PREPARING FOR THE WORD
Before you begin take a moment to pray, saying this short prayer by St. John Chrysostom or a prayer in your own words asking the Lord to open up your heart and mind to his Word.
O Lord Jesus Christ, open the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Your word and understand and do Your will.
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
For all of the readings for Sunday go to: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050717.cfmâ��
REFLECTING ON THE WORD
Why does the Church proclaim the gospel of the Good Shepherd during the fifty days of Easter? What is the connection between Jesus’ statement that he is the Good Shepherd and the death and resurrection of the Lord that we celebrate during the Easter season?
A way into answering this question might be with another passage from sacred scripture, from Psalm 49 that depicts a perhaps less familiar image of sheep, the sheepfold and their shepherd:
Like a herd of sheep they will be put into Sheol,
and Death will shepherd them.
Straight to the grave they descend,
where their form will waste away,
Sheol will be their palace.
But God will redeem my life,
will take me* from the hand of Sheol. (Psalm 49:15-16)
For the psalmist, the grave, and Sheol, the shadowy world of the dead, is the sheepfold of the those who have died. Death has penned them up in Sheol, which the psalmist ironically calls the “palace” of those who have died.
But the psalmist also places his hope of deliverance in God, who “will redeem my life” and will rescue the psalmist from “hand”, which is to say, the power of death and Sheol.
But as revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate and ponder during the 50 days of the Easter season, the Shepherd of Israel, the Good Shepherd is not Death, but Jesus, “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Thus, seen in this light, the sheepfold is Sheol and, as pointed out by an Orthodox friend while we studied this gospel passage together, perhaps the gatekeeper is Death itself. Seemingly invincible, Death, at the command of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, must submit to the will of the Lord of Life and open the gate.
As I ponder the way Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, for me the most compelling image of the Good Shepherd is found in the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell, (sometimes known as the Harrowing of Hell). In that icon Jesus is depicted as in the the words of St. Peter:
For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison. (1Peter 3:18-19)
The icon depicts Jesus doing exactly that. Standing on the gates of hell, torn off their hinges, in one hand he holds the victorious and life-giving Cross. In the other he takes Adam (who represent all of fallen humanity), by the hand, and pulls him from the grave. Eve and all of those who proceeded Jesus in death wait for him to take their hand, speak their name and lead them out of the grave.
There are no lambs to be seen in the icon and the closest thing to a shepherd’s crook is the Cross that Jesus holds. But for me, this icon is such a powerful image of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his flock, who follows them, even to the grave, even the utter despair and negation of death itself, to rescue his beloved flock who have gone so completely astray.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, having descended in death into the depths of Sheol, cannot be held fast by the gates of hell. Instead, the Good Shepherd calls each of his sheep by name, they recognize his voice and he “leads them out”.
Earlier in John we see a foreshadowing of Christ emptying Sheol in this way when Jesus, at the tomb of Lazarus, cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come forth!” What applied to the single individual Lazarus is now extended to all of humanity.
Speaking of himself, Jesus says, “When he has driven out all who are his own, he walks ahead of them and the sheep follow him.” This is a striking image of the reversal accomplished by the resurrection: instead of being herded into the grave, the Good Shepherd drives them out of the sheepfold of Death and walking ahead of the flock“ the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor15:20), is followed by his sheep.
But there is yet another gate that Jesus speaks of in our gospel, not the gate of death but the gate of paradise. Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.” Jesus is the gate through which all of those baptized at the Easter Vigil, passed through, in the mystical death and resurrection of baptism. Each of us, as the baptized, passed through this gate as well, into a true and eternal palace, the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is the gate of paradise itself, no longer closed as a consequence of the Fall but open wide so that all who are his own may enter and be saved, freed forever from the power of sin and death, which is that “thief [which] comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy.”
It is this new, eternal life of grace, as members of the Body of Christ, which Jesus speaks of when he declares at the conclusion of our gospel passage:
“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
PONDERING THE WORD
PRAYING THE WORD