The Lamb of God is our Shepherd

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Adoration_of_the_Lamb_2We usually understand a shepherd to be one who leads a flock of sheep and protects it from harm. But in Revelation, the author proclaims “the Lamb at the center of the throne” to be the shepherd of the multitude of worshipers from all nations. The worshipers are praising this Lamb whom they follow and the Lamb “will guide them to springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7: 17) Their white robes have been made white in the blood of this Lamb because the Lamb has lead his followers through the ordeal. This is an odd sort of shepherd since normally it is the job of the shepherd to protect the flock from danger, not lead the flock into it.

In John 10, often referred to as the Good Shepherd Discourse, Jesus claims that he is the true shepherd who protects his sheep, even to the extent of laying his life down for his sheep. (Jn. 10: 11) Jesus is not only the leader, but he is the gateway into the fold, the only gateway safe from thieves who come to destroy. When Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (Jn. 10: 27) he is attesting to a much more intimate relationship between himself and the sheep than is usually the case. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not just leading us, his flock, externally by walking in front of us, Jesus is leading us from within, speaking in a voice that we learn to hear as quite distinct from bandits and robbers who come to destroy or hired hands who run away when there is danger.

Early in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God.” The reason that the sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and recognize it intimately is because their shepherd is a lamb, one of them. As the Lamb of God, Jesus protects his sheep from being snatched out of his hand. (Jn. 10: 28) But what does the Lamb of God protect the sheep from? We were not protected from bandits and robbers any more than the martyrs in white robes were protected from the ordeal. What the Lamb of God protects us from is being or becoming bandits and robbers. That is, we are protected from being people who shed the blood in which the white robes of the martyrs are washed. Most important, it is precisely by being the Lamb of God that this shepherd does not attack robbers and thieves with the violence they impose on him, but instead he lays down his life, not only for those of us in the sheepfold, but for those who attack him and the flock. This raises the question: In protecting us from becoming bandits and robbers, is Jesus laying down his life to turn those of us who have become bandits and robbers from what we have become? If the Lamb of God died for sinners as St. Paul claimed many times, then that is exactly what he has done and that is why, in following the Lamb of God as our shepherd, we do the same, secure in the sheepfold of our shepherd with the multitudes from every nation.

And It Was Night

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyProbably nothing is more painful than betrayal. My own personal experiences of feeling betrayed are, so far, much smaller than what I know others have suffered, but even the smallest doses of betrayal are unspeakably painful. The pain of betrayal is a pounding discord in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Last Supper and Paul’s own short narrative of it. This discord is particularly prominent to the point of being unbearable in John’s Gospel where it overshadows Jesus’ loving act of washing the disciples’s feet. Right after leading into the story with these sublime words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” (Jn. 13: 1) John says: “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” (Jn. 13: 2) When Judas leaves the supper, John says “And it was night,” (Jn. 13: 30), meaning “night” in all of its most ominous meanings. Right after Judas’s departure, Jesus gives his disciples his great “new” commandment: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 13: 34)

Does this new commandment cancel the night into which Judas has just walked? Or does the night cancel the light of the commandment? Hatred for Judas has echoed through the centuries with betrayers often called a “Judas.” So commonly is this epithet used that it can be hurled at a person for playing an electric guitar instead of an acoustic one, as Bob Dylan found out. The raging pain of Judas’s betrayal occasions several outbursts in the responses of the Tenebrae services of Holy Week. Most chilling is the “Judas mercator:” “Judas, the worst possible merchant, asked to kiss the Lord.” In the powerful setting by Tomas Victoria, the pain is unbearably searing. Where is the love we are supposed to have for one another? Even in the glory-filled High Priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus says he has guarded the ones entrusted to him “except the one destined to be lost.” (Jn. 17: 12) I feel those words as a shadow in the prayer of glory. The author of 1 John reaffirms this great commandment and insists that God is light with no darkness at all, (1 Jn. 1: 5) but then rages with the hurt received from several “antichrists”who have betrayed the community by going out from them. (1 Jn. 2: 19–20)

There have been attempts to vindicate Judas. One of the more thought-provoking attempts comes in Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus entreats Judas to betray him because it is necessary that he be crucified. Kazantzakis appeals to the reader’s sympathy for the two millennia of opprobrium Judas has suffered for doing what his best friend asked him to do. I fear, though, that the paradoxes of John’s Gospel do not give us this out. We have to face the pain of the betrayal. This pain is all the greater and hits closest to home when we realize that all of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him except “the Beloved Disciple” in John’s account. This suggests that, like Judas, we are all betrayers of Jesus. This doesn’t make Judas right; it makes us as wrong as Judas. Would it have been better if none of us had been born? Our hatred of Judas distracts us from the truth of ourselves. Accusations of betraying Jesus fly between Christians, each convinced that it is other people who have betrayed Jesus while each of us is as faithful as the Beloved Disciple. I have my own list of traitors of Jesus that tempts me to dwell on them more than on myself.

