Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Second Sunday after Easter—6 April AD 2008
“You were as sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”[1]


[Ordinary of the Mass]
[English Text of Today's Mass]
[Latin Text of Today's Mass]

    When I was a youngster, the cinema, the movies were just coming into their own as a medium of entertainment.  In my father’s time, they were without sound, the story being told by written words that flashed on the screen every so often, and the silence of the theatre being filled by the music of a live piano or organ player, with music intended to sustain the mood of the production.  By my time, the movies all had sound (although the words were sometimes poorly synchronized with the actors’ lips),  they were experimenting with color movies, wide screen movies, and even 3‑D movies where everyone had to wear polarized glasses.

    One of the perennial themes of the movies was the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Ay least as early as 1905 the Pathé Company in France produced a movie—a collection of images, really—called the Life and Passion of Jesus Christ.[2]  It was translated into English.  It and a baker’s dozen other movies are still available on video recordings.[3]

    The first movie I remember was careful never to show the face of the actor who played our Lord.  That seemed to work a lot better than picturing Jesus as a blue-eyed man with a British accent, and much better than the one with the thick German accent.  Whatever the artistic reasons might have been, not photographing  the face of Jesus was a marvelous way for the director to recognize the fact that no actor could properly play the role of our Lord—in film it acknowledged the divinity of Christ, for according to the Old Testament, “no man can see the face of God and live.”[4]  Another movie came out a few years ago that went to the opposite extreme—Jesus was a very normal and likeable fellow, who for most of the movie seemed a bit confused by his role in the eternal scheme of things.[5]  The vast majority of these movies were reverent attempts to project the personality of Jesus Christ onto the “giant screen.”  Just as there are four Gospels and many other Lives of Christ, it took a number of movies to get in all of the aspects of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection.  Nor can we assume that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ will be the last.  Our Lord’s life is an inexhaustible treasure.

    The parable in today’s Gospel is somewhat like one of these movies.  In it, our Lord chooses to point to His warmth and kindness, rather than to the divine side of Him that cannot be seen, or to the Judge before Whom all must pass on the Last Day.  Our Lord’s audience knew that the shepherd, “whose sheep were his own,” lived a life quite devoted to them.  He was their guide and director.  He was their constant traveling companion, directing them from one place of pasture to another, living out of doors with them for all but the coldest months of the year when they were kept in shelter.  He protected them from the hyenas, jackals, wolves, and even bears which sought to make dinner of them—not to mention the two legged beasts.  He nursed the sick and those that were hurt, and still managed to keep the rest from just wandering off.  He would lead them to water to drink in the morning, the shepherd uttering a shrill cry by which his sheep would know him from other shepherds and flocks that sometimes came together.  The “good shepherd” of ancient Israel sometimes literally did give his life for his sheep.[6]

    By analogy, we might think of the shepherd as living a live so intertwined with the lives of his sheep that he became one of them.  Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whom some of you will remember as one of the early, prime-time, stars of the “little screen,” pushed that analogy even further in applying it to our Lord (although, for some reason he used dogs rather than sheep).  Bishop Sheen suggested that the incarnation was something like a man who loved dogs, actually becoming one of them, so that he could reach them, and communicate with them, and teach them on a level that they could understand.  This man’s love of dogs was so great that he was content with eating his food out of a bowl, giving up his ability to speak in exchange for barking, sharing their unheated living quarters, and even sharing their fleas.  What Sheen was getting at was that in becoming one of us humans, for a lifetime, until He was brutally put to death, our Lord was content to leave the divine splendor of Heaven, limiting Himself to the infinitely lower existence of mankind.  It was as though the Jesus‑actor who never showed his face, threw aside his robe and sat down on the grass to serve the sheep and cuddle the little lambs.

    With varying degrees of success, animals can be conditioned to behave as human masters command.  The parrot can be taught to ride a tiny bicycle, the dolphin to jump through a hoop, the dog can be taught to fetch and to roll over.  But this is nothing more than the very limited conditioning of response and reward.  Some animals do better at conditioning their masters, then the other way around (like the cat).  But none of this prepares the animal to understand the desires of the master—not even when those desires are completely for the well-being of the animal.  “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot convince him to drink”—or as Bishop Sheen used to say in another of his parables, your words cannot convince the birds that they should come into the warm barn on a freezing wintry night.  Out of concern for His creatures, our Creator became one of us in order that we might know and understand His desires for our eternal well-being.

    You may recall that, back on Palm Sunday, in Saint Paul’s epistle we read that “Jesus, though He was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave, being made like unto men.”[7]  It is only because our Lord “emptied Himself,” taking up our humanity that He could be the “Good Shepherd,” and that Saint Peter is able to refer to Him as the “shepherd and guardian of your souls.”[8]

    The metaphor of Christ as the “Good Shepherd” is an appropriate one.  God, whose face is never seen by the living, did indeed “empty Himself” in order that we might learn from Him what is in our best interest according to His eternal plans.  However, we would be wrong to forget that He is, nonetheless, the divine Judge and Ruler of all things—that our nature is so far below His that our very existence depends upon Him—that it is our paramount duty to respect, honor, and worship Him.  There is an element of truth in that movie which portrayed the good natured and likeable Jesus—indeed it is hard to believe that our Lord would be anything else in the company of His friends—but our Lord was never confused or unsure of what to do in this life.

    The Gospels, the biographies of our Lord, and even the movies tell us various things about the personality of our Lord and about His mission.  He is the mighty Creator, the humble Carpenter, the obedient Son of Mary of Nazareth, the Good Shepherd, the wise Teacher—Truth Itself, He is the suffering Savior, “He sits forever at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, He will Judge the living and the dead,” He is Christ the King over both Heaven and Earth.  We would be remiss if we thought of Jesus Christ in any one of these roles to the exclusion of the rest.  It is hard for the human mind to take in all of those ideas at once—perhaps that is why the literature is so diverse.

    But for today we can be content to think of Him as the Good Shepherd, and we can be content to learn from Him the things which are for our good that we would never have known or appreciated if He had not emptied Himself and cared for us as “His lost and straying sheep.”

“You were as sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”



[1]   Epistle: I Peter ii: 21-25.

[4]   Exodus xxxiii: 20.

[6]   Cf.  Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (New York: Hawthorn, 1962), pp. 263-266.

[7]   Philippians ii: 5-11.

[8]   Epistle:  I Peter ii: 21-25.


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