Tag Archives: Miracles

Let It Be

Annunciation

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In the name of the living God: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          She was just a little Jewish girl, not from a particularly important family. Not especially well-educated, almost certainly not wealthy in any sense to which anyone would pay attention. And she didn’t live in an important place, or hang around with the “important” people. She was just a teenage girl, living on the corner of a dead end street, in an occupied country at the outer edge of the Roman empire. She came from Nowheresville, and she was a nobody.

          In this final week of Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on something miraculous: a virgin being pregnant, God becoming human, the infinite becoming finite. In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by it, this is the sort of thing that God’s been doing all along: creating life where there was nothing: women too old to give birth (like Sarah and Hannah, like Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), life springing up where there where it was barren, where it was dead.

          The angel tells Mary that she is favored by God, that she is full of grace. This nobody, this teenage girl on the edge of nowhere, mattered to God. And the angel Gabriel called her “full of grace.”  You see, Mary found a place where all of her, and all of God, could dwell. A place deep within her life where her life and God’s life would be joined together in a bond that neither time nor trouble could ever break. Love was coming to dwell in her: to make a home there, to abide there. And I wonder if we can hear Gabriel saying that to us, telling us that we are also favored. God chose a very ordinary girl, in a very ordinary place, because God sees the grace in ordinary people and ordinary places. For all of us, that’s got to be good news.

          And there’s something remarkable about God coming to dwell among us, making an appearance, not on a fiery chariot or with bolts of lightning descending in some really cool special effects, but coming to us as a baby. Babies offer the bright, shining hope of something new, something full of promise, something noisy. And most importantly, something vulnerable. And Mary, in that moment, was remarkably vulnerable. Because you see, in first century Palestine, being an unwed mother wasn’t just something a little embarrassing, a little shameful. That was the kind of thing that could get you killed. So, Mary, took a risk. The risk of embarrassment and shame, humiliation and scandal. Well, that would mark her Son’s life, too. And that day, just like this morning, God took a risk, too.

          A lot depended on her response to God. For thousands of years, we had been mired in sin, separated from God, wallowing in our disobedience. A great chasm had opened up, long ago, in that garden, and we couldn’t get back across to the other side. Something had to change. We needed a miracle.

         Back in the 12th century, an important Saint of the church, a French Cistercian monk named Bernard, gave a really important sermon on the Annunciation and Mary’s response. And he wrote that for that brief instant, while waiting on Mary’s reply, time itself stood still.

          For that brief moment, all creation waited on her answer. In heaven, the angels and seraphim and cherubim stopped their singing. And in hell, for a moment, the screeching stopped. The principalities and the powers came to a halt. And even God leaned over the banister, waiting to hear Mary’s reply. You could’ve heard a pin drop, and then she said, ” “Fiat mihi secúndum verbum tuum.” Let it be with me according to your word. And a great music arose and the angels and all the host of heaven broke into shouts of joy, and in hell all the demonic forces cried in anguish because Lucifer’s plans for this world had been overthrown and God’s creation would be restored. But in a very real sense, Mary’s “yes” to God was simply an echo of God’s “yes” to humankind, the God who said “yes” to us time and time again, and is still saying that to you and me today.

          And in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, asked a very important question. He noted, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. But what good is it to us if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within us? And, what good is it to us if Mary is full of grace if we are not also full of grace? What good is it to us for the Creator to give birth to his Son if we do not also give birth to him in our time and our culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

          So, I think we have to confront the question, are we willing to carry the Christ child, and bring Him into the world? Are we willing to risk God coming alive in us, here and today? Are we willing to answer yes to God, and share in God’s dreams for the world? You see, Mary’s story teaches us that very ordinary people (people like us), can do extraordinary, miraculous things when they are vulnerable to God’s choices in the world.

          This life is not always easy, but during this Holy Season of Advent, we might reflect on the words of St. John of Liverpool, who said:

 When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

          Let us cut a path through the noise and chaos and pain of this world. Let us make straight the way of the Lord, let it be.

          Let us build a temple in our hearts and make room for the Christ child in a world that still says there’s no room for God’s children. Let it be.

          In a world that is obsessed be power and wealth and stuff, let us turn to a woman who risked everything and a God who risked everything for the life of the world. Let it be.

          Let the lame walk, let the blind see, let us feed the hungry, and let the captives go free. Let the whole world look through that beautiful window and let them see nothing less than the kingdom of God in our hearts.

         Let us set aside for the moment our commitment to human justice, and live lives full of mercy. And from the springs of that mercy, let God’s justice rain down like a mighty river. Let it be.

          Let us turn away from racism, from our disrespect for God’s people and his world, and from treating some lives as more important than others. Let it be.

