Homilies - April 2015

Select a homily to read:
Holy Thursday: April 2, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Good Friday: April 3, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Easter Vigil: April 4, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Easter Day : April 5, 2015 by Fr. Michael Hall
Second Sunday of Easter : April 12, 2015 by Fr. Jan Dolny
Talk: No Wishful Thinking: April 6, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Third Sunday of Easter : April 19, 2015 by Fr. Gabriel Myers
Third Sunday of Easter (St. Matthew's Cathedral) : April 19, 2015 by Fr. Christopher Wyvill
St. Anselm's Feastday: April 21, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 26, 2015 by Fr. Boniface Von Nell

Holy Thursday

On almost every day of the year, the homilist has a certain degree of freedom about what he will say, although it is expected that one or more of the readings in the Lectionary will be at the core of his remarks. On Holy Thursday, however, the rubrics are more specific, saying that the homily should shed light on the principal mysteries celebrated in this Mass of the Lord’s Supper, namely, the institution of the Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the Lord’s commandment about fraternal charity. Fortunately the three themes are closely related, so it’s not a matter of somehow putting three very different subjects into one homily. The institution of the Eucharist was clearly described in our reading from First Corinthians, where Paul gives us the New Testament’s earliest version of what came to be known as “the words of institution”: “This is my body that is for you” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” while the following words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” imply the institution of the priesthood. On the other hand, perhaps surprisingly, the reading from the Fourth Gospel has nothing about the institution of the Eucharist itself but rather shows us what the ultimate effect of the sacrament is meant to be: loving service of others. What is really worth noticing—and what I want to emphasize—is how Jesus instructed his disciples about this effect.

When we consider Jesus’ instruction or teaching in general, as we find it in all the gospels, I suggest we think about the way in which it was most effectively or memorably given. Different people may well have various opinions about this. Some, for example, might think first of the challenging sayings in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, such as “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you,” while others might give priority to the “new commandment” found in the Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.” But if you look at the way Jesus generally taught, it was not so much by verbal exhortations or directives as by stories, parables, which gave his hearers the possibility of imagining a scene and drawing the practical conclusion without necessarily having it spelled out for them. Parables like that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son are among the best examples of what I mean. I also don’t think it outlandish to say that the gospel we just heard is itself a kind of parable, one that was acted out by Jesus himself. After all, his doing so was surely much more effective than if he had only said to his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a master who was reclining at a meal with his followers, and then he got up, took off his cloak, tied a towel around his waist, and started washing their feet.” However impressive such words might have been, how much more powerful was it for the Twelve to have it enacted before them, to have their own feet washed.

Note, too, that while we know from the gospel that Satan had already induced Judas to hand Jesus over and that Jesus was aware of this, Judas was still with the others at this point and had his own feet washed, leaving the room only afterward. What does this tell us but that even the most sacred and loving of actions is not automatically going to change one’s heart. One must always hope for such a change, and we trust, for example, that the inmates in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison whose feet Pope Francis washed a few hours ago experienced that rite as one further step in the rehabilitation of their own lives. But let us also beware of placing ourselves in some category totally removed from that of those prisoners or of others anywhere in the world. God alone can read one’s heart, and it could very well be that in different circumstances any of us might have been charged with some crime and ourselves be in prison today.

This brings us to the Washing of the Feet as we will enact it here in just a few minutes. Certainly the circumstances are very different from those at the Last Supper. In that setting, there was actually a very practical point to having one’s feet washed. In a time and place when there were no asphalt roads or concrete sidewalks and where people regularly wore sandals rather than shoes and socks, feet really did get dusty and dirty. Here, in our chapel, with its recently washed floor, things are far more tidy, leading to the danger that we will experience the rite, with its beautiful chanting in the background, merely as an uplifting religious experience and not as what Jesus intended it to be. As he says at the very end of our gospel reading: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

If you would like a useful guideline about just how to do this, since I very much doubt that any of you will literally wash anyone else’s feet in the coming weeks or months unless it be the feet of one of your young children or grandchildren, you might consider something once said by a person who deeply revered Jesus and his teaching even though this person was not himself a Christian. Gandhi once offered his hearers or readers what he considered an almost magical way of helping them determine how to act in a given situation. Here’s what he said: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny?... Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.” This so-called “talisman” may not be appropriate in every single circumstance, but it is certainly in full accord with Jesus’ own teaching about serving him in the least of his brothers and sisters and about finding one’s life if one is willing to lose it for his sake. As I said at the beginning, such a way of living is meant to be the effect of the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Now if you have been very attentive, you will have noticed that I haven’t yet said anything about the third theme that the rubrics say should be touched upon in this homily, the institution of the priestly order. None of you need to be told that the ordained priesthood has been the focus of much horrific scandal in recent decades. It’s no good saying that acts perpetrated by priests and often overlooked or downplayed by their bishops may be even more prevalent among other groups. Pope Francis has been taking effective steps to see that such abuses never again get swept under the carpet and that those responsible be held responsible. As he said almost exactly a year ago, “I feel that I must take responsibility … and ask forgiveness for the damage some priests have caused through sexual abuse of children. The Church is aware of this damage. It is their own personal and moral damage, but they are men of the Church. And we will not take one step backwards in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I believe that we must be even stronger.”

Just as a pope is sometimes appropriately called “the servant of the servants of God,” so too are all other members of the hierarchy called to be servants of those entrusted to their care. A researcher who has spent years studying the problem of child sexual abuse by priests concluded that in almost every instance it coincided with a decided lack of prayer on the priest’s part. And prayer, as St. Benedict teaches so clearly in chapter 19 of his Rule, is never a matter of merely mouthing words but rather of really attending to those words, having one’s lips and mind in harmony. As we continue now with the rite of the Washing of Feet and the rest of this evening’s Eucharist, let us sincerely pray that the Church be blessed with good priests, ones able and willing to live chastely and to be of genuine service to everyone entrusted to their care. Then what St. Benedict writes elsewhere in his Rule about monks in particular might be said of all of us, clergy and laity alike: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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Good Friday

At yesterday’s Mass, I pointed out how the rubrics in the Missal give instructions about what should be treated in the homily. Today, the Missal’s instruction is of a very different sort, saying merely that after the reading of the Passion, the priest is to give what it calls “a brief homily.” The brevity is surely recommended because not only the account of Jesus’ passion and death but also the first reading from the prophet Isaiah are so long. I’ll try to comply with what the Missal asks, but I do want to look somewhat closely at the reading from Isaiah because it sheds important light on our entire life of discipleship.

