The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life for His Sheep

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “God, Who is not other than His Being, is a universally perfect being…He cannot lack any excellence that belongs to any given thing. (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 28).  In the same work, Boethiusquoting the work On the Consolation of Philosophy by the 6th-Century philosopher-theologian Boethius, St. Thomas wrote: “God enjoys a most excelling delight in Himself, as well as a universal joy in all things, without the admixture of any contrary. For wealth, He has the all-abundant sufficiency of all good things within Himself…for power, He has His infinite strength. For honor, He has the primacy and rule over all beings. For fame, He has the admiration of every intellect that knows Him however little.” (SCG, I, 102).

I quote these two passages to highlight the fact that God doesn’t need us. st-andrei-rublyov-the-holy-trinity-1411He’s perfectly happy in Himself; He’s perfect in His glory; He’s perfect in being perfect.  So, if God doesn’t need us and is perfectly complete without us, the obvious question is why? Why bother with creation in the first place, and especially with the human race, which would mess it all up?

Implicitly recognizing this fact, the Psalmist, in a poetic way, marvels in awe and wonder at this Self-Sufficient God, Who has mysterious – and unnecessarily – created man: When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place— What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? (Ps8:4-5)

From the Jewish tradition, there is a hymn used in the Passover ritual known as the Dayenu (Hebrew for: enough).  Here, likewise, there is amazement on the part of the Israelites, God’s Chosen People, as to the care that God has for His people, in spite of His perfect-ness. It’s long, but worth the read:

If God had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them, it would have been enough!

If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols, it would have been enough!

If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born, it would have been enough!

If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth, it would have been enough!

If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us, it would have been enough!

If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land, it would have been enough!

If He had taken us through the illustration-haggadah-exodussea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it, it would have been enough!

If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, it would have been enough!

If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the manna, it would have been enough!

If He had fed us the manna, and had not given us the Sabbath, it would have been enough!

If He had given us the Sabbath, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai, it would have been enough!

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough!

If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel, it would have been enough!

If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and not built for us the Holy Temple, it would have been enough!

The answer to this profound “Why” that echoes throughout history is given in St. John’s Gospel: He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. This is the answer: absolutely freely-given love. It is an exercise of His Goodness and Freedom to choose to create us out of love and to create us for love.  This is what makes the work of salvation perhaps even more remarkable. Not only did He freely choose to create us, but He even bound Himself to go in search of the “lost sheep” for we had all gone astray like sheep (Isaiah53:6). See again why the Israelites of old marveled in wonder at the mystery of God’s love. It is utterly amazing that He would do such a seemingly-absurd thing.

With that in mind, we turn to yesterday’s Mass of the 4th Sunday of Easter, often known as Good Shepherd Sunday. These readingsgoodshep from St. John’s Gospel testify to the profound mystery of God’s freely-given love for humanity.  As a good shepherd takes care of his sheep, so the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep in an infinitely more excellent way:

A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father. (John10:10-11, 18).

There is absolutely no necessity here; all this He did out of love; one of the beautiful aspects of the Catholic Faith is it’s ability to show, in concrete ways, the profundity of that radical Divine Love, which almost makes God seem out of His mind.  This past weekend, I had the blessed opportunity to see one of those concrete “pieces of evidence” of God’s love. During a 3-month period this spring and early summer, for the first time in 5 years, and for the third time in about 15 years, the Archdiocese of Torino, Italy, with the permission of the Holy Father, has put on display for public veneration the Shroud of Turin, shroud-of-turinbelieved to be – with very good evidence – the burial cloth of Christ.  Here we can see the extremes to which, out of love for sinful man, God has gone. Here, we see how the Good Shepherd literally laid down His life for His sheep. The wounds, the holes, the bruises, the lacerations, and the blood, all visible…all part of the silent testimony of the love of the Good Shepherd, which speaks volumes. It doesn’t get much more real, more concrete than this.

And our response to this unfathomable, mysterious wonder of God’s love is laid out so simply for us by St. John of the Cross: love is repaid by love alone. At the start, however, seem almost naturally to rise from the depths of our hearts the words of Psalm 100:5: Indeed, how good is the Lord, eternal His merciful love; He is faithful from age to age.

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