          Let it be that we beat our swords, our aircraft carriers and our drones, into ploughshares, turning away from violence and struggle and war. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Let it be.

          Let it be that those who are hopeless, living in fear and those tormented by illness and darkness find the Light of the World, and come to know compassion in a world that’s simply tired of caring. Let it be.

         Let us turn in love to those who are forgotten, those who are broken, those who are down on their luck, and share the good news of God’s love with a world that’s forgotten what love looks like. Let us set aside our own ambitions and share in God’s dreams. Let it be.

Let it be with you, let it be with me. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

So That She May Be Made Well, and Live

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.  Mark 5:21-43.

In today’s Gospel, Mark offers two portrayals of Jesus as a healer.  The first concerns the story of a man named Jairus whose daughter is dying.  Mark describes Jairus as a leader of the synogogue, which also reveals that some Jewish authorities looked up to and relied on Jesus.  While Jesus is on the way to help Jairus’ little girl, something remarkable happens.

Mark breaks into the story of Jairus and his daughter with an interlude, a story about a woman with a blood disorder.  This woman approaches Jesus, a woman who who had “suffered” and “endured” a lot.  Her disease had isolated her, hurt her, and left her penniless.  And yet, she believes that merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak will make her well.  She is cured, and moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well.

By the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the mourner’s announce that He has come to late and the child has already died.  Jesus counsels Jairus, “Do not fear, but trust.”  Jesus tells them that the child is not dead, but merely sleeping.  Jesus takes the little girl by her hand and tells her to get up, and she rises and begins to walk.

At the time of these events, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old.  The woman had suffered from her hemoraging for twelve years.  These two are linked together, as the life flows out of them.  We might certainly read these stories in the light of the people of Israel (the twelve tribes).  One is a daughter of a man of honor and prestige, the other an “unclean” woman lost in her desperation.  Both the woman with the blood disorder and the little girl who had died are impure; by touching them, Jesus will share in this impurity.  And yet, through the touch of this unique Rabbi, both will find new life.

I think we miss the point of this narrative if we merely read it as a story about how Jesus was really good at conquering disease and even death.  I don’t think the message of the Incarnation was to simply to show us that God could work miracles.  Rather, God became man to show us how deeply he loved us and how he wanted to heal the wounds that separated us from Him.

Both Jairus and the woman with the blood disorder ask “to be made well” (sozo in the Greek).  This implies not just a curing them from their physical ailments, but also making them whole, restoring them, saving them.  Both Jairus’ daughter and the hemoraging woman were made well.  But Jesus offered them more than simply restoration of their health; He offered them life.

I don’t think these two stories are simply about Jesus’ remarkable power, or even about miracles.  Jesus didn’t come to show us how powerful He was; He came to show us how much God loved us.  He came to teach us about the extraordinary power of faith, and about the limitless compassion of the Living God.  And if we will reach out to touch His Son, we also will be made well, and live.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Peace! Be Still!

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:35-41.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Lectionary, we find Jesus and the disciples after a long day of teaching and healing.  In fact, the crowds had swelled to such a point that Jesus had preached from the boat as the crowd listened on land.  Jesus devoted much of his teaching that day to explaining about the Kingdom of God.  I think we might interpret today’s Gospel in that context, although Jesus will now show the disciples what the Kingdom is like.

When a violent storm arises and threatens to swamp their boat, the disciples feel a genuine terror.  I have often asked the exact question that they raise:  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  I have often asked God almost exactly the same question:  “Can you not see what’s going on down here?”  We wonder where God is while we struggle through our troubles, our danger, and our fears.  And yet, the disciples found that their rabbi was with them all along, sleeping in the stern of the boat.  So, this story suggests that while we are panicking in chaos and certain that we are perishing, Jesus remains right there with us, in the middle of the storm.

Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked the storm, telling the maelstrom:  “Peace!  Be still!” We all wish that we could give such instructions when chaos arrives.  What would happen if we could rebuke cancer, or automobile crashes, or church fights, telling them:  “Be still!”  Even the wind and the sea obeyed Jesus, but I suspect that’s mostly because Jesus had such a profound trust of the Father.

Earlier, I suggested that this Gospel passage, like those that immediately precede it, is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus can sleep through the storm because He knows that God reigns over all, and wants to take care of, all creation.  While the control of meteorological events may seem beyond most of us, trusting God is well within our reach.  Perhaps then, we too can be still.

I wish you Sabbath peace,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Matt. 28:5-8.

Okay, so after a week of daily blogging, I’m pretty sure I’ve about run out of interesting things to say.  I never tire, however, of discussing dogs.  I have lived with dogs  since about the age of five.  Most dogs spend the bulk of their lives with a pronounced, undismayed joy.  My dog, Georgia offers the perfect example of this unrelenting, joyful approach to the world.

