The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
At first glance we might wonder, why is Isaiah told to “comfort” God’s people, and then, we hear “all flesh is grass… the grass withers” (40:6f)? So, it would seem that we’re meant to be comforted by being told we’ll all die very soon, and our youthful vigour and beauty is as ephemeral as cut flowers!
But, of course, this is true. We’re often confronted with the fact of our mortality; that life is brief, and all will die, and, sometimes, unexpectedly. But the prophet assures us that death is not the end – this is how he comforts us. For he says that our “warfare is ended” (Isa 40:2). This means that our struggle with suffering and human frailty comes to an end. Death, which is a result of sin, is ended for “iniquity is pardoned” (ibid.).
How? “The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa 40:5), he says. Our God speaks, and what he speaks is the Word, the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. “The word of our God will stand for ever” (40:8), Isaiah says. So, here, in nascent form, is a prophecy of the Incarnation: that, as St John will say and as we will hear on Christmas day, the eternal Word, who is God, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). And through his becoming Man, the Immortal united himself to human mortality so as to rescue us from suffering, sin, and death. The image Isaiah uses for this saving work of Christ is beautiful. He, the strong shepherd tenderly gathers humankind, the weak and delicate lambs, in his arms; God carries our humanity in his bosom, and leads us into the pastures of heaven. There, in heaven, the meadows are evergreen – the grass does not wither and the flowers bloom for ever. Thus, through Christ’s incarnation, humanity is united to God, and can come to share in his divinity and so, have eternal life. For, even though we die, death is not the end. Because we are now united to God through Jesus Christ, so, the weakness of our human mortality which might have just ended in death is now strengthened by Christ. For Jesus, is “the Lord God [who] comes with might” (Isa 40:10), with the might of his resurrection.
So this is what the incarnation of Christ promises us. This is the comfort of the Christmas story. Hence, St Hilary sees in today’s Gospel the comforting truth that God, leaving the ninety-nine sheep, which stand for the heavenly host of angels, goes in search of Man, who is represented by the one lost sheep. The Son is born for us because the Father does not will any of us, his “little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). Thus, there is, rightly, much rejoicing at Christmas.
But do we rejoice like sheep – just celebrating, drinking, and making merry because everyone else does? Or do we rejoice like the Shepherd who, Jesus says, rejoices because he’s found his lost sheep? This is to say, will we share God’s joy in the salvation of Man made possible by Christ’s becoming Man?
In the Old Testament, God is referred to as the Shepherd of Israel (cf Ps 80:1, Eze 34). But the notion that the one God favours one nation, one people, and sets them aside to make them holy is gradually expanded to include all of humanity, both Jews and non-Jews; Jew and Gentile alike. Hence, in today’s First Reading, St Peter recounts how the Holy Spirit descended on the Gentiles in the same way that he descended on the Jews at Pentecost (cf Acts 2). So, it is clear that people from every nation, of every race, language, people and culture are called into God’s sheepfold, an “Israel of the Spirit” as the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac put it, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And Christ is the reason that God’s call to holiness, once given just to Israel now encompasses every human person. For what was initially given through the Law of Moses and the wisdom of the patriarchs is now given to all through Jesus Christ who embodies and perfects the Law, and who is the Wisdom of God made flesh. For in Christ, God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, united himself for ever to our common humanity so that through his Incarnation, Jesus now claims all humanity for God. We belong to him, we are the “sheep of his pasture” (Ps 99:3), and every human person is now called to enjoy “life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Because if our humanity is united to Jesus Christ, then we also share in his divinity. And God’s divine nature is life itself in its fullest abundance and perfection.
As Jesus alone – and no other – is true God and true Man, so only through Jesus can humankind be united to God. Thus, he alone is the gate to eternal life and the happiness and peace of heaven. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). There is no other way to salvation, then, for Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6).
Christ also says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”. And this is precisely what it means to be Christ’s Church. Because the Greek New Testament word that is translated as ‘church’ or ‘assembly’ is ekklesia, meaning ‘those who are called out’. Hence, we, the Church, are a gathering, an assembly, a calling-together of those have been “brought out” of the world, or even out of other religions, by Christ into a living relationship with him who alone can save us. He “goes before” [us] so that we can follow him, listening to his voice which calls each of us by name (cf Jn 10:4). If we follow Jesus throughout our lives and are not misled by other voices – by the Thief, that is, the devil and his lies – then Christ, our Good Shepherd, will lead us to enter into the living pastures of heaven.
Therefore, as St Ignatius of Antioch put it, Christ is “the door of the Father, through which have entered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, prophets and apostles and the Church, and all of them to the unity of God”.
What does it mean to say that something is good? In the first instance, we’d probably think of moral excellence. But if I say that Cecilia is a good singer, we’re more likely to mean that she can sing well, and so possesses a talent or skill to a high degree of excellence. And what if I say that this wine is good? This probably means that it is exemplary, a fine specimen of its type; it is properly what it is meant to be. But each of these meanings of good is in some way pleasant, attractive, and enjoyable. Hence we also speak of a good time, or a good night out, and we are naturally drawn to good things.
It is this sense of the attractiveness of the good that underlies how we should understand Jesus as the “good shepherd”. The Greek word being used here that is translated as ‘good’ is kalos. And its primary meaning is beautiful. But not a kind of superficial, skin-deep, cosmetic beauty, nor the debased sense of beauty we often have today which sees beauty as something purely subjective, but rather, beauty as something more essential and objective, that is independent of us, which belongs to a person or thing, and which we encounter and appreciate in another.