One could see the world as composed by two kinds of people: those who follow Jesus and those who don’t. The first group, Jesus told us, is a lot smaller than the second. It is a “a small flock” and the Kingdom of the Heavens is reserved for them. They are not born with a “right” to be citizens of the Kingdom, neither do they have to earn their place there by their own devices because God is pleased to give them that place. Jesus has earned for them the Kingdom and He gives that in a way that for most of us appears arbitrary. Some people seem to please Him more than others. The whole process begins with his voice, of course! He is the Word.
Before St. Juan Diego met Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac Hill, he heard the sweet song of birds. The sound reminded him immediately of Paradise, the Kingdom. Then he heard the voice of Our Lady. After listening to her for some time, he had to run some errands and deliver some messages for her: that is a symbol of the Gospel. Later on, he was sent to the top of the mountain to gather flowers. It was December in the high plains of Mexico, it was cold and Juan Diego had to climb even higher to seek impossible flowers at an impossible height. The task demanded extraordinary faith. He climbed up the mountain and found the place transformed. He had moved up in space and forward in time to see the world, our ordinary world transformed into a Paradise. From that impossible place, at that impossible time, he gathered some simple flowers that were going to change the destiny of his people. Soon after he delivered those flowers to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, Mexico was born as a Christian nation. Spain, that had barely been a nation for a few decades, was catapulted into history as a great empire charged with taking the Gospel of Christ to the most distant corners of the world.
All of that began with Juan Diego listening to the sweet song of birds. Those birds were the voice of God calling him to his destiny as the father of Christian Mexico siempre fiel (always faithful) — that is how Juan Diego, a simple man of humble origin, begot a nation by listening to God.
The call was not new. God had called Abraham long ago at the top of another hill in far away Chaldea. Abraham listened and became the father of many nations. Most importantly, he became “the father of all who have faith.” (Romans 4:16) The story of Abraham is not over yet. The progeny of the Chaldean shepherd may very well populate the stars one day. Impossible, you say? Perhaps in the cold heights of interstellar space, a destiny is waiting for us. Mankind may one day bloom like the flowers of Tepeyac, in places we do not even imagine yet. “And God led him out, and said: ‘Look now toward the heavens, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them. And He said to him, So shall thy seed be!'” (Genesis 15:5)
Jesus calls but he also warns of thieves
Many others received the same call and refused to hear it. Inexplicable as it may seem they did not recognize the call of God to a higher destiny.
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. (John 10:1-6)
The “pen” Jesus is talking about is Israel. Jesus came first to his chosen people to lead them to their universal destiny, to open their eyes to the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. The universal destiny of Israel was (and is) the Church. To make sure that no false Messiah would steal the flock, God gave them a sign. We heard a lot about that sign during Advent and Christmas: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Emmanuel [God with us].”
Virgins having babies, God coming to live with men … those were the impossible things that were to mark the beginning of the rebirth of Israel as a Church. The religious people of Israel were to listen, obey, and climb up with Jesus to Calvary, to that impossible height of death and shame. Then they would be invited to gather the flowers of the Resurrection — remember Mary Magdalene confused her resurrected Lord with a gardener.
Now Mary [Magdalene] stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
The familiar voice pronounced her name in the familiar way.
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” which means “Teacher” … (John 10:11-16)
Mary Magdalene recognized His voice and called Him “teacher” that is: guide, shepherd.
There, in that moment, the ordinary sinful men and women of Israel began to move towards their universal destiny. Yes, Jesus appeared to sinless Mary first but then to sinful Mary to show the power that can make the impossible flowers of holiness grow in the wintry, rocky landscape of the human heart. God was on the move: the Resurrection was beginning to transform the world.
Thieves and goats
The history of mankind is a sad succession of mortal leaders achieving nothing of substance. Wars, struggles, revolutions have always ended in the same place: the grave. That counts for both the commanders and their armies, for the kings and their subjects. The gates of Eden are guarded by a sword of fire: it is impossible to get in. No one can build a new Paradise or reconquer Eden.
