One of the favorite pass-times of amateur theologians is conjecturing as to whether or not God had to do all of the things that He did for our redemption: "Did He really have to spend nine months to receive the form of a human baby from His Virgin Mother?" "Did He really have to spend thirty-odd years of toil in order to be put to death on the Cross?" "Couldn't He have been born into the more comfortable existence of a king -- or just appeared one day full grown?" Ultimately, the round of questioning resolves itself into: "Did God have to come to Earth at all -- couldn't He have just willed our redemption, and wouldn't that have been enough?"
The theoretical answer to the last question is: "Of course He could have -- God has only to will something to makke it the way He wills it!"
So, we might, then, ask the next question: "If God didn't have to do all of these things for our redemption -- some of them pretty painful -- they why did He do them? Why?" Why did He allow Himself to be "led like a lamb to the slaughter," to use the words of Isaias the Prophet, whom Saint Peter quotes today?2 The answer should be fairly obvious if we but consider that our redemption is just a beginning -- that our Lord created us with free will, and that once we were redeemed, we would still have a lifetime in which to work out our salvation. That is to say that God still requires of us that we believe the things He has revealed, and that we live our lives according to His moral law, and in imitation of His love for souls.
That word -- "imitation" -- is significant. God knew that if He wanted us to live our lives in accordance with His will, even though our wills were free, He would have to lead us by His own good example. He knew that humans don't do very well when lead by a leader who just issues instructions that he, himself, would not consider following. We tend to follow the leader who says "do as I do," and not the leader who says "do as I say." A whole lot of words are generally un-inspiring, and are too easily misinterpreted -- but a simple "follow me" offten brings out the best in us.
Some of you may have heard me recite a story that Bishop Sheen used to tell. It is really a Christmas story, and those of you who grew up here in Florida or in the Islands will have to use your imagination to accept the idea that it gets really cold at Christmas in some parts of the world. At any rate, the story concerns a man -- a nice guy, but not a believing Christian -- a man whose main problem with Christianity was related to what we have been saying this morning -- a man who just can't see any reason wwhy an all powerful God would allow Himself to be crucified -- and therefore does not believe. His wife and daughter have gone off into the night and the snow flakes to attend the midnight Mass of Christmas, leaving him to enjoy a little bit of brandy and a cigar by the fireplace -- but all of a sudden, he hears a noise outside, a random series of dull thuds on the windows, really. He goes out to investigate and he finds that a flock of small birds has returned prematurely to the north because the winter had been mild -- but now the snow was increasing and they were flying about in search of shelter. Our hero doesn't want to see the birds freeze to death or harm themselves flying into his windows, so he goes out and attempts to shoo them into his barn. But that's not very easily done, for birds don't take directions from humans very well. They don't listen, whether he speaks loudly or softly or even sings to them. They don't follow if he leads, and they run off in all directions if he tries to chase them with his broom. Finally, in desperation, he says to himself: "The only way I could do this is if I could be a bird for a few minutes." And then it dawns on him, what he has just said (Bishop Sheen has the church bells ringing in the distance at this point in the story) -- "I could do this if I was one of them." "In fact, the only way I could ever do this would be if I was one of them." And all of a sudden he understands what has eluded him all those years: Jesus Christ became man so that He might lead us to heaven by example.
"I am the good shepherd, and I know mine, and mine know Me." Jesus is more than a shepherd, for the sheep could never fully understand the language of man -- it is as though He became a sheep in order to fully shepherd His flock -- indeed, He became one of us, so that we might fully benefit from the example of His leadership. "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep ... but the hireling flees." What an example of dedication!
But isn't that, precisely, the example we need? Oh, I don't mean that we all have to die as part of being a Catholic -- God demands martyrdom -- or better yet, He allows martyrdom only to a chosen few. But shouldn't we be ready to die for what is important -- at least in principle -- even if it is never actually required of us? Or, if we are too timid to think about the possibility of dying for those in our charge, perhaps it would be adequate to think of giving our life in a continuous labor for the good.
Just think of the world we would live in if everyone followed that Christ-like example. If we raised our children that way, and took care of our parents that way -- if husbands and wives were selfless for each other -- if neighbors tried to make the best neighborhood possible, or the city or the state or the country.... Imagine the nation and the world that we would live in if our leaders led like the Good Shepherd. Certainly things would be different in the Church today if more priests and bishops took this example to heart -- if the shepherds' crooks that they carry reminded them of their obligations instead of their privileges.
In theory it is possible -- God could have redeemed us without leaving His heavenly throne. But in fact, He chose to become one of us and to give His life for us. We, who were as "sheep going astray" now have the perfect example on which to pattern our lives, the "shepherd and guardian of our souls."