The Vulnerable Sheep
Why is Jesus walking around with a sheep cradled between his neck and back? I’ve always been curious about this depiction. I am more used to Jesus cradling a small sheep in his lap, a very loving, cuddly kind of cradling a baby lamb. Most of us probably prefer that image. Meanwhile, I am stuck on this image and my neck hurts just thinking about that sheep making me uncomfortable. I can barely stand a collar around my neck!
And then there are Pope Francis’ words reminding us that any good shepherd should “smell like the sheep.” Another discomfort! I know what cows and pigs smell like. I must admit sheep smells have not been in my experience!
And then I remember a reflection once offered by a wise Sister companion of mine. She said that a shepherd often can spot the sheep that is going to be the “ring leader for mischief” or the recalcitrant one. This is the sheep that will start a revolt, or at least cause great consternation and suffering for the shepherd and the rest of the sheep.
That same shepherd who can identify the one needing attention, also knows from experience what the sheep needs in order to “hear the voice” of the shepherd. Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing the voice of someone who wishes us well, while challenging us to be all that God wants us to be.
In order to recognize the voice, the sheep must be close, must be carried, must become dependent on the shepherd. In order to accomplish that the shepherd breaks a leg of the sheep and begins to carry it. The sheep becomes vulnerable.
Perhaps we also need the Good Shepherd to carry us in our vulnerability. All of us experience some kind of “brokenness.” Some heals readily. Others need God’s attention. Jesus reminds us of God’s love and care for us, even when the suffering is intolerable. And for us, following Jesus means that we must stand with, we must act for the good of all, especially those in most need, the most vulnerable among us.
Who are the shepherds in your life? Who is leading, guiding, protecting and nurturing you? How do hurt and suffering contribute to our capacity to hear God’s voice in the midst of it?
“The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Do these words of the Gospel sound familiar? Do they remind you of what takes place at Mass each weekend?
Try to pay attention in a new way, asking to be made aware of how the Scripture readings, the prayers of the priest, including the Eucharistic prayer, and the words of the songs we sing recount the ways that Jesus shows us the way. Listen for all the times during the Mass that we ask for forgiveness, for mercy and true repentance.
The highlight of the Mass, of course, is the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Listen carefully to the words of our Communion song. As we walk in procession, within and with our community, we celebrate our belief and we express our gratitude. We realize that we are the Body of Christ, receiving the Body of Christ.
Marty Haugen reminds us in the lyrics to “We Remember”: “We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate, for you are with us here; And we believe that we will see you when you come, in your glory, Lord, we remember, we celebrate, we believe.”
Why and when do we hide behind closed doors? We know that Jesus’ disciples hid after his death. They went into hiding, disappointed and afraid. We go into hiding too, don’t we? Perhaps it is because we have so much to do, expectations of others are so high, we are having trouble with priorities—and on it goes. We close doors, we doubt that our faith is enough, we doubt that others will be there for us, we doubt other people’s motives—and on it goes. We hide behind closed doors, and we close doors.
In the Gospel reading this weekend, Jesus begins every encounter with the words, “Peace be with you.” This is Jesus’ invitation to give up the fear and to spend time with him. “Peace be with you” might be just the disarming welcome that helps us to overcome whatever is closing the doors to new encounters.
So let’s try it! For the next few days (or weeks), try using the words “peace be with you.” Use it as a greeting. Use it as a prayer. Try not to be so busy. Take time for Mass on Sunday with the community. Encourage others, pray more, and name other things that take us out of hiding, into the Light of Christ! See what happens when we come out from behind closed doors.
“Do you realize what I have done for you?” Jesus asks at the Last Supper. The next three days provide us with an opportunity to reflect not only on foot washing, but also on where it is that our feet take us. The foot washing we experience is a beautiful expression of “service” and willingness to include and to respect the dignity of every person. Pope Francis models that each Holy Thursday when he intentionally seeks persons “least likely” to have a Pope wash their feet. Could we do the same?
