Apr 28, 2012

4th Easter: The Shepherd gathers

"They will hear my voice . . ."
Acts 4: 8-12
1 Jn 3: 1-2
Jn 10: 11-18

This weekend we celebrate the reception of Eucharist for the first time for our children here at the parish.  It is always a very special moment as the little “brides and grooms” come forward in procession to the delight of their parents, families, grandparents, general parishioners and whomever else has come to share with them.  As it says in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 11: “A little child shall lead them.” How true that God works wonders through his little ones.
It’s fortunate the Gospel this Fourth Sunday of Easter is that of the Good Shepherd.  Speaking about lambs and wolves to seven and eight year olds is not a difficult theme.  However, the image of the Good Shepherd is anything but childish. 

For one, the shepherd was not exactly among the elite class of ancient Israel.  They lived outside the city, in the countryside, and were not really among the movers and shakers of that time.  Yet, the image of the shepherd is a biblical one that we hear of throughout the Old Testament and often in the New. The Kings of Israel were referred to as shepherds and the prophets themselves spoke of good and bad ones.  
God is spoken of as a shepherd for his people in the Book of Genesis 48.  In the Book of Revelation 7we hear of the “Lamb who will be their shepherd.” The great King David was a shepherd boy, the youngest of six older brothers.  From his task of herding sheep, he was called by God to shepherd his people.  The prophet Hosea was among the shepherd class as images of the shepherd are portrayed by other prophets such as Jeremiah.

God promises a time when a Good Shepherd will come to lead his people. In the Gospel of Matthew 25, we see the vision of the final judgment when Christ separates sheep from goats in the style of a shepherd.  For Jesus, then, to refer to himself as a shepherd was not that unusual.  In fact, I would suspect that many may have done so themselves at that time.
In contrast to the Good Shepherd in the Gospel this Sunday is that of the wolves. Jesus compares himself to those who are simply paid for their service and when he sees “the wolf coming” runs away leaving the sheep unprotected and vulnerable.

In short, this image seems to be of the one who scatters and another who gathers. Like a shepherd who is protective, responsible, and self-sacrificing for his flock, Jesus does even more – he lays down his life for his sheep.  His purpose is to gather his sheep together; to bring them into a protective flock so they need not fear the intent of their shepherd who will love them even at the cost of his own life.
When the evil one (wolf) wants to scatter, divide, attack, and separate, the Good Shepherd steps forth to prevent this action from happening. It is an image that is rooted in scripture but also one that brings comfort and peace.

This may bring us to the Eucharist.  As a Good Shepherd, who cares for his flock with extraordinary care, we can take the image one step farther.  Rather than search for food for the sheep, this shepherd becomes the food itself. In 1910 Pope St. Pius X recognized how rich and essential this food is for all who follow Christ when he lowered the age of first communion to that of the “age of reason.” In fact he not only encouraged communion to be received each week but daily if possible by children.
In his encyclical Quam Singulari, Pope Pius X wrote: “Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread-again the age at which a child attains the use of reason.”  The saintly Pope recognized the power of the Eucharist which should be food given at the earliest time possible to protect us throughout our lives; weekly as a minimum or daily as a perfect ideal.  The graces of the Eucharist, the Pope recognized, are that essential for our spiritual life.  

With that in mind, we may well see this Good Shepherd as one who reaches out to embrace everyone protectively as they come forward and receive Christ himself.  As we eat his Body and drink of his Blood we find a grace like none other available to us. It is a God who is not distant, although at times we would rather he be, but a God who wants to be up close and personal.  Like a Shepherd who walks among his sheep and keeps a keen eye out for threats and enemies, this Christ Shepherd remains forever loyal to his sheep.  He is there for us and reaches out in a grand divine embrace of love.
This love was so great, beyond what we ourselves can accomplish, that five times in the Gospel we hear, “I lay down my life . . .” To the early Christians this became a kind of mantra of how far Jesus had gone for humanity – death and resurrection . We can be completely confident that this Shepherd alone is the whose voice we can follow with no fear or hesitation.

But the Eucharist is not magic.  That strength to grow in holiness and virtue is something the Shepherd wants us to seek – to ask for –and ultimately to humbly receive with expectant faith and a life lived in accordance with the Gospel.
As always, then, the model of this Shepherd is one for all of us when we find ourselves in positions of authority over others:  parents over children, priests in our parishes, Bishops in their Diocese, any position in which we oversee the lives of others.   From this Shepherd we are fed with his life and from this Shepherd we are called to follow and to imitate.

Almighty and ever-living God
lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever.

(Collect of 4th Sunday)