“The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.
In his message for the 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations (which is celebrated each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter) Pope Benedict XVI observed, “Hope is the expectation of something positive in the future, yet at the same time it must sustain our present existence, which is often marked by dissatisfaction and failures … To have hope, therefore, is the equivalent of trusting in God who is faithful, who keeps the promises of the covenant.”
This sense of hope is at the heart of this week’s Gospel which places before us one of the greatest biblical images of God’s faithful care and mercy: the Good Shepherd. The Evangelist John uses the image of the Good Shepherd to illustrate the intimate way Christ knows each of us — the flock entrusted to his care — and how, like a faithful shepherd, he constantly watches over us and lifts us up.
The most important point of this Sunday’s Gospel is that eternal life is the Good Shepherd’s gift. Through Jesus and because he has given his life for “his flock,” we have an abundance of life. While it seems so simple, this fundamental Christian belief is one that we can often take for granted. And that is unfortunate, because this Gospel also includes an unspoken invitation for us: listen to the Shepherd’s voice.
Accepting that gift of “abundant life” means that we listen to and follow the direction of our Shepherd. We can see this lived out in the preaching and witness of Peter and the other Apostles (in this Sunday’s first reading and throughout the Acts of the Apostles) as they remind the people of Jerusalem that God is calling them to do and be more in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit blessed the Church with many new members through the obedient service of the Apostles. We have to have the same obedient spirit if we want to see the Church continue to grow in our own time.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we ask God to bless the Church with an increase in men and women willing to serve the Kingdom as priests, deacons, and religious brothers and sisters. But the readings also remind us that each of us (and not only our pastors and religious) has a vocation follow the example of the Shepherd and listen to his commands by building up the Church as we promote what Henri Nouwen has called the “three spiritual qualities of the resurrected life”: unity, intimacy, and integrity. “We are called to break through the boundaries of nationality, race, sexual orientation, age, and mental capacities and create a unity of love that allows the weakest among us to live well” (from The Road to Daybreak).
While we can (and should) take comfort in the Shepherd’s provident care and protection — and the gift of abundant life that he offers us — we can only say we truly know this Good Shepherd if we are willing to listen to his voice and follow his commands in our daily lives. As we continue our Easter celebrations, we would do well to remember the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, “The mark of Christ’s sheep is their willingness to hear and obey… People who hear God’s voice are known by him.”
— Bro. Silas Henderson, S.D.S.
Almighty ever-living God,
lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)