06 May 2017

Homily - 6 May 2017 - Entering through the gate of Jesus' wounds

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

When medieval men and women looked upon the natural world, they looked at nature differently than we do. We admire nature’s beauty, but they knew that “the merciful love of the Lord fills the earth” (Psalm 32:5). They saw what we too often forget, namely, that

everything in Creation had a purpose…: the edification and instruction of sinful man. The Creator had made animals, birds and fishes, and had given them their natures or habits, so that the sinner could see the world of mankind reflected in the kingdom of nature, and learn the way to redemption by the examples of different creatures.[1]

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For example, a medieval bestiary – something akin to a zoological text - housed today at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library says, “The very keen sight of the [mountain] goat, by which it can discern things afar off, signifies our Lord who is God the all-knowing Lord and God.”[2] This same bestiary calls the fox “a clever, cheating animal” because it “lies on the ground holding its breath, so that it is hardly breathing. The birds see that it is not breathing … and think it is dead.” When the birds land near the fox, “it seizes them and devours them” and for this reason “is the symbol of the devil, who appears to be dead to all living things until he has them by the throat and punishes them.”[3] As it was with these medieval authors, so it can be with us; for those who know how to look upon it, the natural world is still full of signs teaching us about sin and about the merciful love of God.

Coming from this perspective, Saint Ambrose of Milan said something curious about “sea-dogs and the monstrous whales, the dolphins, seals, and others of species.” He heard or read somewhere that when “they have a presentiment of some situation of extreme danger, in order to protect their youthful progeny and to allay their panic, they … receive and hide their offspring within their bodies…”[4] He saw in this an allusion to Jesus’ mercy toward sinful humanity. The Seraphic Doctor said, “In this manner Christ wished, as a proof of his most ardent love, to open [his] feet and hands and to open up his side, so he might receive us into the inner most recesses of his charity and protect and defend us from the malignant enemy.”[5]

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Saint Peter reminds us today what the Prophet Isaiah long ago foretold: “By his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24). We might say, then, that when Jesus said, “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture,” he gave an invitation to enter through his wounds (John 10:9). Those who enter through the signs of his love take their rest within his Sacred Heart and go out again through his wounds, bringing his merciful love with them so that it might fill the earth, so that they, too, might bear the message of redemption to others.

For some, the idea of contemplating and of entering into  the wounds of Jesus might seem rather gloomy, depressing, or even macabre. This can only be the case for those who do not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead or that he is who he said he is, the only begotten Son of God who took on our humanity and “bore our sins in his body upon the cross” (I Peter 2:24). Because of his triumph over the grave, his wounds are not morbid, but are instead the precious, glorious, and unmistakable signs of his love. Whereas we so often attempt to hide our wounds from others – and even from Jesus – he freely shows his wounds to us and invites us to return through them to him, “the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls” (I Peter 2:25).

If we have been healed by his wounds, what is our illness and what is our diagnosis? The sickness, of course, is sin, our tendency to choose our own desires over what God wants for us; it is our failure to love both God and neighbor in ways both great and small. It seems a great many of us do not seem to know we are sinners, as can be evidenced from how few people confess their sins and receive sacramental absolution, or in how many people, when confessing their sins, say something like, “It’s been a year since my last confession; since that time, I was impatient three times; that is all.” Such a claim seems unrealistic, at best. We need to spend more time contemplating the wounds of Christ to know both “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and to know how often our love does not match his; we must contemplate his wounds in order to “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

We have all known someone who, when sick, refuses to acknowledge he or she is not well. Likewise, we have all known someone who acknowledges he or she is sick but yet refuses to follow the prescriptions of the doctor. How many Catholics are like this when it comes to their spiritual malady? How many Catholics refuse to acknowledge their sinfulness? How many Catholics refuse to follow the prescription of the Divine Physician by not seeking healing through the wounds of Jesus in the Sacrament of Penance? If we do not see ourselves as in need of healing, we cannot understand the full beauty of the wounds of Jesus; if we do not acknowledge and confess our sins, we cannot know the full joy of receiving his merciful love, of being counted among his flock, and numbered as one of his sheep. We must return to the shepherd of our souls and invite others to join us.

Throughout his teaching, the Lord Jesus tells us to imitate certain characteristics of serpents and of doves, but he does not call us serpents or doves. Rather, he calls us sheep and lambs, but does not tell us to imitate them (cf. Matthew 10:16; John 10:7-9; 21:15). Why? That medieval bestiary says the lamb, “above all other animals … is able to recognize its mother, so much so that if it is in the middle of a large flock, as soon as its mother bleats, it recognizes its parent’s voice and hastens to it.”[6] What is more, “sheep represent the innocent and simple among Christians,” qualities not highly prized in our society but greatly loved by the Good Shepherd (cf. Matthew 11:28).[7] This is why Hugh of St. Cher said, “There is the humility of the sheep that does not desire to be in charge but loves to be obedient.”[8] The true sheep of the Good Shepherd hear his voice rising above the great cacophony of our day and follow him because he “calls them to refreshment” (cf. Psalm 23:3).[9]

If we have not yet heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, it is because we have not explored his wounds or allowed ourselves to be immersed in his love by spending time silently before the Eucharist. Seeing the immensity of his humility, his courage, and his love displayed for us in his wounds and in his Body and Blood, how can we not allow ourselves to be vulnerable in his presence? What arrogance it takes to guard our hearts from being pierced by his love.

Lewis E M 14:11
Let us, then, not merely imitate the humility and obedience of sheep, but let us seek to actually be Jesus’ sheep. Let us quiet ourselves and open the ears of our hearts to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to enter into the gate of his wounds. Let us not resist him, but let us yield to the power of his love to receive “the forgiveness of [our] sins” and the refreshment of our souls (Acts 2:38; cf. Psalm 23:3). If we, in sincere humility, listen to his voice and acknowledge that we have “gone astray like sheep,” if we return to his wounds and confess our sins, we can enter into the pasture of his heart, and we “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come” to enjoy abundant life (I Peter 2:25; Psalm 23:6; cf. John 10:10). Amen.

[1] Richard Barber, trans., Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764 with all the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 7.
[2] Ibid., 55.
[3] Ibid., 65.
[4] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the Hexameron, 5.3.7. In Roy Joseph De Ferrari, ed., The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Vol. 42. John J. Savage, trans. (New York, 1961), 164-165.
[5] Saint Bonaventure, Sermon for the Second Sunday After Easter, 8. In Timothy J. Johnson, trans., Works of St. Bonaventure: The Sunday Sermons of St. Bonaventure (Saint Bonaventure, New York: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2008), 283.
[6] Richard Barber, trans., Bestiary, 81.
[7] Ibid., 78.
[8] In Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 10.5. Robert J. Karris, trans., Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. XI: Commentary on the Gospel of John (Saint Bonaventure, New York, Franciscan Institute Publications, 2007), 551.
[9] Saint Bonaventure, ibid.

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