Good Friday takes us on foot to The Way of the Cross. If we walk that journey with Jesus, we understand, perhaps in new ways, what Jesus has done for us. In our reflections on this day, we might ask ourselves what are we willing to sacrifice for the good of another? Where do our feet take us when we accept that everyone, no exceptions, are our neighbors?
And finally the Easter Sunday readings have the wonderful, excited, sometimes overwhelming understanding of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be with us always. He appears first to the women outside the tomb and they RUN to tell the others. The feet of those who follow Jesus get worn out, calloused and often are dirty.
As we celebrate the Paschal Mystery, the institution of the Holy Eucharist (a meal that we get to celebrate at every Mass), the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let’s be mindful of our feet and where they take us. We choose the path; we choose our companions. We choose to follow Jesus. And that means that what Jesus has done for us is what we are called to do for others.
Of Women, Perfume and Tears
Imagine the scene: A woman, an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, the anointing of Jesus by the woman who anticipates the anointing of Jesus’ body. She is criticized by those around her. She continues her acts of love and attention, caring for and valuing what she could do for Jesus. He speaks for her. He defends her. He affirms her. “She has done what she could.”
Jesus’ words are powerful! “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me…Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
An unnamed woman ministers to Jesus right before preparations for the Passover meal. In the end, Jesus is buried in a tomb under the watchful eyes of two women. When everyone else ran, thinking all was defeated by the death of Jesus, they stayed. No wonder then, that Jesus first appeared to a woman who was watchful and caring, once more.
“She has done what she could…and what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Wherever the gospel is proclaimed, throughout the whole world! Imagine all that is told in memory of her.
What does it mean for us to embrace Jesus as the Lord of our lives? What parts of ourselves are waiting for us to surrender, to lavish on Jesus!
Death and New Life
“Unless” is such a powerful word. Think of how we use it on a daily basis. Often it is a condition for something else to happen. For example, unless the weather changes, I will be there. Unless you clean your room, no video games. Unless you lose the weight, your knee will keep hurting.
Jesus uses the same word unless to describe what needs to die in order for new life to occur. “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
All of us experience “death” experiences throughout our lives. Even Shakespeare said, “Gone are my salad days, when I was green.” We all know that one refers to the death of youth! If you make a list of “deaths” they might include the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, missing a promotion, the end of singleness when you get married, the birth of a child that changes your focus entirely. We can probably name lots of “deaths” be they little or big! Can we also identify the “fruit”—the new life that comes from those deaths?
In order for the seed to become all that God intends it to be, the seed has to give up something of what it was. The same is true for us. In order to be all that God intends us to be, something in us dies or changes too.
Our practice of charity—doing good for others—is often a dying to self. We give up our time to be there for someone else. We put others before ourselves.
We do that in parish life too when we give our time, talent and treasure to keep our parish the hospitable, welcoming, and generous parish it is. Sometimes we let some things die in our traditions and customs to make room for new life.
What can die in us for the sake of new life? What will make that happen? Who will help us?
Coming to the Light
Which do you prefer? Light or darkness? Do you ever choose to be in total darkness? I loved living on a farm, away from all the city lights. I am also old enough not to have experienced lights on many of the devices we use in homes today. It is very difficult to get my house totally dark today. So I am one of those persons who loves to drive out to some place where I can see the light of the stars at night. There is something about being able to distinguish darkness and light!
Light and darkness is a great metaphor for reflection in Lent. Have you ever preferred darkness to light? Some people pout, cling to depression, hold on to anger rather than embrace the light of grace. Some people lament all the evil that is going on in the world. They can name the suffering loudly and clearly. They can grumble about all that is wrong with family, church, country, and world. To stay there is to choose darkness.
Evil is a darkness that makes us mute, not able to speak, paralyzed with fear and a lack of faith. We shut down with a sense of powerlessness. Evil also makes us obstinate or stubborn in our mistakes and wrong views. We can become overly critical and lose any sense of reason.
And evil overcomes when it undermines our unity with emphasis on what irritates us and uses differences as an excuse for failing to see the light.
What does it mean then to come to the light? We use expressions like “Enlighten me!” Can you “shed some light on this”? At ACTS retreats we sing “Light of the world, shine on me!” over and over again.
