25 April 2018

Homily - 25 April 2018 - The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The image of Jesus as “the good shepherd” who “lays down [his] life for the sheep” is a powerful one and beloved by many (John 10:11). And even though we rarely encounter shepherds today, we know what they look like. A shepherd stands in the midst of the flock holding his distinctive emblem, the crook. Each of us has likely seen an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, complete with a shepherd’s crook, but such images are lacking throughout the history of Christian art. They are, in fact, something of a recent novelty.

We do, of course, find a few images of the Good Shepherd in the catacombs, in early churches, and in medieval manuscripts, but in these he carries no crook. In the catacombs, he is depicted as carrying a sheep on his shoulders (cf. Isaiah 40:1), but this depiction of the Good Shepherd soon gave way to depictions of him sitting in the midst of the flock and holding not a crook, but the cross surmounted on a pole. It is almost as if the ancient artists sought to tells us that the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, his Cross (cf. Psalm 23:4); they show the Good Shepherd carrying the instrument by which he laid down his life for his sheep.

In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess that, after his death and before his Resurrection, Jesus “descended into hell,” though here we do not mean the state of eternal separation from God, but to those who died before the gates of heaven were opened to us. Concerning this visitation, Saint Peter said, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God” (I Peter 4:6). The medieval called this the “Harrowing of Hell” and frequently depicted Jesus brandishing his cross before the gates of hell to pry them open, and as using his cross to pin demons to the ground. The medievals also showed Jesus using his cross planted firmly on the ground as a support as he helped those he freed escape from the mouth of hell. What is more, they also showed Jesus holding his cross out to those he freed, who, while taking hold of Jesus’ hand, also took hold of the cross. Jesus uses his Cross in the same way a shepherd uses his crook; truly, he is the Good Shepherd who rescues, defends, guides, and lays down his life for his sheep. This is why we make so much use of the Sign of the Cross.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis reflected on the Sign of the Cross. He said to parents, “Teach children how to make the sign of the Cross. If they learn it as children they will do it well later, as grown-ups.”[1] The Holy Father wants parents – and all of us – to so focus on the Sign of the Cross because of its central role in our faith. The Holy Father described the importance of the Cross, calling it

…the badge that shows who we are: our words, thoughts, gaze, works are under the sign of the Cross, that is, under the sign of Jesus’ love to the very end… We become Christians in the measure to which the Cross is imprinted on us as a “paschal” mark (cf. Revelation 14:1; 22:4), making visible, also outwardly, the Christian way of confronting life. Making the sign of the Cross when we wake, before meals, in facing danger, to protect against evil, in the evening before we sleep, means telling ourselves and others whom we belong to, whom we want to be. This is why it is so important to teach children how to make the sign of the Cross properly. And as we do upon entering a church, we can also do so at home, by keeping a bit of holy water in a suitable little vase — some families do so: this way, each time we come in or go out, by making the sign of the Cross with that water we remember that we are baptized. Do not forget, I repeat: teach the children how to make the sign of the Cross.

The sign of the Cross is, on the one hand, a most simple gesture and, on the other, a most profound statement of faith. Too often do we enter the church, dip our fingers in holy water, and make some hurried gesture as if swatting away flies, not recognizing the great power that is in the sign we should make.

When we enter the doors of the church, we pass, as it were, from earth to heaven. We make the sign of the Cross to place ourselves at the service of the Lord Jesus Christ and to remind us of his grace and mercy. Indeed,

by signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, [we] hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we must follow… The Cross shows us the road of life – the imitation of Christ.[2]

It is on the Cross that we see the fullest sign of Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father, and for this reason the Cross shows us how to conform our will to the Father’s and how to serve his majesty in sincerity of heart; it shows us how to be true sheep of the Good Shepherd.

The faithful have been signing themselves with the Cross for almost two thousand years. Indeed, the first mention we have in writing of the Sign of the Cross comes from Tertullian, who died in 220. “At every step,” he said, “when going in and out, when putting on clothes and shoes, when washing ourselves, when kindling the lights, when going to sleep, sitting down, and in every action we place the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”[3] We would do well to do the same, and to do so with attentive reverence and love, fully conscious of the sign we make, without being ashamed of doing so in public.

When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it concentrates and sanctifies us. It does so because it is the sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption… It is the holiest of all signs.[4]

On the day of our baptism, the priest or deacon, together with our parents and godparents, traced the sign of the Cross on our foreheads. As the minister did so, he said, “I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his Cross.”[5] The sign of the Cross is, then, a sign of ownership; it is the sign that marks us out as belonging to Christ and to no other. The Bishop, likewise, traced the sign of the Cross on our forehead with the sacred Chrism when he sealed us with the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit. We, too, make the sign of the Cross on our foreheads – and on our lips and over our heart - at every Mass when we prepare to hear the words of the Gospel so that we might keep the Lord Jesus in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart. We make the Sign of the Cross when we begin to pray and when we finish praying. In all of these ways, we seek to place the Sign of the Cross over everything we do. Let us, then, always make the Sign of the Cross with reverence and love so it may seep deep into our souls and make us more and more like the Good Shepherd. Through the sign of his Cross, may he know us as marked and belonging to him, and may we know him in whose death and resurrection we have been redeemed. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Wednesday General Audience, 18 April 2018.
[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), 177-178.
[3] Tertullian, in Klemens Richter, The Meaning of the Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today’s Questions, trans. Linda M. Maloney, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 132.
[4] Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, trans. Grace Branham (St. Louis, Missouri: Pio Decimo Press, 1956), 13f in Adolf Adam, trans. Robert C. Schultz, The Eucharistic Celebration: The Source and Summit of Faith (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 21.
[5] Rite of Baptism for Children, 41.

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