So, I thought we should at least consider the notion of joy:  a great Christian virtue, a profound spiritual practice, and one of the clear indicia of our faith.  Particularly during the Easter season, we Christians should take a lesson and live like the gate has been left open.  In Matthew’s story of the resurrection, the angel tells Mary Magdalene and “the  other Mary” that Jesus has been raised.  Jesus’ disciples thought they knew how this rotten story ended. When they learned that they were wrong, they left the tomb “with great fear and great joy” and ran to tell Jesus’ followers this good news.

Matthew describes a curious mixture of emotions:  joy and fear, but I suspect that’s exactly what they felt.  They were fearful because they stood on deeply uncertain ground, and this sort of ambiguity would certainly leave one anxious.  They also felt great joy because their rabbi, their Messiah, and their friend still lived.  And so, they ran.  They ran like someone had left the gate open.  You see, that’s exactly what Jesus had done:  He had pried ajar  the gates of hell and flung open the gates of heaven.

In Here and Now, Henri Nouwen wrote, “We have to choose joy, and keep choosing it every day.  It is a choice based upon the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”  So, my suggestion to you, during this holy season of Easter is “Live like someone left the gate open.”  Jesus has freed us from sin and death, and he left the gate to heaven wide open.

Happy Easter!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Whom Are You Looking For?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

In today’s Gospel reading, Mary, the beloved disciple, and Peter discover that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. St. John opens the story with Mary, walking to the Lord’s burial-place early in the morning before sunrise. We’ve studied John’s gospel well enough and long enough to know that he intends to convey a double meaning when he tells us that she walked to the tomb “while it was still dark”. I’m certain that for Magdalene and the other disciples, this was a terribly dark time.

St. John begins the story with a mystery: the body of Jesus is missing. The disciples first encounter only the physical evidence of what looks like a grave robbing. Someone has rolled the stone away, removed the body of the Christ, and left behind only the burial linens. Mary runs to get the other disciples. Peter and the beloved disciple confirm the absence of Jesus’ body, but none of them yet understands what this might mean. Mary then meets a man she assumes to be gardener, and without understanding it, she has encountered the risen Lord.

I’m struck by Jesus’ question to Mary, “For whom are you looking?” We’ve heard Him ask a similar question before. Jesus asked John the Baptist’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” John 1:38. When the soldiers come to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Him, Jesus asks them, “For whom are you looking?” John 18:4,7. We also recall in John’s Gospel that some Greeks came looking for Jesus. John 12: 20-21. I suspect that this Easter Sunday, our churches will be full of people who are looking for Jesus, even though some of them may not even know it.

Consistent with John’s repeated theme of misunderstandings, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Without knowing it, I believe she is right. I think St. John intentionally calls us back, not just to the garden of Gethsemane, but also to the Garden of Eden. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and re-made creation. That morning, Mary met Jesus and encountered the fulfilment of God’s directive: “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:2).

It also strikes me that the tomb wasn’t really empty at all. That tomb was full of the visions and hopes of God’s people: dreams of a better world, dreams that they would be better people, dreams that death would not prevail, and dreams for reconciliation with God.

In a sense, that tomb resembles the stable in the Chronicles of Narnia: it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The tomb contained God’s dreams for our life with Him. Within that tomb, the disciples will find the revelation that God’s promises were not empty. Those dreams they had weren’t in the tomb any longer; they were walking around and were alive! The shackles of sin and sorrow and death have been broken.

The passage ends with Mary’s affirmation of faith, despite the darkness of the horror on Golgotha: “I have seen the Lord.” I hope that, on this Easter Sunday, you are looking for Jesus. I’m certain that He is looking for you. And I hope that, like that good saint, we can tell the world : “We have seen the Lord.”

Happy Easter! He is risen!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Laughter From the Barren Places

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  Gen. 17: 1-7, 15-16.

In today’s Lectionary reading, we  continue with the notion of covenant from last week’s Old Testament reading about Noah.  Here, we encounter Abram as an old man.  Twenty-four years earlier, God had instructed Abram to move from his home in Haran. Abram left behind his home and his family; he left behind his past.  Although Abram’s very name meant “father of the multitudes”, deep into their old age he and his wife Sarai had no children.  Despite God’s promises that his descendants would number as many as the stars, Sarai remained barren.

When God re-named him Abraham (“the father of many nations”), it must’ve seemed like a bit of a cruel joke.  And when God re-named his wife Sarah (which means “princess”), that must have made her wince a bit.  And when God told him that  wife would be the mother of nations and kings would spring from her, the whole thing must have seemed….well, just not very likely.