Essentially, for me it means to ask what did Jesus do? How did Jesus turn darkness into light? It wasn’t easy. Love, mercy, compassion, healing, and ultimately the largest sacrifice of all—suffering and death—because “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.”
Jesus’ sight—his paying attention—led him to heal many who lived in darkness. He gave voice to changing unjust practices and laws. He cured those who were paralyzed by illness and social stigma. He poured light on so many social sins of his day. He spoke and he acted.
Where do we see light? How do we cast light in the darkness we encounter today? How and when do we seek God’s grace?
Try making a chart listing examples of darkness in one column. Then do the same for light. May courage, faith, resistance, resilience, and God’s grace be with us! May our works be clearly seen as done in God!
Jesus With a Whip
When you think of cleaning house, I don’t suppose the image of a whip comes to mind. Is there anything in your life that needs to be shown the exit, or “driven out”? Lent is a good time for some house cleaning. Lent is a good time for some “soul” cleaning too. Our bodies are, after all, temples of the Holy Spirit and occasionally we cleanse those as well. Yes, Lent is a good time for house cleaning and soul cleaning.
One Lenten practice that I recently read about on Facebook suggested that we find a huge bag. On each day of Lent, we choose one item to discard, to part with. At the end of Lent we donate the bag to charity. This is an attempt to simplify, to “tidy up”, to part with things that clutter. In a way, separating ourselves from possessions leaves us more open for something new—a new spirit, a new heart, a new valuing of time with God.
Pope Francis tells us that Jesus does not cleanse our souls with whips.
Do you know what kind of whip Jesus uses to cleanse our soul? Mercy. Open your heart to Jesus’ mercy! Say: “Jesus, look how much filth! Come, cleanse. Cleanse with your mercy, with your tender words, cleanse with your caresses.” If we open our heart to Jesus’ mercy, in order to cleanse our heart, our soul, Jesus will trust Himself to us.
Homily of His Holiness, Pope Francis, Third Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2015
In the last two weeks, some of our candidates have experienced the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. Several of them have described the experience as a cleansing, a freedom that comes from God’s mercy. They felt the unburdening. They embraced God’s mercy in listening to the priest’s tender words of encouragement and in many cases hugged someone. God’s mercy lives in our temples, in our houses, and in our souls.
In Genesis, we read, “I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.” We all know how God put Abraham to multiple tests. The ultimate test was God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. We can all imagine what it was like for Abraham to go through the horror of planning this sacrifice. And we can also sense the relief at God’s messenger’s last minute intervention.
It is Abraham’s “not withholding” that is total obedience of God’s command. The reward is God’s ultimate blessing of “descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”
What is it that God asks us not to withhold if we are to be faithful to God’s command? How am I using this time of Lent to “not withhold” but give freely of my time to pray, to fast and to give alms? How am I giving time and attention, love and respect to my family? Am I growing in generosity? Am I a witness of being so devoted to God that I would be willing to sacrifice?
A Desert Survival Kit
Imagine yourself on such a journey into the desert. What temptations would you face? Who would be the angels, the helpers ministering to you?
The desert isn’t always the arid land depicted in this image. The desert can be any place where we are alone, isolated from those who might be accompanying us, guiding us, keeping us honest and accountable. What are some of the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that we indulge in that take us away from our path to God and that threaten our relationships with the people most important in our lives? When are we most vulnerable to such temptations?
Perhaps our temptations are addictions to viewing pornography, to accumulating more than we need of material possessions, to abusing power in relationships, to blaming others for things going wrong. Perhaps they are participating in some of the social sins like failure to recognize the dignity of persons who are gay, undocumented, poor, homeless, old, of a different race, creed or ideology, or political party.
Our journey in Lent is one of movement, of change, of conversion. Some would suggest that we create a “Desert Survival Kit.” What would be in yours? Do you have favorite prayers, Scriptures, people who are your spiritual guides, mentors or people who wish you well and you can trust, and activities that help you most when you are tempted?
And we pray always: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant.” Help us too to remember daily the words we heard when we received our ashes: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”