If you were at Mass the first three weekdays of Holy Week, you heard other readings from this prophet, namely, the first three of the four Songs of the Suffering Servant, while just now we heard the fourth. Literally hundreds of articles and books have been written about them, often discussing whether this mysterious servant refers to the whole people of Israel, or to a faithful remnant among the Israelites, or to an individual—and if an individual, whether he is the prophet himself, or the liberating Persian king Cyrus, or a coming Messiah. From the first century of our era, Christians have easily and understandably been drawn to the messianic interpretation, Christ Jesus himself being the “anointed one” by whose stripes we have all been healed. Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament is this more clearly seen than in the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where the apostle Philip explains to a traveling Ethiopian eunuch that Isaiah is here referring to Jesus. Philip is so persuasive that the Ethiopian asks to be baptized at once.

It won’t surprise you to hear that not everyone accepts this notion that chastisement undergone by one person can make others whole, or that God could rightly lay upon one person what the song calls “the guilt of us all.” With characteristic honesty, the great Protestant exegete Rudolf Bultmann once wrote: “How can my guilt be atoned for by the death of someone guiltless….? What primitive concepts of guilt and righteousness lie behind any such notion?”1 However, even the many Jewish biblical scholars who interpret the suffering servant to refer to the entire people recognize that the suffering and even death of the righteous can indeed be of avail for others. Only a couple decades ago an Orthodox rabbi and historian wrote the following:

It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. The story of Isaac …, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering Servant of the LORD, the sacrificial service of the Temple—all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men.

… The wholly bleak picture of unreasoning slaughter was somewhat relieved by the fact that the innocent did not die in vain and that the betterment of Israel and humankind somewhat was advanced by “stretching their neck to be slaughtered.”2

What that rabbi believed Israel as a whole could do, we Christians confess that Jesus did. This is, indeed, at the core of our faith. Yet it still leaves open the question of what our response should be. At times it has been argued that what God really asks of us is the firm conviction that this is indeed so, that Jesus is our redeeming savior (a faith-filled conviction that is itself a gift), and that all of our good actions will spontaneously flow from hearts alive with this conviction. Most Christians, however, recognize that something more is asked of us: a willing cooperation that was poignantly expressed by the great United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld just a year and a half before his tragic death in a plane crash as he was on a mission to try to resolve a civil war in the Congo. At Eastertide in 1960, reflecting on the forgiveness won for us by the one who was “pierced for our offenses [and] crushed for our sins,” he wrote in his diary:

Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who “forgives” you—out of love—takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, regardless of the consequences to yourself.3

For us, this means that Jesus’ dying for us does not at all mean that we need not die to sin. One way of realizing the true nature of what Jesus did for us, the sense in which his death was not some “substitute action” but rather the enabling cause of a process that goes on and on is to turn for a moment to the Fourth Gospel’s account of the Passion that was just read. Among Jesus’ last words were those giving his mother to the beloved disciple. A very astute theologian of our own day has pointed out that we ought not understand this merely as a way of seeing that Mary would henceforth be cared for. Rather, “there is something still more fundamental at work here: Jesus is founding a new family, the basis on which people who [otherwise may] have nothing at all in common can join together in unreserved solidarity. It is the place where true reconciliation with God and one another is possible.”4 So even though there are weighty reasons for calling the feast of Pentecost the birthday of the Church, at least from a Johannine perspective that birthday took place already on Golgotha.

My final point is how we are to go about celebrating this. What does it really mean to be a member of what has often been called “the one true Church”? When I teach a course in the world’s religions, whether formerly at Catholic University or nowadays in our own high school, I have to address the sad, indeed shameful history of anti-Judaism that has been all-too-prominent in Christianity from the earliest centuries of our era and that can be directly linked to the anti-Semitism that reached its nadir with Hitler and the Nazis.. A courageous German Christian woman named Basilea Schlink wrote some words shortly after the end of World War II that are still worth pondering, even though we have already had offensive references to the Jewish people removed from our liturgical books for Good Friday. She wrote:

The sight of Jews as an oppressed and afflicted people crossing the face of the earth, despised and rejected, should make us think of those words of Jesus: … “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Who matches so accurately our Lord’s description … as His people Israel? Who has suffered so much contempt from all nations down through the ages? Who has been so rejected? From whom did men turn away their faces?... Here indeed are the brethren of our Lord Jesus. It may well be that He often feels closer to His people Israel than to those proud Christians who believe in him and yet refuse to acknowledge their guilt toward the Jews, their heartlessness in passing their brother in desperate need.5

The allusions to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant are evident there, allowing us the freedom to recognize that the Servant may properly be understood both as a people and as an individual. What really matters is not precisely how we interpret the passage but how we live in light of it.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” quoted by Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted; Who He Was, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 262.
2  Berel Wein, The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990 (Brooklyn, NY: Shaar, 1990), 14.
3 Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), 173.
4 Lohfink, 267.
5 M. Balilea Schlink, Israel, My Chosen People: A German Confession before God and the Jews (Eng. trans., Old Tappan, NJ: Chosen, 1987), 33-34.

Easter Vigil

We have just heard nine readings from Scripture, all dealing in one way or another with God’s saving work, whether in ancient Israel (such as the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt or of the boy Isaac from Abraham’s knife) or in New Testament times (as when Paul writes of our no longer being “in slavery to sin”). It is usually some of these readings that form the basis of an Easter homily, but tonight, for a change, I want to focus on what preceded the readings by reflecting on the Easter fire and the preparation of the paschal candle out in our courtyard. Even without a sound system, I hope you were able to hear what I was saying as I traced into the candle first a cross, then two Greek letters, and then the numerals for this year 2015, all the while saying: “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. All time belongs to him, and all the ages. To him be glory and power through every age and forever. Amen.” I afterwards inserted five grains of incense into the candle in the form of a cross.