So the Lord God banished [man] from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:23-24)
No one can possibly lead mankind back to Paradise except the Messiah. There is only one narrow gate to the land of the living. To go through it, we have to do like Mary Magdalene and Juan Diego: listen, recognize the voice, follow it and find the flowers of life in the most impossible place, where only God can make them grow.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance. (John 10:7-10)
A timely reminder for our age
I know many of you will read the following scripture and think of the history of the Roman Papacy as it has unfolded in these dark days. How terrifying are these words, even twenty centuries after Jesus pronounced them before a crowd composed of friends and foes…
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:11-13)
In that brief passage, we recognize two characters: the cowardly hireling who runs from the wolves and the Wolf that comes after the hireling flees. Pope Benedict mentioned the wolves and his own fears when he pronounced his first homily as our Pope, the Vicar of our Shepherd: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”
How amazing is to contemplate Christ’s warning coming to us through twenty centuries of Church history. What an awesome Shepherd we have!
Don’t listen to the Wolf
In these times of confusion, we are forced to listen to all kinds of heresy, blasphemy, and grievous lies. Sinful men are at the helm. This is a dark age indeed when the just are persecuted by the vilest of characters. Should we worry? No, most emphatically: no.
What we have to do is simple: Do not listen to the Wolf, forget about the Hireling, and concentrate with all your might in listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. You know Him, and —most importantly— He knows you.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
See how the words of the Good Shepherd divided that flock in two: goats and sheep. (Compare with Matthew 25:31-46)
The Jews who heard these words were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
This part is a small scale model of the Second Coming, when the Good Shepherd will again produce many signs to lead his flock to new pastures. Notice every little detail, I am sure many of you will read his words and see much more than I do:
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It was winter, about the time of Hanukkah, the festival of lights and Jesus is walking about the columns of Solomon, a king renowned by his extraordinary wisdom (“Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars … ) The scene is in winter again. God is calling but few are listening. (See Proverbs 9: 10-12)
The unbelieving want signs, strong signs that will spare them the effort to seek true wisdom. That spiritual laziness, that simplistic sloth, is a characteristic of those destined for damnation. They won’t climb the mountain to gather flowers, no. Even when surrounded by the pillars of wisdom, in the company of the Logos (the Wisdom of the Creator) they can’t see the light. It is Hanukkah, the time of the year when days begin to get longer and light begins to win its battle against darkness. A veritable sun, Christ is walking among them and yet they lurk in the shadows like the wolves they are, waiting for the moment to strike.
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. […] Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. (John 10:25-39)
And so the pattern emerges again. God talks and we must recognize His voice: that is a sure sign of belonging to Him. We are the invited to follow. Follow where? The answer is clear: ever forward, ever deeper, ever higher until the day we reach our final destination: the Father. We recognize God’s words in Jesus, we recognize their unity and we are called to unity with the Father. Jesus is our model. The hireling fled and refused to remain one with the flock, the Wolf wants to scatter … the Militant Church is represented here in a state of constant crisis. In that crisis, Jesus is always the answer, He is the one whose voice we must recognize in the true shepherds, the faithful shepherds who obey Him and follow his example of laying their lives for the flock. Jesus talks to us though his martyrs and saints.
Now Jesus talks about our destination. The crossing of the Jordan reminds me of the entering of Israel into the Promised Land. This time Jesus is crossing the Jordan in the opposite direction, towards Galilee. Notice that detail because Christ is moving into Gentile territory. That has to represent the universal mission of the Church, the conquest of the world to establish God’s Kingdom. (Compare with Revelation 6:1-2)
Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed, and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.” And in that place many believed in Jesus. (John 10:40-42)
This long reflection is an invitation to think about what we are seeing now. I hear homilies extolling the rejection of Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture, I hear priests replacing the word “God the Father” with “God the Mother” in the readings of Holy Scripture. I see mocking and even condemnation of the example of the saints. All of that coming from the highest echelons of the Church. That is the Shadow talking, this is the Hour of the Wolf. What to do? Be careful who you listen to because that will determine who do you belong to. You want to belong to Christ and enter Paradise, you do not want to meet the Flaming Sword of God’s justice that will consume the unfaithful. These are times for careful discernment.
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9-10)
In this dark hour of the wolves, speak to us, Lord. Your servants are listening. In this impossible hour, lead us to gather the flowers of your wisdom, lead us to good pastures, to the fountains of life.
January 11, 2020. On the Feast of St. Hyginius, Pope and Martyr
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