John takes us into the “night” into which Judas walked because this is the night into which Jesus himself walked when he carried the cross to Golgotha and was crucified there because he had been handed over multiple times by the time he reached that destination. Does Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us extend to everybody who handed Jesus over to the next step towards the cross? Does it apply to each of us when we betray Jesus by disobeying this commandment? Does it apply to Judas? After Jesus’ Ascension, Peter announced that the gap left by Judas had to be filled and Matthias was chosen by lot to make the disciples twelve once more. (Acts 1: 21–26) Does Mathias rub Judas out, or does Mathias redeem Judas in a mysterious way by taking his place so that the Twelve Apostles can be the twelve tribes of a New Israel that embraces everybody? Does the Light shine in the darkness so powerfully that the darkness cannot overcome it, (Jn. 1: 5) not even the darkness into which Judas walked?

A God Who Does the Same Great New Thing

crossRedVeil1Right after dramatically recalling God’s deliverance of the Jews from the Red Sea, Isaiah proclaims that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43: 19) By his time, the Red Sea deliverance was an old thing, something the Jews repeatedly recalled, especially at the celebration of Passover. But at the time of that deliverance, it was a new thing that had sprung forth. Delivering escaped slaves through turbulent waters just wasn’t in the play books of deities at the time. God had changed the play book and revealed the hitherto unknown truth that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful.

The new thing that Isaiah was proclaiming was another deliverance, this one from the Babylonian Exile. In this respect, the new thing that God was doing was a lot like the old thing: both were acts of deliverance from powerful and tyrannical rulers and both involved leading the people through a desert. One could say that God was actually doing the same old thing that God had done centuries earlier. During the ensuing centuries, the Jews repeatedly recalled the old deliverance, especially at times of crisis such as the Babylonian captivity, bringing the old act into the present in hopes for a repeat performance. Psalm 44, for example, recalls “the days of old” while complaining that the people had been “scattered among the nations” and had become “the derision and scorn of those around us.” Where are the deeds of old? The Psalmist asks. Isaiah replies that the deeds of old have returned, have become “a new thing,” a new act of deliverance. Isaiah affirms that God is a God who delivers victims and outcasts from the rich and the powerful. The old thing is a new thing.

In our time, we might be tempted to think that both of these new things are old things, But we need to keep bringing them into the present time, making them new by realizing that God is always making these deeds new. When we don’t, we backslide. One of the most egregious ways we backslide is by becoming the oppressors of the poor and vulnerable that the Egyptians and Babylonians were. That is what happened between the two great “new” things God did for the Jews. Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets denounced just such oppression. They were making clear that one of the principle ways of making the old things new and present is to imitate God by delivering “from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer. 22: 3)

St. Paul proclaimed another great new thing accomplished by God: the death and resurrection of Jesus. In comparison with this, Paul declared everything else, most especially his accomplishments, as rubbish (to use a polite term). All Paul wanted was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3: 10–3) This may seem to be a different thing, even a radically different thing than the earlier “new” things God had done. What is particularly new is that instead of delivering victims and outcasts by mighty acts, God in Jesus Christ died on the cross, thus becoming a victim. In doing this, God subverted the power of oppressors from within their system. Rather than inflict violence on them such as drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea or sending the Persians against Babylon, God in Jesus Christ died at the hands of his oppressors. It is out of this death that a new life was inaugurated by God when Jesus rose as the forgiving victim. There are times, not least in Romans 5, when Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus in cosmic terms, but here in Philippians, he proclaims it in personal terms. The great new thing God had accomplished is inside of him. God’s solidarity with victims in Christ has completely overtaken everything else in Paul. Paul himself will prefer to be a victim rather than an oppressor or a mighty avenger who destroys armies. Christ Jesus has made Paul “his own.” (Phil. 3: 12)

A woman pouring ointment all over Jesus to prepare him for his upcoming burial (Jn. 12: 7) may seem an eccentric act but hardly a significant one, hardly a great new thing done by God. But up to that time, how often had any person done such an act of outpouring generosity, giving everything she had in doing it? This looks like God in Jesus Christ completely making this woman, Mary, his own just as much as God in Jesus Christ made Paul his own. This is indeed a great new thing accomplished by God. Will we ourselves be part of this great new thing?

 

See also: A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

On Being Called by God

AndrewPreaching1The narratives of the call of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter bring to mind my own experiences of God’s call. In my case, it wasn’t quite like being attacked by a Cherubim in church, getting knocked down on the Road to Damascus or being told to throw out the fishing nets one more time and being overwhelmed by the catch.

I did quite a lot of fishing as a child for the simple reason that my father loved it and my family spent most summer vacations at a fishing lodge. I lost interest in fishing by the time I was a teenager but the contemplative aspect of fishing stayed with me as I became a monk. While praying the Divine Office and praying silently in the Abbey Church, I constantly sense God calling me out of my self-preoccupations and self-indulgence to the wider concerns of God.