I dare not say that all this was the most important part of our vigil service, but at the very least it was an appropriate beginning, for it sets before us the truth that the one whose resurrection from the dead we are celebrating was not only Jesus of Nazareth, a man who lived in Palestine some two millennia ago, but also and simultaneously the incarnate Son of God. When in the book of the prophet Isaiah we hear God proclaim on three separate occasions “I am the first and the last” (Is. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12), that is, the one who encompasses all reality from creation until the end of the world, that is the very same thing we confess to be true of Christ Jesus when acclaiming him with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To be able to be called his disciples, to have been baptized into the one body of the Church, of which he and we are head and members, should be for each of us the most precious aspect of our identity, more significant than being, for example, a mother or a father, a monk or a priest, a doctor or architect or accountant. To be so chosen was not our doing, but we may nevertheless rightly rejoice in and be proud of this calling, as we will sing some minutes from now as we renew our baptismal vows: “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus.”

There is another point about that opening rite in our courtyard that is worth reflecting on. When I was a boy, the Easter Vigil, if one could even honestly call it a vigil, took place in churches around 9 a.m. on Holy Saturday morning. In my parish, the three priests served as main celebrant, deacon, and sub-deacon, and there were very few parishioners in attendance. The service was so unappealing that I attended it only once, for it represented a pitiful degeneration from what counted as a vigil in the early Church. Happily we now have again a genuine vigil, which is not even allowed to begin before nightfall and is required to end before daybreak on Easter Sunday morning. And precisely because it must take place at night, the symbolism of the blazing fire and of the paschal candle and all the other candles is prominent, not to mention the other references to light in our readings, beginning with the opening verses of our first reading from the book of Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Ever since the admittedly wonderful invention of Thomas Edison, we have become so accustomed to having light available at the flip of a switch that night does not pose the challenges it held in earlier times. Candles may not mean much more to us than poorer substitutes for electric light bulbs, but in earlier times and in some countries the lighting of the evening candle in households was almost always accompanied with the father or mother uttering a short prayer, such as, “And may God give us the light of heaven,” to which everyone else present answered “Amen.” One Irish writer of our own day commented on this in these words: “It is a liturgy of just two lines, but it linked that day, and that physical light, with a future ‘day’ and the notion of the incomprehensible light of God. When we speak of a sacramental understanding of the universe, it is that simple kitchen liturgy that we should keep in mind. Those people would have had little need to explain with words ‘the symbolism’ of candles in the liturgy; every time they lit lamps, they knew that somehow they pointed toward heaven, and that to speak of heaven using lamps and candles made perfect sense.”1 I rather expect that during the singing of the Exsultet here this evening, when the entire church was lit only by candlelight, we all had a good sense of what that writer meant.

One final point: All the references to light in tonight’s liturgy, whether out in the courtyard where we first heard chanted the words “the light of Christ,” or in the singing of the Exsultet with its line that this night “shall be as bright as day,” or in the readings that followed (as when Baruch urges the house of Jacob to walk by the light of God’s law toward splendor)—all these can reinforce what is probably already our assumption, namely, that light is always to be preferred to darkness, day is preferable to night. But let’s not forget that the Lord’s resurrection occurred at night, and that in God’s providence the hours of daylight and those of darkness balance each other almost exactly, whether one lives at the equator (where there are twelve hours of each every single day) or in climes where hours of daylight prevail during the summer and hours of darkness in winter. Both are gifts of a loving God, who is to be praised for both, as in this beautiful prayer from a book called Celtic Benediction:

Glory be to you, O God of the night,
for the whiteness of the moon
and the infinite stretches of dark space.
Let me be learning to love the night
as I know and love the day.
Let me be learning to trust the darkness
and to seek its subtle blessings.
Let me be learning the night’s way of seeing
that in all things I may trace the mystery
of your presence.2

The Exsultet had it right: “This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.” May we come more and more to share his risen life through our celebration of this Eucharist and throughout the Easter season.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1  Thomas O’Laughlin, Journey on the Edges, in A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration, ed. Michael Leach and Doris Goodnough (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 57.
2 J. Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction, in Mara Faulkner, OSB, Going Blind (Albany, NY: Excelsior, 2009), xiii..

Easter Day

  • April 5, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Michael

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Fr. Michael Hall
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Second Sunday of Easter

  • April 12, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Jan Dolny

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Fr. Michael Hall
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Talk: No Wishful Thinking

  • April 16, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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A few weeks ago I gave each of you a copy of Abbot President Richard Yeo’s letter about our upcoming visitation, along with a copy of the report he gave us at the end of the previous visitation in early May, 2011. In his letter, Abbot Richard referred to his asking me to indicate what I consider the important issues facing our community today, in the hope that this might help each of you formulate the thoughts you’ll want to share in the interviews with him and the assistant visitator, Abbot Gregory Polan. So this evening I’m complying with Abbot Richard’s request, but I’ll say at once that I will be speaking mostly about issues that face any monastic community at almost any time, though more so today than half a century ago. I am also going to begin in a rather unusual way by distributing to each of you right now a copy of a painting that is in no way especially religious but that can nevertheless tell us something important about human life in general, above all in our own country….

Painting

The painting is by one of the best-known of all American painters, Winslow Homer, and dates from 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, the 150th anniversary of which we commemorated only two days ago. During the war itself, Winslow Homer had produced many woodblock engravings for Harper’s magazine, a few of them quite gruesome in their depiction of fierce fighting between Union and Confederate troops at close quarters. In still another work, he shows a Confederate soldier standing on the ramparts and taunting Union troops to fire, and he also produced a very somber oil painting titled Prisoners from the Front, in which three captured Confederates stand bedraggled and forlorn before a Union officer and one of his aides. In short, Homer knew firsthand much of the horror and deadly seriousness of that war, which left more Americans dead than any other war in our history.

