When we think of anniversaries, we often think of life-changing moments that we remember with a mix of gratitude andjoy. Neither gratitude nor joy were in the mix a few short months ago when we noted the anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This anniversary reminded us of our experiences of fear of the unknown, and most important of all, a sense of isolation from our families, neighbours, and friends. Extended Zoom connections have not adequately replaced being in close proximity and touching those whom we love. As we listen to the news noting the number of vaccines that have been administered, and at the same time hear reports of escalating rates of infection and more cities and countries going into “lockdown,” we sometimes wonder, “How much longer can we live like this?”
Our scripture readings for this Sunday offer a ray of hope in our seemingly isolated and distanced world. This Sunday is commonly referred to in the Christian world as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” In our readings today, we hear Jesus’ promiseto never abandon us. We are not alone. Our shepherd will lay down his life for us – and that makes all the difference in the world.
As we have seen throughout all the gospels, Jesus’ way of connecting with the people was to offer analogies through parables or stories that could be easily understood because they related to their every-day lives. In our gospel, we hear again Jesus’s reference to a shepherd, but what would the people hearing this parable have known of shepherds? In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis offered a telling description of shepherds in Jesus’ time. “By reason of their work, they were men and women forced to live on the edges of society. Their state of life, and the places they had to stay, prevented them from observing all the ritual prescriptions of religious purification; as a result, they were considered unclean. Their skin, their clothing, their smell, their way of speaking, their origin, all betrayed them. Everything about them generated mistrust. They were men and women to be kept at a distance, to be feared. They were considered pagans among the believers, sinners among the just, and foreigners among the citizens.” Given this description, why would Jesus say he is the good shepherd?
In the parable of the good shepherd, Jesus reminds us that he knows what it means to be isolated, on the fringe, and rejected by society, but he does not get stuck in a stereotypical image of shepherds of his day. Jesus differentiates himself from hired hands who have no commitment to the flock they are to protect. If the sheep are attacked, the shepherd-for-hire sees no value in trying to protect the flock. They have no vested interest in the sheep. Their focus is on self-protection. Why put your life on the line for animals you don’t even own?
In contrast, Jesus the good shepherd, gives his life for the sheep – for us - no holds barred. As we have recently seen in our Easter liturgies, the climax of our story is not abandonment and death. Like the women at the tomb, we hear the angels say to us, “He is not dead – he has risen!” My hope is not dead because He is not dead!
The fear that hope had died with the crucifixion and death of Jesus is a recurrent theme in the Acts of the Apostles. In ourfirst reading, we see Peter being questioned by the elders and leaders of the temple. We naturally wonder how did he get there? What was the context for this inquisition?
In the previous chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see Peter and John walking into the temple to pray. They hear a lame man begging for money. Crippled from birth, this man could be considered the epitome of “hopeless.” He had few options in his life except to beg for the prayers and alms of those who would come to the temple to pray. Peter tells theman he could not give him that for which he was begging – silver and gold. What they can give him is healing in andthrough the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The lame beggar leapt up and began jumping and praising God. When the people milling around the temple door saw this, they are amazed and ask Peter and John how the lame man was healed. Peter tells them that it was in the name of Jesus, whom the Jewish leaders had handed over to Pilate to be put to death, that this man was healed. Wouldn’t the people join in rejoicing with this man who had been healed? Not so!
The Sadducees, who were entrusted with maintaining public order in the temple, saw the crowd gathering around Peter and John. They wanted to understand the context of the crowd’s excitement and were dismayed when they heard the apostles speaking of Jesus and confirming that he had risen from the dead. Peter, who only a short time before hadbeen hiding in an upper room with the other disciples, speaks with the boldness of God's Spirit. He references our responsorial psalm (118): "The stonerejected by the builders has become the cornerstone." He states clearly that there is no salvation except through Jesus.
With this proclamation, the temple authorities were at a loss. Would the people believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? How could they silence Peter and John without inciting the ire of the people who were still amazed by the miracle they had seen? As often happens in many politically charged situations, the chief priests and Sadducees agreed to simply order Peter and John to stop proclaiming that the blind, deaf, and lame were healed through the name of Jesus. Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are impossible to silence!
Our second reading from the first letter of John offers words of encouragement to an early church that has been troubledby schism. Some in the early church had not met nor seen Jesus. How could they have faith in someone they had notencountered? The aim of this letter of John was to persuade those in the early Church community to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the incarnate word of God. What message might be given to the people to help them to understand without having met Jesus, what he was truly like?
In our readings today, we hear how our relationship and faith in Jesus, who was crucified and has risen from the dead, transforms our bad times into our best times, our sadness into joy, our fear into hope, and our isolation into communion. Our life circumstances may persist, but our responses to these circumstances change when we know that we do not face life's challenges alone. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, will never abandon us, and that makes all the difference in the world!
Bonnie Anne MacLellan, CSJ
Bonnie Anne MacLellan, CSJ
Bonnie Anne MacLellan is a Sister of Saint Joseph of of Sault Ste. Marie. Having served in numerous ministries and professions including nursing, health care administration and canon law, she is currently General Superior for her congregation and Executive Director of the Centre for Canonical Services at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
She holds a Doctorate of Canon Law from the Saint Paul University; a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems from the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, California; and several graduate degrees and certifications including a master's of public health from The University of Minnesota. Bonnie maintains active memberships in several associations for both canon lawyers and nurses and presents on both topics internationally.
In 2018 the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada presented her with its Lifetime Achievement Award in Ministry of Catholic Health Care in Canada.
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