I had the call of Isaiah memorized when I was a choirboy because I sang an overwrought anthem to that text, ending with the prophet’s quiet volunteering to be sent by God. Even then, I had intimations that I might be called to the ministry although I was put off by how much kneeling I would have to do. Even so, one Sunday when our whole family was too sick to go to church, I led the four of us in the Office of Morning Prayer. As for kneeling, liturgical renewal dealt with that.

During my late high school and college years, I was a self-styled religious rebel who didn’t like the way God ran the universe. Like Paul, I was quite vocal about saying what I thought to anyone who would listen and to others who would rather not. By hindsight, I realize that I was being called all that time until I listened sufficiently to get on the track that led me to St. Gregory’s Abbey. By then I had come to realize that God doesn’t try to run the universe but God has pointed out ways we can run it better than we’re doing it if only we would listen.

It is tempting to think that one is special if one senses a call from God, as if God would surely call a superior person such as myself. But Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter all felt differently when approached by God. In each case, the call convicted them and pulled them out of the way they were living to a radical change of attitude and activity. In my case, I had to realize that a seminary I went to after graduating from college was the wrong choice for me, one fueled by my rebellious attitude. Only then could I hear the call to a seminary much better suited for me.

In God’s mission charge to Isaiah, God tells him to tell the people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” (Is. 6: 9) Jesus uses these same words to characterize the response he got from his own preaching. Some way to be “ catching people.” (Lk. 5: 10) There are many ways one can understand what it means to be a person of unclean lips living “among a people of unclean lips.” (Is. 6: 5) René Girard writes of the human tendency to share desires so intensely that they become rivalrous. When that happens, we may have ears but we will not hear what other people are saying and we will not hear what God is saying to us. In my case, I had cast myself so deeply into rivalry with God that I drowned out the direction of my call for many years. Since the most vulnerable people in a society bear the brunt of the rivalry of the powerful, deafness to the cries of the poor go unheard with only prophets like Isaiah to defend them.

Paul received his call from the resurrected Christ who asked Paul why he was persecuting him in the act of persecuting his people. John’s Gospel has a variant of the story of the overwhelming catch of fish placed after the Resurrection which raises the intriguing question of whether or not Luke placed a resurrection narrative in an early chapter of his narrative. In any case, after deserting Jesus, the disciples did need to be called a second time by the resurrected Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead because first he was killed in an act of collective violence, the sort of persecution Girard argues is the result of a society allowing itself to be swamped in rivalry where we have ears but fail to hear.

Since God’s call to each of us entails preaching the Word and, much more important, witnessing to it in our ways of living, we are fundamentally spreading our repentance to others to open their ears as well. The hazard is that a sense of rivalry can enter through the back door if we treat our ministry of witnessing as a contest in which we try to “defeat” the other and win a “victory.” What we need to do is listen to ourselves in God, and listen to others as God listens to them, and use our listening skills, based on repentance, to help other people learn to listen.

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God  and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim.

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?

In the Arms of Mary, in the Arms of Christ

madonnaThe image of Mary holding her Child is arguably the defining image of the Christmas season. Its tenderness is comforting in a world where violence against the most vulnerable dominates the news. Vulnerability, such as that of a newborn baby tends to arouse either a gentle wish to nurture and protect, or it sets off an urge to take advantage of weakness in hard-hearted fashion as Herod did. We see both of these tendencies happening in the world about us and it is possible that we struggle between them within ourselves. If we let ourselves get caught up in the frantic conflicts occurring today, any weaknesses we see in our opponents become targets for increased aggression.

It takes a quiet, contemplative attitude to relax and let the tender, nurturing attitude take over, even in relation to our opponents. Like Mary, we need to ponder the birth of Jesus in our hearts. Mary could hardly have doubted that the baby was as human as any other baby as she suckled him at her breast, laid him down to sleep, and heard him cry when he woke up hungry. But as the famous song asks: Did Mary know that “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” Although a young parent knows that the day could come when the child takes care of the parent during helpless old age as the parent takes care of the helpless child, could she have known that the child she delivered “will soon deliver you?”

The mysterious annunciation was another contemplative moment for Mary as she had to be still and listen to what the angel was telling her, hard to believe as it was. That the child would be “great and the Son of the Most High” could have meant many things without necessarily meaning that the child was God. But conceiving the child without ever having “known man” would have made it clear that the child was not ordinary. Did she have to know or suspect that the child was God before she would hold him, kiss him, bathe him, and feed him? Surely not. The child needed her care and that was all the reason she needed.

When the child had grown, he would say that whoever fed a hungry person or clothed one who was naked did that the same to him. Mary actually did these things for Jesus himself, because she would have done them for anyone, which is how it should be.

And yes, the child she bore did come to hold her in his arms. Eastern Orthodox icons of the Dormition of Mary illustrate this insight when the soul of Mary, as she dies in the arms of the disciples, has turned into a baby girl held in the arms of Jesus.

Any time we hold a vulnerable person tenderly, we hold the vulnerable Jesus, who in turn holds us in his divine arms as we experience our own vulnerability during the challenges in our lives.

John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.