It would be natural to conclude that once the war ended, the artist turned to far more soothing and even saccharine subjects, such as this painting The Four-Leaf Clover, seems to be. As far as I know, Homer himself never commented on it, but a recent interpretation by a man named Philip Kennicott that appeared in the Washington Post a few weeks ago suggests that there is far more to this painting than first meets the eye. The girl in the foreground is looking at a window that presumably leads to a basement, for all one sees behind it is utter darkness. Between the girl and the window is a pot of bleeding heart flowers, slightly askew, and the window itself is partly open, suggesting a lack of closure. Its black panes can easily lead us to reflect not only on the trauma that afflicted our country during the dark days of Reconstruction—with its lynchings and Jim Crow laws—but also on the way that period afflicts parts of our country still today, as the recent troubles in Ferguson, Missouri and North Charleston, South Carolina make all too clear. And the tiny four-leaf clover in the girl’s hand, those green leaflets that give us the title of the entire canvas—what is that but a symbol of the wishful thinking that can prevent us from looking honestly and attentively at anything even slightly threatening or unpleasant? According to the art critic whose reflections I am following, that four-leaf clover “suggests the folly of trying to wish away the structural problems that grind us down. Some part of America has always been a child, naively longing for the best.”1

To turn from that to my reflections on the upcoming visitation, I am certainly not at all suggesting that we are facing “structural problems that grind us down,” but I do want to emphasize that we, and perhaps monasteries all over the world but especially ones in North America and Europe, never dare assume that everything is going just fine and will continue to do so. We are indeed blessed with three men in simple vows, with a man aspiring to become a claustral oblate, with a postulant who will be back with us as soon as he does whatever he can to assure proper care for his mother, and with at least a couple men who are seriously hoping to join us. But let’s not forget that our postulant Brian Booth would not even be with us if another monastery that was his original choice had not been forced to close for lack of vocations and that, from what I heard at the recent meeting of American abbots and prioresses, at least one other American house may well close before the year is out, even as the just-arrived issue of the newsletter from St. John’s Abbey announced that they have decided to close their foundation in Fujimi, Japan because of a lack of native vocations and their inability to send any more American monks over to Fujimi to help keep that priory going. I’ve also been discussing with Brs. Francis and Brian the eight autobiographical essays of EBC monks and nuns in that fine book A Touch of God. In one of those pieces, David Morland noted that when he entered Ampleforth Abbey in 1961 he was one of sixteen novices. About fifty years later, that rather large community had only one novice in 2012, none in 2013, and but two last year.

I say all this not to make anyone feel despondent but only to help keep us realistic and thereby avoid the naïve wishful thinking that is symbolized by The Four-Leaf Clover. There are unquestionably powerful forces in society today that militate against entering monastic life. When I was giving the retreat to members of Jim Dickerson’s church this past weekend, the single question that one of them most wanted to ask me at the end of the retreat was how it was possible for me (or anyone) to live in one place for fifty years, just as I recall Fr. Peter once saying that the vow of stability also seems to be the biggest stumbling block for students in our school who might otherwise be open to the Benedictine way of life. If anyone had an easy answer to this kind of issue, it would long since have been given and put into practice. But the only real answer, even if not always easy, is what we have all heard before but can perhaps never be repeated frequently enough: If we really take to heart and put into practice the kind of teaching we find not only in the Gospel but in such parts of our Benedictine Rule as the beautiful chapter on “the good zeal of monks,” we may indeed have firm grounds to hope that men will want to live this way of life. There really is a wonderful balance here among what I like to call the five basic pillars of monastic life: prayer together in the Liturgy of the Hours and at Eucharist; personal prayer whether in solitude or here in our church, either after Morning Prayer or before Vespers; lectio divina; productive work, especially in caring for the property, in education, and in hospitality; and supporting one another in countless ways on our common ascent to what St. Benedict calls “that perfect love of God that casts out fear” (RB 7.67).

I don’t like to speak at too great length in these conferences since psychologists say that most listeners soon forget well more than 90 percent of what was said anyway, but I do want to offer some reflections on these so-called pillars. While we should never think that our common prayer is beyond improvement, I also think we’d agree that what we do when coming together in this church five times a day is truly prayerful, aided by music that is generally both beautiful and not unduly difficult. Before too much longer we hope to have an abbey hymnal to replace our loose-leaf sheets and so to complement our new Vespers binders for both ferial and festal use. And whenever we eventually get around to redoing Morning and Midday Prayer, whose books are getting rather dog-eared, I think we should at least consider the possibility of doing what the Sisters at Bristow, Virginia and now at Ridgely, Maryland have already done, namely, put those offices on Kindle readers. I was talking with the Bristow prioress, Sr. Cecilia Dwyer, at that recent meeting in Cullman, Alabama and she said they are altogether pleased with this change, which began a couple years ago. If we ever seriously consider following suit, we’d have to look into this very carefully. All I’m saying tonight is that in this and almost everything else, we should be willing to think “outside the box.”

As for the next two pillars—personal or “private” prayer and lectio divina, we’re all obliged by our EBC Constitutions to give at least a half-hour to each of these practices every day. The former has always had a special place in EBC spirituality at least since the time of Augustine Baker in the seventeenth century. It is a wonderful counterbalance to the Liturgy of the Hours, for in the latter we are bound to a particular format of prayer as given in our liturgical books, whereas when each of us prays by himself there is much scope for freedom: some will be drawn to the so-called Jesus Prayer or to Centering Prayer, some will find the use of beads or a prayer cord helpful, some will pray using words from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture while others will use words of their own formulation, at times words will not even be necessary to accompany the kind of loving gaze or fiery desire discussed by authors as diverse as Cassian, Augustine, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. One ought never ignore that advice I have repeated before from Abbot John Chapman: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t,” even as we recognize that the way we pray in one circumstance or at one time in our life may need to change in different circumstances or at a different time. St. Benedict himself recognizes this kind of freedom when he writes in chapter 52 of his Rule: “If at … times someone wishes to pray privately, he may simply go in [to the oratory] and pray, not in a loud voice but with tears and heartfelt devotion” (RB 52.4).

