Fourth Sunday of Easter
My friends in Christ, today (the Fourth Sunday in Easter) is known also as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And that is because any given liturgical year the assigned Gospel text is always taken from this part of Saint John’s narrative where Jesus uses vivid, striking pastoral imagery of Himself as the Good Shepherd, and of us, His people, as His flock. And at the heart of this entire Gospel passage of the Good Shepherd is that famous verse, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In very truth, so much has this pastoral theme of the Good Shepherd been incorporated into the very liturgy of the Mass itself that we find this imagery even in the prayers of the Mass; for example, after Communion: “Look upon Your flock, kind Shepherd, and be pleased to settle in eternal pastures the sheep You have redeemed by the Precious Blood of Your Son.”
Now, we readily attribute this “Good Shepherd” theme to Jesus. But in fact, Christ did not just invent this out of nothing; God the Father has been likened to a shepherd long before God the Son entered the picture, and there are many instances of this all throughout the Old Testament. In the Prophet Isaiah, for example (Chapter 40), we read: “Comfort, give comfort to My people, says your God.... Like a shepherd, He feeds His flock; in His arms, He gathers the lambs...leading the ewes with care.” And the Psalms are a veritable treasure trove of “Good Shepherd” imagery:
Psalm 80: “O Shepherd of Israel, [hear us], You Who guide Joseph like a flock.... O God, restore us; [let Your face shine upon us] and we shall be saved.”
Psalm 95: “Come, let us...worship; let us kneel before the Lord Who made us. For He is our God, we are the people He shepherds, the flock He guides.”
Psalm 100: “Know...the Lord is God, He made us, we belong to Him, we are His people, the flock He shepherds.”
And of course the most famous Psalm of all, Psalm 23 (our Responsorial today): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In verdant pastures, He gives me repose; beside restful waters He leads me; He refreshes my soul.”
Why are these particular passages of Sacred Scripture quoted the most frequently? Why do they rank among the most favorite? What is it about the Good Shepherd that brings comfort, that gives comfort to God’s people? If you have never seen a shepherd in action, and not just a farmer who happens to keep sheep in a pen, but a real old-world shepherd, an Old-Testament shepherd, a shepherd of Jesus’ time and place.... I saw a lot of these sorts of shepherds in the Holy Land. And they never leave their sheep, and they are always concerned for them above all other concerns, giving them enough nourishment, getting them enough water, keeping them safe from predators. Imagine what it would be like to know...really know...a shepherd like that, who does all of that...for us....
There is a fairly famous story about this dinner party in New York City, and there were two particularly distinguished guests at this party. You had the great actor, seven-time Academy Award nominee Richard Burton...and you had Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. And at one point during this party, Richard Burton was invited to show off his acting chops by reciting one of the most famous samples of world literature: Psalm 23. And so, he did. And what dramatic flourish with which he offered his recitation, the overwhelming drama that he packed into every single word...it made the guests burst into applause – a standing ovation – the very moment the final word was spoken, tears in their eyes and resounding cheers of bravo and encore....
And then, Archbishop Sheen was invited to recite the same Psalm. And so, he did. But no dramatic flourish in his recitation, no overwhelming drama. And in the end, no applause, standing ovation, tears in their eyes or resounding cheers. No, there was just this...silence. Complete, utter silence, like something that happens when people encounter something far greater than themselves and are struck totally speechless. It was a silence of pure reverence, pure awe and wonder, like the guests at that party had never heard the “Good Shepherd” Psalm said quite like that ever before.
And in the silence that filled that room, Richard Burton approached Archbishop Sheen, and he said to him, “Your Excellency, I am an actor; you are a man of God; I know the Psalm...but you know the Shepherd.”
Indeed, a man of God should know the Shepherd. Would that all of us, in fact, would know the Shepherd.
In addition to today being “Good Shepherd Sunday,” it is also the 57th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In an apostolic message for this occasion, Pope Francis wrote: “The Fourth Sunday in Easter offers us the figure of the Good Shepherd Who knows His sheep.” Jesus “calls them, He feeds them, and He guides them. For...fifty years, the universal Church has celebrated this Sunday as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In this way she reminds us of our need to pray, as Jesus Himself told His disciples, so that ‘the Lord of the harvest may send out laborers into His harvest.”
We need more vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. There is just no other way to say it. We need the Sacraments; we need the positive, joyful witness of the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. And once more, the Pope and the Church he shepherds pray for more young men and women to pray, to discern, to hear God’s call to them – their vocation. Pope Francis writes:
Hearing and following the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd means letting ourselves be attracted and guided by Him, in consecration to Him; it means allowing the Holy Spirit to draw us into [a missionary and evangelical ministry], awakening within us the desire, the joy, and the courage to offer our own lives in the service of the Kingdom of God.
Are we praying for vocations, not just at Mass but in our own personal lives of prayer? Do we dare to see in our youth, in our young adults, the possibility that the Lord might be calling them to something not natural...but supernatural – priesthood and religious life? Do we ever say anything to them, or even pray with them to help them discern? For our children, our youth, and our young adults not yet married: do they ever stop and ask themselves if maybe...just maybe...God is calling them to this? Or does sheer terror of the unknown...fear of totally giving up our lives to the Lord and His Church...fear of possible rejection of family and friends because we dare to strive for that which is not of this world...does fear keep us from really listening for the gentle voice of the Good Shepherd?
We all of us need to know (truly know) the Good Shepherd – and not merely to know about Him, or say holy, poetic words about Him. And especially we need vocations, priests and religious, who know Jesus. So we pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and we pray that the children, youth, and young adults of our parish will seriously pray and discern what could be God’s call for them. And we trust in the perfect model of every vocation, the Blessed Virgin Mary – who as Pope Francis teaches us “did not fear to utter her fiat” – her resounding yes – “in response to the Lord’s call. She is at our side and she guides us.... Let us turn to her so that we may be completely open to what God has planned for each one of us, so that we can grow in the desire to go out with tender concern towards others. May the [Blessed] Virgin Mary protect and intercede for us all.”
And may the Lord Himself (the Good Shepherd; the risen Lord), Who freely gives Himself to us in the Scripture proclaimed and in the Sacrament celebrated, come to our assistance in prayer and discernment, hearing our plea for vocations to the priesthood and religious life and answering our prayers in accord with His most holy will. And may it be that more of our boys and girls, our young men and women, will rise up to the call of Christ to serve Him and His Church in the holy priesthood or in religious life...for the salvation of souls and for the glorious majesty of God.
on Sunday, May 3 at 11:49AM