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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: 2nd Sunday after Easter – In the know

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Traditionally, the 2nd Sunday after Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” due to the reading from the Gospel of John 10:11-16.  In the Novus Ordo this Gospel is now read on the 4th Sunday of Easter.

It is hard to exaggerate the influence of the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd on the minds and hearts of ancient Christians down to our own age.  Perhaps a good linking analogy would be the famous, commonly replicated statue of the kriophoros, a shepherd carrying a sheep or ram over his shoulders.  In ancient times this bucolic image was used in funerary art to suggest the peace of the next life.  Christians adopted it naturally because of this Sunday’s Gospel from John 10 and from the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:4-7).  The famous statue, now in the Vatican Museum, is in fact an 18th century reworking of a fragment from a late 3rd to early 4th century sarcophagus bearing three of these kriophoroi found in the cemetery of St. Callixtus on the Via Appia.  The legs and arms of both man and sheep were added.  The restoring artist wisely used the weight-shifting classical contrapposto stance – one leg straight and the other slightly bent – employed by the 5th century BC Athenian sculptor Polykleitos.  The 20th century figure of the Liturgical Movement Pius Parsch commented in The Church’s Year of Grace:

“What a Sacred Heart picture means commonly today, that the Good Shepherd picture meant to the early Christians.”

This accounts for the hundreds of images of the shepherd and sheep in catacombs and mosaics, statues, and the texts of the liturgy.

The image of Christ as the Good Shepherd has been a topos of constant commentary from the earliest times.  We have, for example, a Christian allegorical literary work from the mid-2nd century called The Shepherd by a former slave named Hermas.  There are famous sermons about the Good Shepherd image by Leo the Great (+461) and Gregory the Great (+604), the later being delivered in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the Roman Station for this Sunday.  St. Peter’s for the Station is entirely appropriate.  In the traditional Roman Rite the Epistle is from the 1st Letter of Peter, who was and is the pastor ovium, the “shepherd of the sheep”.  The Epistle reading concludes:

Erátis enim sicut oves errántes, sed convérsi estis nunc ad pastórem et epíscopum animárum vestrárum. …  For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (2:25)

In 1 Peter 5, giving the name of this website, the writer exhorts (v. 4) the leaders of local churches about how to tend God’s flock with reference to their eternal reward from the “chief shepherd” (Greek archipoímen).

Around the vaulting of the modern St. Peter’s Basilica is the dialogue in John 21:15-19 between the Lord and Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, “Peter, do you love me? … Feed my lambs… feed my lambs… feed my sheep.”  The threefold interrogation and responses reconciled Peter after his threefold denial of Christ and predicted the manner of the Apostle’s demise.  Then was he ready to begin being Christ’s Vicar.  “Follow me”, Christ finally told Peter, echoing the parable “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).  It will involve laying down your life.

Let’s drill into the Gospel a bit, now that we have some context about the ancient Church and we know the Station.  More context.  Christ is teaching in the Temple on the Feast of Dedication, which is the only New Testament reference to Hanukkah.  Keep in mind the Lord’s audience.  He is addressing, among others, Pharisees, men who knew their Scriptures.  The image of the shepherd in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, comes up in Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”

Moreover, there is the passage in Ezekiel 34 about Israel’s false shepherds who scatter rather than gather, who, literally fleece the flock.  Those sheep are in mortal peril, but God will save them.  Giving them His servant David, He will bring them to a new and prosperous place.  The Prophet concludes:

“And they shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.”

The one to come who is a good shepherd, will not be just the Messiah, he will also be God.

And now the Gospel.

At that time Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

This passage breaks down fairly easily into three basic ideas.  Firstly, probably echoing Ezekiel while aiming at the Pharisees, there is the identity of the shepherd.  Christ is the shepherd who is good.  The others are all lacking.  They do not have a personal connection with the flock.  The flock knows the shepherd who is good and he knows the flock.  Here that “know” is about more than data, names and jobs and so forth.  It is an intimate connection.  The Son and the Father have the intimate bond of knowing which is love and self-gift.  So too, the Shepherd and the flock have this intimate bond.

Furthermore, the Father has sent the Son for the sake of the flock, which will ultimately involve the Son laying down His life for His sheep.  Therefore, being sheep and Shepherd together has the mystery of the Cross as its connective core and pivot point.

The flock who are “in the know”, so to speak, have their identity from Him.  They are a flock, not scattered.  Scattered sheep are not a flock.  He is a shepherd for them and because of them.  The fruit of the relationship of shepherd and flock is unity.  Ezekiel spoke of the mistreatment by the corrupt priests/shepherd of Israel.  Christ now declares that more than just the Jews will be in unity, but also the Gentiles, in short, all peoples.  In the next chapter, John 11, after the raising of Lazarus the Sanhedrin, that is, the priests and Pharisees, began to plot to kill Jesus.  This is when Caiaphas said, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (v. 50).  John right away offers his own inspired intuition that Christ’s death was not “for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (v. 52).

Circling back for a moment to the context of the Roman Station, St. Peter’s, Bl. Ildefonso Schuster wrote for this Sunday in The Sacramentary of the precious hope of Christian unity in, of course, the Holy Roman Catholic Church with its visible head and point of unity, Peter and his successors:

“O thrice holy Basilica of the Vatican! Enlarge thy mighty aisles, for thy hopes, since they are founded on the promises of Christ, can never fail.”

The principle of unity is one the key points of the Lord’s discourse at the Last Supper.  It is at the heart of the Great Commission He gives the Apostles at the time of His Ascension.  Do you know fallen away Catholics?  Is there something you might be able to do for them for the sake of their salvation?

To conclude, Pius Parsch has a helpful insight which can serve as a take away.  Consider, first, what Jesus says in Matthew 24:35:

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Lord’s words have might beyond the physical creation of the cosmos.  He is, after all, the Eternal Word made flesh.  His words are not merely strings of phonemes that convey information.  They are intended, by Him, through the inspiration of the writers of Holy Scripture, to work within us, to increase the bond of “know”.   Here’s what Parsch offered in his comments about this 2nd Sunday after Easter.  They can be applied to each time you hear any reading, indeed any text, at Holy Mass. Every word in the sacred liturgy is truly Christ speaking to us and for us.  This is at the heart of the Council Fathers’ desire for “full, conscious and active participation” in our sacred rites.  We are our rites.  They penetrate us and make us what they do and say.  Consequently:

The liturgy’s primary aim is to portray the present, not the past, to give grace and life along with history.  You must, therefore, give the parable a present day context, apply it personally.  After each sentence, stop and say: Christ is doing this today – and to help me.

The parable brings to our attention three consoling truths: Christ gives His life for His sheep; He remains with them constantly through the bond of grace; He will not rest content until there be but one flock and one shepherd. Now how do these points affect me personally? a) My Shepherd’s death means my deliverance — why, even at this very moment of Mass, redemption’s graces are flooding my soul. b) Between Christ and myself there must exist a closer intimacy than even that between brothers, relatives, or friends. c) It is through Christ’s efforts that I have been brought into the fold, and He is ever striving to make me a more perfect member of His flock.

In order to realize these ends, Christ instituted His Church.

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