Benedict is equally insistent on the importance of regular, indeed daily lectio divina. In recent decades numerous books and articles have been written about this, some going into very detailed suggestions or recommendations about how this holy reading may best be done. Luke Dysinger, Michael Casey, and Mary Margaret Funk are among the best-known of such authors. All I want to say about the practice this evening is that we should take from such recent writings whatever seems personally helpful, but we ought always keep in mind that St. Benedict didn’t feel it necessary to give any specific, detailed advice whatsoever. He simply assumed, and surely correctly, that if a monk gives a significant amount of time each day to the attentive reading of Scripture and other religious works, the effect will certainly be positive, keeping the mind and heart clean and pure even if one doesn’t remember a lot of details about what was read. Our library is full of marvelous works of this sort. It should be both a privilege and joy to make good use of them.

With regard to the pillar of work, one important aspect is that each of us should, if our physical health permits it, be doing something to support the community in its material needs, for Benedict expects his monks to earn their livelihood and not be mendicants. Equally important is that we work conscientiously for the service of others. In our monastery the work has always included maintenance of the buildings and grounds, and beyond that has focused primarily on education and hospitality. In previous talks I have quoted from some truly inspiring letters and emails we have received from guests after their stay with us, some of them having experienced profound transformations in their life after some days at the abbey. I won’t treat that further tonight so as not to prolong this talk unduly.

As regards our work in education, I would only like to read a few lines from a wonderful woman whom I once had the privilege of meeting and who will very likely be beatified and canonized someday: Sr. Thea Bowman. I’m taking these lines from a biography of her that is at times excessively adulatory but is for the most part both enlightening and inspiring. It should make good refectory reading As you may know, Thea died of cancer about twenty-five years ago in her early 50s. For the previous couple decades she traveled all over this country and other parts of the world giving talks and leading workshops, regularly interspersing her words with songs rendered in a rich soprano voice. in January, 1988 she was interviewed on Milwaukee Public Television and used that opportunity to speak about the importance of teaching children and youth. After she had discussed some of the major problems facing our country, the interviewer said: “Okay, those are all the negatives…. How do we get ourselves out of that situation?” Thea replied:

We get ourselves out of that situation by demanding of ourselves, demanding of the body politic, demanding of the public sector that we put top priority—high priority—on the education of our children and of our youth. I mean physical education, vocational education, parenting education, moral and value education, cultural education…. We need to teach the children … that they can change things…. I love teaching…. And, in a remarkable kind of way, children will believe you if you tell them your truth. Not that you have a corner on the truth, but if you tell them your truth, there’s that intuitive grab—the children believe you. If you love them, they will let you love them. I think it is so important that they learn to value themselves before the world has a chance to beat them down. I have worked in Wisconsin, for example, with children of affluence, and I have found the same kinds of insecurity and fear among some of these young people—of grade-school age, of college age—as I find among the poor. They’re waiting for somebody else to tell them what to think, and they live in fear of what others will think of them. And they don’t realize their power: their power to reach out; their power to effect change; their power to grasp happiness and freedom…. See, my dad was one of those people who felt that if you could read, you could do anything.2

There is, of course, a lot of work involved in teaching well—class preparation, classroom discipline, correcting papers and tests, attending meetings, and so forth—but the rewards and satisfaction can also be tremendous. I’m finding that a lot of our students say a very pleasant, “Thank you, Abbot James,” as they walk out of the room at the end of class. If a teacher shows that he wants them to learn a subject well, the students will normally respond quite generously. For a monastery to have education as one of its major works is definitely a blessing.

What I am calling the fifth pillar—life together in a way that reflects all that St. Benedict says in his chapter on the good zeal of monks—was phrased very well by Abbot Primate Notker Wolf in a circular letter that he sent to all monasteries just before Pentecost last year. It was in our calefactory for a while, so I hope some of you read it then, but in any case what he wrote near the end of that letter is worth hearing again: “It is the [Holy] Spirit who enables us to love one another as Christ has and still does today, [Christ] who has washed the feet of his disciples and given his life for them,… [He said,] ‘This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ This is our mission as part of the universal mission of the Church. Our communities are challenged to give this witness; otherwise, we can close the doors. But I see no reason to be discouraged. These days let us ask God that he send his Spirit to our communities, for he has the power to give us new life and to transform us all…. Let us trust in his word, ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ Let us approach the feast of Pentecost with this optimism; let us venture into this horizon of our monastic life!”

I hope all this will help you prepare for our visitation so that it may enrich our whole life.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Philip Kennicott, “No Closure after Appomattox,” Washington Post, March 27, 2015.
2 Thea Bowman, quoted by Charlene Smith and John Feister, Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 215, 218.

 

Third Sunday of Easter

The gospels give a variety of stories about how ordinary people made the amazing discovery that Jesus had risen from the dead. There are as many ways that people do this, as there are people. Most of them involve a personal encounter.

The lack of a personal encounter is what makes the discovery of the empty tomb so traumatic for the women with spices who discover it. As we will see, even the personal encounters have a troubling or “challenging” element.

One of the women, Mary Magdalene, isolates herself, and stands outside the tomb weeping. Her grief may be excessive. She is a symbol of passionate love, but there is a quality of selfishness, maybe, in her passion. There is no right and wrong way of grieving, and you have to pass through its various stages. It has to be said that some stages are self-centered; there is resentment in the experience of loss. How dare you leave me? How will I live without you? The risen Jesus comes to break through Mary’s blame. His first attempt does not succeed. She thinks he is the gardener who has taken the body; she wants the old Jesus, the Jesus she is comfortable with. Jesus calls her name, to which she responds gladly. There is recognition. But in the instant of recognition there is withdrawal: do not cling to me.

We dealt with the experience of Thomas last Sunday. Thomas the skeptic, Thomas who refuses to believe by second-hand report. “Unless I can see and feel the nail-prints, thrust my hand in his side, I will not believe.” There is stubbornness, but also self-awareness. Jesus honors this by appearing again, just for Thomas. He says, see; touch; feel. Do not be faithless but believing. The account is ambiguous about whether Thomas actually does what he said he needed to do. Does he actually touch and thrust, or is the invitation sufficient? We do know that his confession of faith is the most profound in the gospel, recognizing Jesus’ divinity. The confession, “My Lord and my God!” It is a peak moment surpassing even Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah.

