A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter by Fr Daniel Weatherley
My Grandmother’s cousin lives a seeming world away from central London, up in a ruggedly beautiful and sparsely populated area of the North Pennines, where she shepherds a thousand sheep. Although, regrettably, I haven’t yet made it up to visit her in person, I have some images in my mind of what her life might be like. From her letters I understand that her job is not so much a job as a way of life. And a selfless way of life. There are times when the vagaries of the English weather mean that there will be little sleep, and hours spent in the floods or snow searching out, rescuing, protecting and nurturing vulnerable sheep which could be anywhere over the three hundred-acre farm. And then there is that exhausting but most beautiful task of lambing…bring these most innocent-looking creatures into the world, and tending with extra time and care those who need it. And there is the constant effort to keep predators at bay. Even without all these variables there is the never-ending daily round of feeding, moving to new pasture, and all the preparatory and unseen work which goes into making the life of the flock as safe and life-giving as possible.
It may seem an obvious point, but a sheep will only experience the love and care of the shepherd if it allows itself to be shepherded! And on the whole it seems that sheep do not resist, even though they may on occasion get lost in the hills or buried in the snow. I suppose that a shepherd does not too often need to remind the sheep of who she is.
And yet on this Fourth Sunday of Easter once again this year the Church in her choice of Scriptures is reminding us that we too need a Shepherd.
What does Jesus mean when He describes himself the Good Shepherd? It boils down essentially to one thing: that His Divinity is nothing other than the sheer Goodness of His Father. And that He desires nothing more, nothing other than to lavish that Goodness upon us.
But to enjoy that means that we acknowledge that we are not ultimately in charge. And that is not so easy…!
It is true that for many people this extraordinary time we have been living through has given us an opportunity to reflect on those goods which we have perhaps taken for granted, or never consciously given thanks for. Our wonderful National Health Service, carers and social workers spring instantly to mind; the friendships which perhaps we have rather neglected lately; or simply the fact that we have a roof over our heads and, even in this challenging time, have enough to eat. Even that we just may have forgotten to be grateful simply for being alive.
But Good Shepherd Sunday invites us to an even deeper reflection: that absolutely none of this would exist without God, the origin, source, giver and sustainer of Life itself. The very opening of the Catechism of St. Pope John Paul reminds us of the reason for our existence by quoting these beautiful lines from Gaudium et Spes, one of the four major documents of the Second Vatican Council:
‘The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.’
Taking some time this week to prayerfully reflect on these words, and on the words of Jesus in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we may be inspired by the Holy Spirit to see another layer of the sheer goodness God has lavished upon me in the experiences of my life so far. The difficulties and painful times He has brought me through; the joys and blessings which have marked my life.
But there is even more. I am being invited to consider more deeply the Good Shepherd Himself, for He does not just invite us to acknowledge Him but to know Him and to love Him and, in doing so, to come to know myself more fully too.
Although Jesus is fully God, an eternal divine Person, the Second Person of the Trinity, He still depends entirely upon the Father for His existence. God is One and God is three, and there has never been a moment when the Son was not pouring Himself out to the Father in an exuberance of gratitude for being the beloved Son, bound to His Father in the Love of the Holy Spirit. And the wonderful thing about today’s Psalm – Psalm 23, which we have heard and sung so many times that we likely know it by heart – is that it is not only our song but Jesus’ song too. Because in His Incarnation, Jesus experienced His eternal oneship with the Father in a whole new way: from within our humanity. And in surrendering to His Father’s will to the point of giving the last drops of His life on the Cross he knew even more intensely than us what it was like to walk through ‘death’s dark vale.’ In His Resurrection from death and, after forty blessed days of living among us, returning to His Father - this time robed in the very flesh He had taken from Mary – He knows in every cell of His sacred humanity the joy of dwelling in the Lord’s House for ever and ever, enjoying the eternal Banquet which He longs for us to share with Him, and of which He gives us a taste here on earth in the Eucharist.
The Gospel – the Good News that God is giving us, in His Son, the means of enjoying that same beauty and fullness of life for ever – requires at its most fundamental level our grateful acknowledgment that He is the Great Provider and Benefactor and the surrender of our hearts and minds to His Will for us, which can only ever be for our eternal good, even though at times it will feel that we too are passing through the valley of death. To lose one’s life in order to find it – this is
One last thought on this Good Shepherd Sunday. We are fed by our Good Shepherd spiritually in our prayer and in the reading of Holy Scripture, but fed physically in the holy Sacraments of the Church: in the Mass, the ‘source and summit’ of the entire Christian life, and in every sacrament through to the Anointing of the Sick, where the most precious final days and hours of this short life are bound-up and strengthened by the Passion and Resurrection of the Good Shepherd Himself. The great distress of these past weeks, not being able to attend and participate in the Holy Mass, will doubtless have intensified our hunger for His Sacred Body and increased our gratitude for the countless Holy Communions made so far in our lives.
But for these priceless gifts to continue Jesus needs priests to serve Him by laying aside their own plan for their life and permitting themselves to be configured in a special way to Himself, that He may guide, nurture, and feed His beloved Flock until He returns to earth to bring those who have loved Him to eternal glory. Without the priesthood there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church. As we pray for a swift end to this current crisis, and the throwing open of our Church doors and the restoration of public worship, let us pray too that those whom the Good Shepherd is calling to priesthood may hear His voice and, encouraged by our prayers and sacrifices, have the courage to explore this most beautiful vocation.
The Lord has willed us into being simply because He wants us to enjoy His love, and forever. He feeds us upon His Word, His Spirit and His very Body. He is our Good Shepherd. He is our Lord, our God and our Best Friend. Let us surrender ourselves to His loving arms and there rest in His Love. Alleluia!