Last Sunday celebrated the Good Shepherd. The first three Sundays of Easter remember the Resurrection, the fourth turns to the Good Shepherd, and then as we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we recall Christ’s promises to stay with his Church, in the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel (13-17). Together these Gospels summarize the Acts of the Apostles and the foundation of the Church.
This year, our readings for Good Shepherd emphasize the strange way Jesus continues his Incarnation through the Apostles.
In our first reading, from Acts, Paul and Barnabas proclaim, “the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the same dynamic. “Christ is the Light of nations [Lumen Gentium]. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.” Christ is the light. His Gospel is the light. But the Holy Spirit is present in the Church, so that the light of Christ’s face is reflected on the face of the Church.
The same confusion between the prophet and the messiah—which one is “the light of the nations”—is in the texts Paul and Barnabas are quoting, from Isaiah 42, 49, and 60.
The Fathers of the Church call this “the mystery of the moon.” The moon shines with a light not its own, reflecting the light of the sun.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Anyone else can be a good shepherd only by reflecting his light.
Our second reading, from Revelation, takes us deeper into the strange confusion between Jesus and the Church. The Shepherd is the Lamb (that’s a paradox). The righteous are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (another paradox). “The Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.”
He is the shepherd because he is the lamb, who knows the suffering of his sheep and dies for them. They are his people when their purity is not to hide from suffering, but to immerse themselves in his blood.
And so we come to our short Gospel, from John 10.
The Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 is as strange as they come. In vv. 1-5, Jesus introduces the door, the shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the sheep. Which one is he? In vv. 7-10, he is the door. In vv. 11-13, he is the good shepherd, who lays down his life. In vv. 14-16, he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him. In vv. 17-18, he again lays down his life.
Verse 22 begins a new discourse, when “The Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter” (or more literally, at “the renewal,” Hanukkah, the celebration of when they renewed religious services in the Temple, after the Antiochene persecution, “in the rainy season”). But he picks up the same theme again: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he says. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” It is there that our reading picks up.
“No one can take them out of my hand,” he says. Without the previous verses, it is less clear that he has just said that some of the Jews of Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, have taken themselves out of his hand, though we got that message in Acts: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” The message is not that everyone is fine.
Rather, the message is that we are fine, if we are in Jesus’s hands. It’s not that we don’t need a Shepherd, but that we have one.
Thus the short reading quickly takes a new turn. From his sheep knowing his voice, he segues to them never perishing, and then to the Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
He is pointing forward to chapter seventeen, where Jesus will say to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them,” and he prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus and the Church are one. Jesus preaches through the Church, when the Church clings to Jesus. The Church is united to the Father, when the Church is united to Jesus. And the Church can have good shepherds only when they cling to the Good Shepherd. It all depends on union with Jesus.
Do you find yourself searching for security apart from Jesus?