Peter has guilt and shame to work through (as many of us may have). He has fallen down on the job of discipleship. This is embarrassing after a hot-headed pledge never to forsake the master. Jesus knew this in advance, and tried to soften the blow with his prediction about the cock-crow. It all comes sadly true. Thus it is no surprise that Peter regresses after the crucifixion. He goes back to Galilee, intending to pick up his former way of life. It doesn’t work. He catches no fish. Then the stranger appears, “Children, have you caught anything?” Nothing. “Well then, cast your net on the other side, try a different method.” There are so many fish that the net is about to break. The beloved disciple shouts, “It is the Lord.” Love gains insight when logical methods fail. Peter, tied to logic but impulsive, jumps off the boat, and splashes to land. He exercises the monastic tendency of leaving the heavy work to others. When all are on shore, there is breakfast in the murky pre-dawn light. But it is awkward. “Now none of the disciples dared to ask who are you; they knew it was the Lord.” This is an odd statement: were they really so certain, or were they afraid to ask, stunned by what this appearance might mean?

What follows is the excruciating interrogation, Jesus asking whether Peter loves him. Three times, to match the number of denials. Peter is pained; I myself resent it for him. He is given a special commission, but the pain goes with him, as a reminder of his weakness and failure. The reminder slows down his impulsiveness and makes him compassionate. A leader must understand weakness, in order to be strong.

Today’s gospel refers to the anonymous disciples walking downcast to an imaginary village on Easter evening. I say anonymous: though we know the name of one of them, Cleopas, we know nothing more. Imaginary because Emmaus, like Cana where water changed to wine, cannot be identified on maps of Palestine. The two disciples represent us. They have no objective other than wanting to get away from a place of pain. Consumed by their own problems, or interpretation of those problems, they don’t notice that Jesus has caught up with us. Yet they like the stranger, they listen to him, without fully understanding, and they invite him in. They don’t get it until he blesses and breaks the bread. But poof, he is gone, like smoke, not giving a chance to ask all the things they’d like to know. The fatigued disciples are re-energized. They run the seven miles back to Jerusalem where they report their experience. “Our eyes were opened, and we saw him. Did not our hearts burn within us as he explained the scriptures on the road?”

Burning like the burning bush. Holy ground. The inner eye being opened. Enlightenment being received. We can’t hold on to Christ, we may lose the initial fervor, but we have been changed, if we let ourselves stay changed.

Finally, the beloved disciple. He is also a runner. With Peter, who is older and slower, he runs to the tomb. Peter as senior goes in first. He sees the linen cloths and comes out again. But it is the beloved disciple, going in to the tomb, who sees and believes. This allows him, later on the lake, to make the ecstatic pronouncement, “It is the Lord.” He then conclude his book so profoundly. He concludes in a way that is both personal and inviting to us.

There are two endings. The weaker is ending two. “There were many other things that Jesus did. If they were all recorded, the world itself could not contain the books which would be written.” (As a writer I like the idea that there are still books needing to be written.) But the earlier ending is perfect: “Jesus did many other signs which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is messiah and Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Nothing much more can be said about the risen Christ. Except perhaps that the life being referred to is more than breathing, more than existing. It is “life in all its fullness.”

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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St. Anselm's Feastday

  • April 21, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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Before I say anything about our patron saint, St. Anselm, in particular, I want to draw your attention to a simple point that is mentioned near the end of our second reading, where St. Paul speaks of a whole range of persons who together help form the Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He is there talking about the Church as a whole, but the very same kind of multiple roles is evident right up here around the altar at this Mass: there is a main celebrant and a number of concelebrants and monks in attendance, some servers, a couple readers, and a cantor. Something similar is evident on any sports team. For example, in baseball some players specialize as pitchers, some as catchers, some as infielders or outfielders, and even though a few are able to play a number of positions very well, the range of possibilities is limited. At least in the major leagues, it would be almost unthinkable to have a stocky catcher sometimes serve as a fleet centerfielder.

Now within the Church in particular, although St. Paul lists five functions in the reading we just heard, and in a passage from another of his letters, First Corinthians, he lists eight, I have always found very insightful something written more than a century ago by a man named Friedrich von Hügel. Although his father was Austrian, the family lived in England from the time young Friedrich was fifteen years old, so he wrote primarily in our own English language. Among his greatest works was a two-volume one titled The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends. He there argues that any religion has three basic elements: one is what he called the “mystical” or “mystical/experiential,” but he also uses many other adjectives for it. In a nutshell, it’s the whole devotional, affective, volitional, spiritual element, perhaps most clearly expressed in deep prayer and meditation and exemplified in the life of a great mystic like St. Catherine of Genoa. Secondly, there is what von Hügel calls the “historical/institutional” element, marked by forceful authority, clear organization, and decisive action that has at times made the Church a powerful player in the political life of a region or continent. This element is well exemplified in a pope like Innocent III in the thirteenth century, who with his acute legal mind and boundless energy vigorously supported the Church’s reforms through his decretals and his calling of the Fourth Lateran Council. He also used the power of the interdict and other censures to compel kings and princes to obey his decisions. And finally there is the speculative/intellectual element, where the powers of reasoning, argumentation, and abstraction have given us classic philosophies and theologies represented by thinkers like Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages or, more recently, by Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner.

All three of these elements are needed, with problems arising only when in a given time and place one of the three so overshadows the others as to produce a severe imbalance marked, for example, by saccharine sentimentality if the mystical/devotional element gets out of hand, or by rigid, uncompromising legalism when the institutional element becomes top-heavy, or by arid speculation if and when the intellectual element ends up almost totally divorced from the common concerns of most human beings.

