on its way to sacrifice;
it’s on Hermes shoulders because its life is almost over.
But in the Christian depictions,
the sheep usually has its head held high:
this sheep has been rescued, has been saved;
it’s on Jesus’ shoulders because its new life
has only just begun.  (cf. P.-M. Dumont)

It’s pretty subtle, really,
but those first Christian images of the Good Shepherd
convey a rather profound message.

Your average shepherd’s first concern about his flock
is what he can get out of it:
providing wool or milk, being sold for meat or for sacrifice.
If a shepherd’s protecting his sheep from wolves,
it’s to protect his investment.
His care for them is out of selfish interest.
Laying down one’s life for one’s sheep?
I’d imagine that was exceptionally rare—
and not just among hired hands.

St. John Bosco Church, Malone, NY
But Jesus’ approach is altogether different.
He’s a shepherd whose concern for the flock 
is completely selfless.
He’s not trying to get anything whatsoever out of them.
Instead, he very willingly lays down his life—
rejected and crucified—
for the sake of his sheep.
He dies so that his sheep won’t have to.
He dies—and he rises—that his sheep might live.

As you can see,
those early paintings and sculptures
portray a radical belief:
In Jesus, we have a shepherd who has become a sheep.
He is the Lamb of God, 
whose sacrifice—once for all—
takes away the sins of the world.
That’s a shepherd who’s not only good,
but might even seem too good to be true.

This past week I paid a quick visit
to some friends down in Old Forge, my last assignment.
They have a four-year-old son (soon to be five)
who gave me many reasons to smile while there.
Before I was even out of the car,
he was out jumping up and down on the porch:
“Fr. Joe is here!  Fr. Joe is here!”
(If only everybody was so happy to see me!)
Once inside, he took me by the hand
and gave me a full and very detailed tour of the whole house—
including all his favorite toys in the bathtub.
But my fondest recollection of our day together
is when we sat down for supper and said grace.
Not only did this little guy make the sign of the cross
(and do so very well, by the way),
but he’s the one who led the table in prayer.
He thanked God for his food, thanked God for his family,
thanked God for Fr. Joe’s visit.
When he went on to thank God for his “Mighty Machines,”
we wrapped things up with a quick “Amen!”
before he could go on any further.
I was so moved—and not simply because I made the list.
Clearly, at four-years-old, this child is the student:
being taught and learning all the time—
from his parents, above all.
But in that moment, he turned the tables and was teaching us.
The sheep became a shepherd.
He went from being led, to leading the rest of us—
from hearing the shepherd’s voice, to speaking with it.

And so it is that we have a shepherd who becomes a sheep.
Notre Dame Church, Malone, NY
And so it that we who are sheep are to become shepherds.
That’s the sort of language we’re somewhat used to
when a man hears the call to be a priest or a deacon.
My official designation in the Church is pastor,
the Latin word for “shepherd.”
It’s rather obvious, then, why this Fourth Sunday of Easter
has been designated the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
But having a vocation is not limited
to just a few who are ordained—
as essential as their ministry may be.
We’re all called—each in our own way—
to carry on the work of the Good Shepherd.
Each and every one of us has the vocation
to make sure the world sees and understands
this beloved image of Jesus—
not so much in painting or sculpture or stained glass,
but in the flesh and blood of our daily lives.
Our Shepherd knows us oh-so-well;
we must always strive to know him better,
and to make him better known.

As Saint John reminds us,
the only begotten Son of God became man
that we—by adoption, through Baptism—
might become the sons and daughters of God.
Indeed, what love the Father has bestowed on us!
Jesus, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed:
freely laying down his life as our ransom from sin and death.
The example he gives is clear:
being counted among God’s flock
is not about what we have to gain,
it’s about what we have to give.
So let us listen attentively and follow where he leads:
the Good Shepherd is calling us each by name.

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