Ord Om ordet

4. søndag i påsketiden

Acts 4:8-12: This is the stone rejected by you builders.
1 John 3:1-2: The world refused to acknowledge him.
John 10:11-18: I lay down my life for my sheep.

On account of the theme of the set Gospel, this fourth Sunday in Eastertide is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. It is customary on this day to pray for vocations to the priesthood. Preachers will often promote the cause by speaking of the charms and consolations of ministry and of the Church’s need, to use a phrase in vogue, for ‘gentle shepherds’. This is all very well, but a perspective that does not perhaps quite do justice to the readings. We may therefore try a somewhat different perspective. 

First it is useful to look at the terms we are dealing with. When Christ calls himself the ‘good’ Shepherd, let’s not mistake ‘good’ for ‘nice’. The Lord pronounces this discourse after saying some very trenchant things to people. He has told his listeners: ‘Your father is the devil and you choose to carry out your father’s desires’ (John 8.44) — in other words: instead of living by the lights of the Father of all, who heals strife and reconciles opponents, you embody a destructive force that accuses and divides. When his audience claimed to know God, he called them liars (John 8.55). To Pharisees sure of their clear-sightedness, he said: ‘You are blind’ (cf. John 9.41). As Shepherd, Christ carries a crook he is unafraid to use to ward off enemies, firmly to direct his flock, and to catch the hind legs of sheep intent on running away. 

The adjective John uses to render the Shepherd’s self-description is kalós. This Greek term indicates transcendent qualities. I say ‘qualities’ in the plural, for it has a double sense: it can mean both ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’, with a connotation at once moral and aesthetic. What is truly good will, to a Greek way of thinking, have a graceful form: gracelessness indicates a deficit of goodness. The beautiful and the good are caught up with the true. The Lord who says ‘I am the good [or ‘beautiful’] Shepherd’ also says: ‘I am the truth’. To pretend to pursue beauty or goodness by subverting truth is deceitful. In the Gospel Jesus, speaking of his shepherding, says: ‘In truth, in very truth I tell you, I am the door of the sheepfold’. There’s no way for the flock to form without passing through this door of truth. To emulate the Good Shepherd we must be grounded in the truth, determinedly minded to ‘remain’ in it.

Now, to speak the truth, to bear and embody it, cannot but be costly in a world wounded by sin. Sin is a state of vulnerability to falsehood. Even small sins nibble away at truth, be it by dissimulating it. The tighter sin fixes its grip on us, the more we shall find the truth as such odious. Our first and second readings state what kind of reception Truth incarnate received when he came among us. ‘The world refused to acknowledge him’. Though he was the ‘corner stone’ on which the structure not merely of society but of the universe depends, those called to be builders ‘rejected him’. Of this rejection the cross is the emblem. When we hear, ‘The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’, we know what that laying-down looks like. We see the grandeur, and the stakes, of the call addressed to would-be pastors: ‘Follow me.’ 

The Church makes Christ’s call explicit in her teaching on priesthood. In its decree on priestly life and ministry, Presbyterorum ordinis, the Second Vatican Council exhorts today’s priests: ‘As they direct and nourish the people of God, may they, aroused by the example of the Good Shepherd, give their life for their sheep, ready for the supreme sacrifice’ (n. 13). This text was promulgated in 1965. The Church was then cruelly persecuted in many European countries, not to mention the communist dictatorships of the Far East. The summons was not an abstract notion. The decree asks priests to engage creatively with the modern world (n. 4). At the same time they are to convict its sin (n. 5); that is, they are to call a spade a spade, not yielding to the temptation to call white black, black white. By generous self-giving, they are to find in Christ the sole ‘source and wellspring of the unity of their lives’ (n. 14), being not only carriers of comfort here and now, but ‘a living sign of the world to come’ (n. 16), sacraments of eternity, loving the world as God did in giving his Son for it (n. 22). All this is not to make the priest dour, harsh, and sour: no, he is to be conspicuous for his ‘exceptional kindness’ to all (n. 5). The truth is truly fruitful only when proclaimed beautifully, with goodness, in love, by giving one’s own life up for it cheerfully.

The Good Shepherd discourse reminds us of the sacrificial dimension of the Christian condition, which lends our lives both pathos and joy — for who among us does not, in our heart of hearts, entertain the longing to give ourselves totally? Our Good Shepherd is also the Lamb of sacrifice. That is something every pastor must especially remember. But the lesson pertains to us all. The whole people of God, the Council taught, is ‘to offer to God the Father the Divine Victim in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and to join to it the offering of their own lives’ (Presb.Ord., n. 5). That is part of the priestly dignity flowing from our baptism.

If the Church truly lives on these terms, vocations to the ministerial priesthood will arise quiet naturally; sacramental grace will continue to flow; and the Church in all her members will thrive in a holy, corporate, uninterrupted act of praise to our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.  

Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, beatified on 6 June 2010, an example of a pastor faithful unto the supreme sacrifice.