Now if all three elements are needed in the Church as a whole, they should also be found to some degree in every member of the Church, although usually one or at most two will predominate in a given individual. Here is where I finally come to the saint we are celebrating today, Anselm of Canterbury. There is no doubt that Anselm was gifted with speculative powers of a high order. His treatises—not only the Monologion, the Proslogion, and the Cur Deus Homo but also his less-well-known works such as De Grammatico, De Veritate, and De Libertate Arbitrii—continue to challenge scholars of our own day, as is evident in the regular academic conferences held about one or another aspect of his thought. But if Anselm excelled in what von Hügel called the speculative or intellectual aspect of religion, the same could be said of the mystical/experiential aspect, for his prayers and meditations give convincing evidence of his profound love of God and his ardent desire for ever closer union with God, accompanied by a deep sorrow for his own failings and what we traditionally call “a firm purpose of amendment.”

That leaves the third element, the institutional. As I expect most of you know, St. Anselm was for many years the archbishop of Canterbury, the most important ecclesiastical position in England. As such, he had to deal with kings and barons, as well as with popes and bishops, so I suppose it wouldn’t surprise you to hear me say that the patron of our school was as outstanding in this third aspect as in the other two. After all, in homilies on a saint’s feast day, it is normal to make only laudatory comments about the holy person being honored. In fact, however, Anselm was not temperamentally suited for leadership at this level, and while it would be too much to say that he was a failure as archbishop, he was definitely no great success. His finest modern biographer, Sir R.W. Southern, has noted that Anselm never really understood what was at stake in the conflict over the lay investiture of bishops, that is, the alleged right of a king to name (that is, “invest”) a particular person for an important ecclesiastical office, such as bishop of a diocese or abbot of a monastery, even though the investiture controversy was in fact the most significant conflict between Church and state in medieval Europe. Unlike Lanfranc, his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm would not assume a commanding position in society and in fact tried, unsuccessfully, to resign as archbishop. He was in no sense a policy-maker, for, as Professor Southern writes, “in the area of broad ecclesiastical policy … he did almost nothing.”1 “He was not wise in the ways of the world, nor did he wish to be.”2 “Indeed, there is a sense in which the clarity of his spiritual and theological doctrines inhibited clarity on political issues by relegating them to a position of relative unimportance.: they led Anselm to believe that the system of joint secular and ecclesiastical responsibility for the functioning of the Church was as acceptable as any other. He [simply] … accepted the feudal organization of the Church and baronage as an adequate way of organizing the world.”3 No doubt with considerable exaggeration, Southern once said that as archbishop of Canterbury, St. Thomas à Becket was a thousand times greater than Anselm.

So what should we make of this? Am I unfairly disparaging the patron of our monastery and school? Am I wrong to point out a saint’s weaknesses when celebrating his very feast day? I don’t think so. What I hope we all take away from this is the conviction that none of us can be all things to all people, none of us can excel in every major field of endeavor. The sooner we come to terms with this basic truth, the better off each of us will be, for it enables us to rejoice with the strengths we see in classmates or other faculty members, even as we recognize that each of us has gifts more or less special to ourselves. These are what we should build on, not, of course, to the total dismissal of other interests but in the simple, sane recognition that some degree of specialization is required of all of us. I hope that each of your teachers is to some noticeable degree more advanced than any of you students in his or her particular area of expertise, but I also think we faculty should admit that in other areas some of the students are more knowledgeable than we are. When I was in high school, I was very good in mathematics, but that is not what I went on to study in college, meaning that right now I would absolutely fail even a simple test in algebra without a huge amount of preparation.

What we try to provide for all of our students is a genuine liberal education so that every one of you will have a solid foundation on which to build regardless of what you decide to major in at college and regardless of what you decide to do for an eventual career. The really important thing is to choose something that you are good at and that will allow you really to serve your fellow human beings when you reach adulthood. Pope Francis is absolutely correct in the way in which he, following in the footsteps of all recent popes but perhaps emphasizing the point more frequently, warns against the accumulation of more and more wealth by some while vast numbers of our fellow human beings are suffering life-threatening poverty. Our whole service program here at the abbey school is meant to help keep this important aspect of life before you. As a committed monk, St. Anselm served those around him to the best of his ability, even though, as I have said, his abilities were more developed in some areas than others. May we serve with a similar commitment and dedication.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), 238.
2 Ibid. 306.
3 Ibid. 304.

Third Sunday of Easter at St. Matthew's Cathedral

  • April 19, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Christopher

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There was a priest who had a good friend but was an atheist. He tried to convince him of the truth of religion and belief in God, but his friend would hear none of it. The Atheist friend became very sick, the priest visited him thinking his situation might make him more open to hearing about Jesus and God’s plan for every man’s salvation. His friend would not listen. When the time came for his friend in his last hours, the priest went to be with him. He was still conscious and on seeing the priest at his death bed, the sick friend asked if he was there to still try to convert him. The priest said no; I just came to see how an atheist dies.

We are free to believe or not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. His mission on earth ended by his suffering and death on a cross and burial. Peter and the other disciples of Jesus could not deny it had happened. None of them claimed to be present when Jesus rose and came out of the tomb.

To see or be told that the tomb was empty and the body gone left some believing, some baffled, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus who said to the ‘stranger’ who joined them: “We were hoping that he was the one who would set Israel free. Besides… some women of our group have just brought us some astonishing news. They were at the tomb before dawn and failed to find his body, but returned with the tale that they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive.”

Ever since Easter we have been hearing the stories of Jesus appearances to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to the apostles and others. He would mysteriously appear and disappear. He greeted them with, Peace be with you. He sometimes scolded them for not believing all that had been prophesied about him. He showed them his wounds and ate with them to convince them he was the same Jesus they had accompanied in his public ministry, yet not the same because no longer bound by space and time. He gave them the mission to be his witnesses and proclaim the good news to all nations of the salvation he had won for us all. Jesus pronounced blessed those who would believe his disciples’ message and accept the gracious gift of forgiveness of sin and be freed of fear of death. Hopefully we are among those who have accepted that message with joy and thanksgiving.