In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham laughed at the whole idea.  Gen. 17:17.  And when Sarah heard the news, she couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Gen. 18:12.  God has a funny sense of humor, and the whole idea struck them as a bit absurd.  And yet, very late in their lives, laughter (which translates as “Yizhak” or “Isaac”) will spring from their marriage.  Their laughter at the absurdity of God’s promise will become laughter of joy.  But, I’m getting ahead of the story…

In those days, at that time, being childless meant a deep and fundamental kind of failure.  (Some folks still perceive infertility that way today, or at least as deeply heartbreaking.) God’s repeated promises seemed to mock the reality of Abram and Sarai’s long struggle with infertility.  So when God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) repeats his promise, Abram falls to the earth, and we can imagine him hoping desperately that somehow the Almighty can bring his dreams to fruition and bless him with an heir.

As happens so often in Scripture, the significance of this event is marked by a re-naming.  We’ve seen it happen to Simon (“Peter), to Jacob (“Israel”), and now to Abram (“Abraham”) and Sarai (“Sarah”).  In each instance, the assignment of a new name implies both a new understanding of mission and a re-making of God’s creation.  It connotes a change so thoroughgoing that the old name simply would no longer suffice.  In this passage, the Lord reveals also himself, using a new name (“El Shaddai”) for the first time.  The name reflects this new covenantal relationship, implying limitless capacity.

This reading offers us several important insights during this Lenten season.  God calls each of us into the covenant He established with Abraham and which was revealed most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  He wants to take the places in our lives which are broken and barren and create new life there.  He wants to turn our laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy.  Just like Abraham, God calls us to walk with Him, so that all our steps are taken with and toward God.  And mostly, He wants us to become living icons of this covenant, to trust in His vision for all of creation and its redemption.  And, I think, God wants us all to laugh, deeply and with great joy.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.   The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes  it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”  John 10:11-18.

This reading from John’s Gospel offers a rich passage, and those who know it well may have lost some appreciation for its texture.  First, when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, He presents us with one of the seven “I Am” statements.  These include “I am”: the bread of life;  the light of the world; the gate or door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; and the vine.  Each of these statements resonates with God’s self description found in Exodus 3:14 (“I Am Who Am”).  In other words, John offers us a clear claim of the divinity of Jesus through these statements.

Jesus’ description of himself as a good shepherd also resonates with God’s announcement in the Old Testament:  “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.”  Ezek.  34: 11-12.    From his deathbed, Jacob declared that God had been the shepherd “all of my life to this day.”  Gen 48:24.  Jesus’ description of himself further calls to mind the 23rd Psalm.  Thus, Jesus locates himself firmly within the Davidic line:  a shepherd king.

We also need to grasp just how startling Jesus’ understanding of himself as a “good shepherd” would have been to a first century audience.  At that time, shepherds would have been considered am ha’aretz (people of the land or people of the dirt).  Shepherds were considered dirty, coarse, boorish, and uncivilized.  Rabbinic Judaism looked down on shepherds, who did not regularly keep the commandments.  Because of their work, they may not have even kept the Sabbath.

The shepherds of first century Palestine were also a rough lot, solitary men of tremendous courage.  They had to protect the flock from lions, bears, wolves and other predators.  Rather than the gentle, pastoral image we may have inherited from the Romantic poets, shepherds were fierce fighters who were prepared for dangerous combat when necessary to protect their sheep.  For example, David learned about battle by protecting his father’s sheep from predators.  1 Sam. 17:33-37.

So, there’s something in Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” that subverts our understanding and upends our expectations.  Jesus also contrasts himself with “the hired hands” who run away in the face of a wolf.  He thus begins to teach about his commitment to us, a commitment that disregards his own safety, that disregards his own life.  This commitment, this covenant, finds its root in love, and in the Father’s love for Jesus and in Jesus’ love for the Father.  Jesus teaches not only about the nature of His love for the disciples, but also about his love for every one of us.   In essence, Jesus tells us:  “I will not abandon you.”

Jesus then tells us that his sheep will listen to his voice.  I wonder how well we do that today.  Setting aside the question of listening, do we even recognize Jesus’ voice when he calls?  Christ then offers a remarkable insight that speaks to our fractured Church today.  He speaks of unity:  “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  When we encounter discord, schism, and fracture in the world, we can rest assured that at least one party (and perhaps all) are not listening to Jesus.

I believe this remarkable passage ultimately centers upon the overarching Christian commandment:  love God and love each other.  As Desmond Tutu once observed, “Nothing is too much trouble for love.”  Love binds the sheep to the shepherd, and binds the shepherd to his flock.  We understand the risks inherent in the practice of love, risks that will ultimately lead to Golgotha.  Despite these risks, in the final analysis, the Gospel teaches us that nothing else really matters.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis