Reflection, 4th Sunday of Easter
(Association of Catholic priests, Ireland)
1. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” Can we hear this message and can we make these words our own? Very many people suffer from anxiety, a crippling condition of deep unease, that can veer into depression and suicidal moods. Traumatic scenes from their past are played over and over again in their minds, and cannot be shaken off. We might tell such people, “Just trust in the Lord and let yourself be carried by the Good Shepherd.” But tragically the source of their anxiety is often connected with religion, so that such a message is the last thing they want to hear. I think of the many LGBT people who have been deeply wounded by religious teaching on three fronts: injured in their relation to themselves, hating their sexual orientation or gender identification, and lacking all self-confidence; injured in their relation to their families, with whom they are unable to communicate openly, or who, if they do communicate with them, will react with a failure of understanding and sympathy; and injured in their relationship to their faith-ommunity, where they rightly or wrongly feel unwelcome or out of place, and which does not think to provide them with a space for open disussion where they can feel safe and accepted. For such reasons many who are a prey to anxiety also feel abandoned or forgotten by God.
2. But even the average person who is not exposed to such traumatic matters may have difficulty hearing the message that the Lord is their shepherd. Isn’t it the kind of thing you read on kitschy holy pictures, not having much bearing on real life? Our lives seem to be so shaped that we have the greatest difficulty orienting them to God in trustful abandonment. We have plans and ambitions, or distracting duties that keep us busy. Habitual stress or moroseness curbs any elan of the spirit. And a sense of irremediable sinfulness keeps us from “lifting up our eyes to the hills, from whence comes our help” (Ps. 121:1). But as the Irish proverb says, “the help of God is nearer than the door.” All that is needed is to stop and to listen. Listen to some word of Scripture, some familiar prayer or hymn, or just attend to the silent presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament. “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints, to those who turn to him in their heart” (Ps. 85:8).. No matter where we are, we can open our inward ear to this voice that speaks of peace.
3. “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5 and Lk 7:48) is the first message that this gracious voice speaks to the anxious mind. To embrace this message that sets us right with God is the first blessing of religion. Our sinfulness does not disqualify us from hearing it, for it is intended as a balm to the inner wounds our sins have inflicted on us. God speaks this word most powerfully in Christ, who took our sins on himself, and who “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Hearing the Risen Christ speak the words, “Peace be unto you” (Jn 20:19), we are able to rest confidently in the calm assurance he breathes upon us. Holding onto this, as steadily as we are able, we find the anchor of our being, at a level deeper than all invasion of anxiety, worry, depression, or fear.
4. The divine Shepherd makes us feel safe, held in his palm. This elicits from us a response of joy and gratitude, as the chains that bind our minds are unloosed and we place ourselves utterly in God’s hands. This loving surrender to God is not servitude but perfect freedom. Then his sanctifying grace can move us to generous thoughts and good works. The Shepherd grants security, but also leads us to new pastures, spurring us to creative ventures we did not dream of when imprisoned in the cage of our anxiety. Even if we fail to follow him and stray from the upward path, we are still in his hands, since we can always turn again to him and confide ourselves to his safe keeping. Four times in today’s Gospel we hear the voice of Christ telliing us that he lays down his life for his sheep. This is the most powerful, the most incarnate, expression of that divine reassurance that anxious minds need to hear. It reminds us of the strength of the bond that ties us to Christ, a bond as close as the one that binds a mother to her child. “You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). That is what the divine voice says to us if we open our ear to it. Those are words everyone longs to hear, and words the bring deep joy and security to the heart. If we are privileged to hear these words, let us also share them with others, and become ambassadors of Christ’s peace to them.