Some say, however, it is easier not to believe. Then we do not have to keep all those burdensome commandments and laws. Then we can just go along with the ways of fallen human nature, not resisting the inclinations to lust, greed, deceit, jealousies, injustice, brutality, and abuses. Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. OK, you can live that way but you still have to distract yourself from the life’s futility in achieving happiness and face the inevitability of dying. Many turn to drugs, porn, accumulating wealth, hoarding, and endless distraction with electronic surfing in the clouds to put off confronting their death, a fear of a possible judgment or absolute extinction.

To believe the whole story of Jesus life, death and resurrection is not easy. True, we need not be afraid of death since he has promised a life of bliss afterwards beyond our imagination. Still to accept Jesus as Lord of our life means we have to resist those inclinations of the flesh. His way is one of servanthood, of self-denial and self-giving, of obedience and compassionate generosity. When we fail to measure up to his standard of his perfect humanity, when we find ourselves giving in to the world’s false ways, let’s take courage in what we heard St. John say in the second reading: “I am writing this to keep you from sin. But if anyone should sin, we have, in the presence of the Father, Jesus Christ, an intercessor who is just. He is an offering for our sins…for those of the whole world.”

Jesus promised his disciples that he would remain with them always. He is here in our gathering together as adopted son and daughters, as members of his body. He is hear in the proclamation of the word, and will be on the altar as we continue with the sacrifice of the Mass. It is at the Eucharist that we can enter most fully into the mystery of his offering of his body and blood so that our sins can be forgiven, making us worthy to share in the salvation he won for us. Paul tells us we should offer our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice to God along with Jesus. Then at communion we will receive from him a pledge of participation in his glorious eternal life in God. He wants to give us a joy that no one can take from us. What a gracious and loving God we worship and serve. To Father, Son and Holy Spirit be honor and glory and praise now and forever. ALLELUIA. Amen.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Fourth Sunday of Easter

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most common representations of Christ we find in Christian art. There are frescoes of Christ as the Good Shepherd in the catacombs which date to the third century. A famous statue of the Good Shepherd dating from the beginning of the fourth century can be found in the Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome. Representations of the Good Shepherd are found in every age in stone, mosaic, stained glass and paintings down to our own time.

My favorite is the twelfth century mosaic over the apse in the church of San Clemente, Rome. A complete crucifixion scene is set against a gold background. At the very bottom of the mosaic is a row of sheep. Strictly speaking this representation of the victorious cross is not a representation of the theme of the Good Shepherd. For me, however, with the sheep at the bottom, the mosaic points vividly to the statement Jesus made of himself: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The swirling vine branches, the four rivers of Paradise, the angels and prophets all depicted in this mosaic illustrate the ultimate triumph of the resurrection. However, no matter how gloriously portrayed, the cross itself demonstrates the infinite love of God which drew the Word to become one of us and lay down his life that we might live.

Some of the representations of the Good Shepherd that I have seen show a rather sanitized Jesus in pastel robes carrying a very clean sheep on his shoulders. We urban dwellers are not familiar with the hard and dirty work, the care that sheep entail. Jesus’ audience knew what shepherding was all about. It is about feeding the lambs and the sheep, bringing them to good pasture lands and water, grooming and clipping them, delivering new lambs, leading them and teaching them to stay together, going off after the wandering lost ones, and protecting the sheep in the field and the fold.1 The shepherd establishes a bond with his sheep so that they follow him wherever he leads: “I know mine and mine know me.”

My mother used to tell me about the shepherd in her village. If a storm broke out at night, the shepherd and his daughter, lantern in hand, would have to go out and talk to the sheep to calm them. Otherwise, in their fear, they would break out of their fold and rush headlong into disaster. They would listen only to the shepherd or his daughter.

“I am the good shepherd and I know mine and mine know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus’ knowledge of the sheep does not come from observing them and their individual characteristics. It is of a different order: “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” It is not intellectual knowledge, but a mutual knowledge, the knowledge of love, of union. This mutual love involves the flow of life, the Father’s life, which is love, into Jesus, and the life of the Father and of Jesus into Jesus’ followers.2

We are made for love. It is the selfless love that we see depicted in the Good Shepherd that has made this image so dear to the Christians of every age. The bond of Jesus with his followers is made by Jesus giving his life to and into his friends. This giving is an unconditional caring that has the well-being of his friends and followers at its core. It does not back off when difficulties arise. In fact, Jesus dies that his followers might live. This union of love is characterized by his total self-giving and is what makes him a good shepherd. The shepherd dies that the sheep may be safe.3

“I will lay down my life for the sheep.” This is said not metaphorically, but actually by dying on a cross. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.” This is not like the shepherd who fights the lion or the wolf to his death. This is certainly heroic, but the sheep that are left after the predator is done with them are left without their defender and are easy prey. The death of Jesus, the good shepherd, is not a defeat. By taking up his life again, he will instead add to his flock, leading others as well who are not of his sheepfold and making them into “one flock” of which he will be the “one shepherd.”4

“This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again”’ “This command I have received from my Father.” These words bring us to the heart of the relationship between the Father and the Son. God’s commandment is the expression of his love for the Son and the sheep he has given him. In turn, the love with which the Son dies for his sheep shows how greatly he loves the Father. To be one of the Son’s flock and let oneself be guided by “the good shepherd” is to love him, and with him and like him, to love the Father.5

The gospels not only show us who Jesus is, but give us a way to follow. In Jesus it shows us what we can become if we open ourselves completely to God’s action. As we reflect on the love and care God has for us as manifested in Jesus, we are challenged to examine our own love and care for the Father as shown in our care for others. What immediately comes to my mind as an example are those survivors of the Holocaust and similar tragedies who owe their lives to the love and courage of those who risked their own lives by hiding them.

We may not be called to such heroism, to literally lay down our lives as Jesus did, but there are the many opportunities great and small which occur in everyday life. It may be as small as making a phone call, visiting the sick, giving an understanding look, or an unexpected gift, any act which puts my needs second to the needs of another, all those acts great or small which involve a dying to self that the other may live more fully.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/agoodshepherd.html
2 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Year B (Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 2005) 124-125
3 John Shea, 124
4 Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, v. 3 (Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 1993) 144
5 Days of the Lord, 144-145