I Don’t Know Sheep

Despite having grown up in a heavily agricultural part of Pennsylvania, I know very little about sheep. I do know that they smell strange, but taste delicious. I also know that the finer grades of their wool make excellent suits, and my second-favorite piece of outerwear is a WWII-style mouton leather jacket, made from a sheepskin. Apart from some other factoids picked up along the way, that’s about the extent of my experience with these animals.

The Mass readings this past Sunday included some rather sobering words about sheep, and more particularly their shepherds, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives dire warnings of what will happen to those who lead their flocks astray. The metaphor of shepherd/sheep is one used throughout the Bible to describe not only the relationship between God and His people, but between those in positions of power, and those over whom they exercise that power. Which is why Jeremiah’s passage ought to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable with yourself.

In our contemporary context, most of us have little knowledge or experience of the sheep trade. I certainly know little about it, as explained above, and probably most of you don’t know much about it either. Yet when reading Jeremiah’s words we can substitute other terms to create recognizable, analogous relationships which resonate with us, today: candidate and constituency; broadcaster and listeners; author and readers; etc. Thus, “Woe to the politicians who mislead and scatter the voters, says the LORD,” would be a statement all of us who live in democracies could (hopefully) agree with.

I daresay many of us would find it easy to wave off Jeremiah’s warning as something inapposite to our own lives. We may very well comfort ourselves in thinking, “Well, I’m just one of the sheep, so no need to worry.” The problem is that all of us, to varying degrees, can find ourselves in positions of wielding the shepherd’s crook over others.

For example, if you’ve ever written a blog entry, a Facebook post, or a Tweet which has been liked or shared, then you are in a position of power. By publically reacting to what you wrote, others are acknowledging that you hold some level of influence. After all, there is no obligation on social media that you respond to everyone or indeed anyone who appears in your timeline. Thus by sharing your words with a wider audience, your words gain greater power over others, who may in turn wish to react to them.

Yet even those who don’t engage on social media may regularly find themselves shepherding others. Has a friend ever come to you for advice on what to purchase, or how to accomplish some task? Has a perfect stranger ever approached you on the street and asked for something – directions, a light, spare change? Then congratulations: Jeremiah’s warning applies to you, too. By submitting to your perceived power, whether over knowledge, resources, or the like, that seeker is allowing you to shepherd them.

So while Jeremiah’s words are indeed sobering for those in more obvious positions of leadership – senators, bishops, generals – they also ought to make us sober up as well. It is entirely possible that our actions, or inactions, may cause injury to someone else, if we do not take seriously those moments when we are called upon to exercise our power over others. Sometimes we are indeed the sheep, being led hither and yon by those with temporal or social power over us. But sometimes we ourselves are the shepherd, even if our flock consists of only a single sheep. Try not to lead the fellow astray.


Meeting At Bethany

The attentive reader will look at the calendar and realize that this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In Spain – and possibly in other places as well – today, the Friday shortly before Palm Sunday, has its own spiritual tradition, based partly on Scripture and partly on tradition. Whether or not one accepts the theory, I think you’ll find it an interesting point of reflection.

We know from the Gospels that prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was staying with his close friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel places the raising of Lazarus from the dead before Palm Sunday. In Spain, it is commonly believed that on the Friday before Palm Sunday, Jesus’ Mother Mary was in Bethany as well. Moreover, pious belief is that He told her, on that Friday, what was going to happen to Him the following Friday.

There is a certain logic to this belief. Surely if the Virgin Mary had heard about the death of Lazarus, it would have been reasonable for her, as a Jewish matron, to go comfort Lazarus’ sisters. Her presence in Bethany at the time, and staying there to celebrate Passover rather than returning to Nazareth, would also explain why, within hours of Jesus’ arrest, she is present in Jerusalem to witness His execution. After all, Nazareth is about 90 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Bethany is only about a mile and a half away.

Even if Jesus did not get to see His Mother prior to entering into His Passion, she was of course there to witness His sacrifice on Calvary. Yet I rather fancy that He did see her. Perhaps they talked late into the night that Friday, or perhaps she simply accepted what He told her, much as she accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which we commemorated this week. She may not have been able to understand how God would bring about what she was told would happen, but once again she did not shy away. She believed, and put herself at His service.


Detail, "Virgin of Sorrows" by Murillo

Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.