March 20, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

The smell of the sheep, the voice of the shepherd

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinPope Francis has an amazing gift for teaching the universal and timeless truths of our faith in new and sometimes startling ways. 

For example, when he said that Catholic married couples are not required to “breed like rabbits,” he was simply calling attention to teaching about the regulation of birth that the Church professes quite clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the much-misunderstood encyclical of Pope Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae” 

(“On Human Life”). The usual secular representation of our Catholic view of human sexuality and procreation was turned upside down by the pope’s very down-to-earth image of “breeding like rabbits,” but it is not a new teaching on this important, often controversial, subject.

My favorite—and startling—image used by Pope Francis, at least so far, is his admonition that Christians who are fully engaged in the missionary work that is our baptismal vocation should take on “the smell of the sheep.” When I was in the seminary, I had a friend (also named Joe) who came from Nebraska and had lots of firsthand experience with farm animals, including sheep. Joe used to protest in Scripture class whenever we discussed Jesus’ comparison of his people to sheep. 

“Why does he call us sheep?” Joe would ask. “Sheep are the stupidest animals in the barnyard; they are timid, and they smell bad.”

There is some disagreement among those who know a lot more about this than I do over the relative intelligence of sheep. Some say that the alpha or lead sheep is extremely intelligent. But no one disputes the point that sheep—individually and as a flock—smell pretty bad! Why then does Pope Francis urge us—at least figuratively—to take on the foul odor of sheep?  

Recall that the Holy Father’s theme for this season of Lent is “closeness”—that is, the closeness of God to all of us, his people, and the closeness we should feel with God, and for one another. “God is never aloof,” Pope Francis insists. He is, in fact, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Jesus, the pastor bonus (good shepherd), is especially close to his people. If we wish to follow him, to walk in his footsteps, we have to cast off our indifference (a sin that the Holy Father says is a serious temptation for Christians) and get involved. In other words, we need to “get our hands dirty” or, more graphically, we need to “take on the smell of the sheep” we are called to serve.

My seminary professors would respond to Joe’s objection about being compared to sheep by pointing out that Jesus’ repeated use of this image underscored how the shepherds of his time led the sheep. Their one instrument was the quality of their voices. In the Middle East even today, when shepherds allow their flocks to mingle, all an individual shepherd has to do is begin to sing. As Jesus tells us, the sheep know their shepherd’s voice, and they will come to him (evidence, perhaps, that sheep are not so stupid after all).

The good shepherd is close to his sheep. He is not indifferent to them. He cares what happens to them. He loves them the way our loving God cares for all his creation. 

During our pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month, my fellow pilgrims and I saw lots of sheep, goats, cattle and even camels. Our exceptional local guide, Tony Azraq, a Palestinian Christian, warned us not to get too close to the camels. They not only smell bad, they bite! Getting close to others involves risk. We may be disappointed or hurt. The Good Shepherd suffers because of his willingness to lay down his life for us, his sheep!

When the angels appeared to the shepherds who were tending their flocks the night before Jesus was born, they were startled—even ecstatic—by the tidings of great joy that were proclaimed to them in spite of their poverty and their lowly social status. They hurried to Bethlehem, to the manger where the child Jesus lay, in order to be close to him. They were not refused admittance by Mary and Joseph because of who they were (or because they smelled bad). They were welcomed warmly, and their presence in the Nativity scene has now been secured for all ages.

This Lent, let’s remember to draw closer to Jesus and to all our brothers and sisters no matter who they are or how they differ from us in their beliefs, customs or ways of life.

The “peace on Earth, good will toward all” that was promised to us on that holy night in the shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem will come to us in a more definitive way on Easter Sunday.

But the road to that great mystery of our faith must first take us, as it did our Lord, by the way of the cross.

May all of us follow Jesus on the road that leads to his passion and death with full confidence that it will lead us to the joy of the resurrection! †

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