Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Shepherd and Warrior

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C

Every year, this Sunday’s liturgy offers for our meditation a passage extracted from the lengthy Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, where our Lord presents Himself as the “true shepherd.” The four verses which I just read this year are taken from the last part of the speech and helps us foster a deeper understanding of this beautiful biblical image. But do you pay attention to the portrait of the Good Shepherd that is painted here?

Firstly, it dispels a widely held myth about the Good Shepherd. Whenever we think of this, what does it remind us of? For most people, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd may come from pictures in children’s books or in stained glass windows: Jesus as a benign shepherd in long flowing robes, surrounded by cuddly lambs and golden-haired children in a soft grassy field on a perfect day.  Perhaps, the image painted by St Luke in his parable of the lost sheep may have something to do with influencing this portrait (Luke 15:4-8).

But the image of the shepherd in St John’s gospel has nothing to do with this nice and pleasant picture. Our Lord is not presenting Himself as the one who lovingly caresses and coddles the wounded sheep like a doting mother whilst giving its ego a therapeutic massage. St John paints a picture of a seasoned battle-worn shepherd, strong, courageous, who fights off bandits and wild beasts like David (another shepherd-warrior-king). Here is one who is not afraid to risk everything and even lay down His life for the flock He loves. Here is one who stands in the face of danger, holds his ground and issues this warning, “no one can steal from the Father.”

We tend to overlook the fact that shepherds are also fighters. Shepherds must be prepared to kill to protect the sheep in their charge.  For of such is the “Good Shepherd.” The shepherd does not flee the scene at the slightest indication of danger or risk to himself. The shepherd does not sit down for a meal over roasted lamb with a bandit who has only one intent in mind – the stealing and killing of his charges. The shepherd does not hand over his flock to the wild beasts in order to appease them and to save his own skin. As “nice” as the image of a benign and friendly shepherd may be, he does not have his sheep’s best interest in mind. His job is to protect and guard them from their enemies. His job is not to invite the enemies in, to feast on his flock.

No, the life of a shepherd and his flock is one marked by danger and strife. In fact, all life is a struggle from start to finish.  At no time is life not in the conflict of struggle.  And the struggle to survive is a fraction of the total struggle in which life is engaged at all times and places.  The heart struggles to beat, the lungs to function, families to love, enterprises to exist. Man’s ineffable, ineluctable and interminable destiny in this world is conflict (war as Heraclitus puts it).  Someone once said, “Time is war.  Space is conflict.  Land is violence.”

And that is the reason why we speak of the Church as Church Militant, with Christ as our Warrior-King, Shepherd cum General. It is not our intention to be belligerent, that is to pick fights and to sow discord and violence. Rather, it is others who often pick fights with us, who sow discord in our midst and eventually intend our destruction. And so, our destiny has already been written by the perennial condition of a fallen humanity hostile to Christ and His mission. The Catechism of Trent, Article IX, puts it very succinctly: the Church “is called militant, because it wages eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.”

It is not un-Christian to fight, on the contrary, Christians are called to fight the good fight. But how can this spirit be compatible with the commandment to love? Everything a Christian does should be motivated by love, but this does not conflict with the spirit to strive and fight. Rather this spirit should be a fruit of love. Love presupposes sacrifice for the one who is loved. Without sacrifice, there is no true love – only sentimentalism. If a man loves his wife and children, he is ready to defend them. If he loves his country, he must be ready to fight against all attacks. Likewise, he too must defend his faith and his Church. True love is proven under such difficult circumstances. Love is ultimately determined when self-sacrifice is called for. Our Lord who sacrificed Himself on the cross is the greatest example of the militant spirit as the fruit of love.

But unfortunately, modern society, mistakes our fundamental convictions as intolerance and extremism which breeds violence. We live in a society that is more concerned with providing self-help therapies which affirm us in our error than it is with challenging us with the Truth in order to change. In fact, this is a generation which can’t handle the Truth. Living a lie is so much less threatening and comfortable. That is why the world tries to convince us not to enter into battle. “Do not waste your life fighting for abstract ideals, enjoy the pleasures life has to offer,” is its message. Yet the Catholic spirit should be the exact opposite – “Do not waste your life on the pleasures of this world, fight for ideals that are worth living and dying for.”

Sadly, the church is too often simply a mirror of the wider culture on this issue. This plays out in how church leaders sometimes compromise the most basic values and beliefs of the Church in order to appease the world. We want to make peace with the world, even at the risk of offending God. We insist on “listening” to the world and even conforming to the values of the world, forgetting that the primary duty of the Church is to teach prophetically. And so we end up dumbing things down in an attempt to be catchy or popular. We fail to realise that our kids can actually understand the big doctrines of the Christian faith, if they are given the opportunity and the forum to do so. But we often believe that they are too dumb to handle these things.

But the Church of the living is ultimately the Church Militant. This is what the Church is meant to be. Catholicism is meant to be active and not passive. It's where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you. The longer you are in it, the more you realise its demands of you. The Catholic Church is not a mall or a spa. No, the Catholic Church is a gym, a battleship ready for war. Yes. The Catholic faith is difficult. It is demanding and it’s meant to be so. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming oneself.  We are challenged in a deep way, not just to “feel good about myself” but to become holy. 

In times of war and in the heat of battle, obedience is paramount. That is why the Lord tells us, “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” This is what ultimately defines us – our obedience. He makes the judgment call, we merely carry it out. In the midst of a culture of mass information, relativism and individualism, in which there are so many competing voices, we must learn to listen to the only voice that matters, the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd. Failing to listen to His voice only ends in chaos and conflict within the ranks of the flock.

So who are the sheep of His flock? Are they those docile, pacifist creatures who only know how to pray, pay and obey? Hardly. His “sheep” are those who have the courage to follow Him and the humility to obey Him. His “sheep” are those who are prepared to fight in His army and die for Him. If our Shepherd King is a Warrior, we His sheep must be ready to wage the “eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil.” Indeed, following His example, pious Catholic men and women throughout the centuries have brought tremendous acts of daring and bravery to the battlefields of life and steadfastly faced innumerable situations of danger and conflict. Nothing could be more Catholic than this.

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