“My sheep hear my voice;I know them, and they follow me." (Jn 10:27)Following up, again, on my question for the season. After listening to the gospel and the rest of the readings, psalm, and homily on Sunday, I'm trying to reflect briefly on this question -
What does it mean "to rise from the dead"?
In the reading from Acts yesterday, we heard a bit about one of the journeys of Paul and Barnabas. They have been preaching in the towns to the Jews and their Gentile sympathizers, called here "worshippers" but elsewhere "God-fearers." Their preaching hits a snag when the local Jewish establishment fights back. The preaching to the "Gentiles" (the word is derived from the Latin word for "nations," gentes, translating the Hebrew goyyim and the Greek ethne) falls happily upon the ears of the non-Jewish "God-fearers," who support the Jewish community but are unwilling to be assimilated through cultic initiation and circumcision. Paul and the diaspora Jews were wooing the same clients, and though Paul had made inroads, in this case at least, people of influence stirred up "a persecution" against Paul and Barnabas, and they moved on.
In the second reading that continues Revelation, those who suffered the Great Tribulation, probably a reference to martyrs of the Roman persecutions under emperors from Nero to Trajan or Hadrian, are seen gleaming in the New Jerusalem, where they will never suffer again. The "Lamb will shepherd them," leading them to streams of life-giving water, wiping away every tear.
The brief gospel offers a couple of images of the Good Shepherd, the one quoted above, and the promise of eternal life. Further, the gospel speaks of the intimacy between Jesus and the Father, invoked on behalf of the "sheep," reinforcing their safety in the care of the Good Shepherd. The sheep belong to the Father. No one has the power or strength to remove them.
So, what does it mean to rise from the dead?
I ask myself, first, what does it mean to be dead? In these readings, it's clear from the second reading that there's a literal, foundational meaning. There is a meaninglessness to loss of life, especially when the good die at the hands of brutal and "godless" persons; or, let's say, people who worship different gods. This is not a dead issue in the twenty-first century. There is plenty of religious slaughter in the world today, though it seems to me a lot of it is political slaughter or ideological slaughter that wraps itself in religious language. It doesn't matter. Innocent people die. Murderers and ideologues live. With the death of innocents, something of us dies too, something that wants to believe in the triumph of good, that good is stronger than evil all the time, that God protects good people from harm. Violence, the self-perpetuating force that both "civilizes" the world (for the strong) and destabilizes it (from the disenfranchised side) in a cycle of blood and terror, is ongoing death. To rise from the dead, we need to stop that cycle.
To be unable to change is to be dead. As early as the ancient Greeks (Heraclitus), life has been associated with change. No less a light than Cardinal Newman observed that "to live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often." I'm not sure whether his eminence would have applied this to divine life, which has been tenaciously defended as "unchanging," but I like the idea that for created life, anyway, life is change, because it fits with the data. I think that when we tend to settle into all kinds of patterns of unchanging behavior, and when it begins to affect our interactions with others negatively, so that we resist change, we start to die in a way. This is spinning through folks in the second reading. I don't blame them, I'm the same way. It's still a mortal issue.
How can I tell when to change, and when to hold fast? I think that Christ who is life, who is perfect life, whether in perfect stasis or fluidity, wants us to know. "My sheep hear my voice," says the Lord. In the chaos and rancor of life, when we listen for the voice that says "Do not be afraid, put away your sword, love one another, love your neighbor, especially your enemy, as yourself," we hear the voice of the shepherd. There are a lot of other voices out there, but none of them is the same. The voice of the shepherd leads out of violence and non-life to "peaceful streams of life-giving water." And generally speaking, the voice is not coming from "beyond," but from right beside us somehow. We discern it together. All of us, together, know the voice of the shepherd.
Being sixty isn't an excuse for stasis, but it's not a free-for-all, either. My place, it seems to me, is to listen for the voice of the shepherd, and listen from inside my community, for the give-and-take of discernment to lead us out of the mundane and mortal quest for revenge and participation in the culture of violence, and to move together toward peace for everyone. And as a leader in the community of sorts, I also need to echo and channel the shepherd's exhortation to peace and tranquility. I need to be willing to go outside the sheepfold and bring back the lost, if I am called to do that, and defend the weak and vulnerable with my wits and strength.
The Shepherd and the Lamb matter. The Shepherd and the Father are one. And by the grace of God, we are made one with the Lamb by the bath and the meal of the Spirit. It was life that changed Paul, life that inspired and gave courage to the multitude who shed their blood and who were washed clean in the Lamb's blood. I want that life, the life that says "Do not be afraid, put away your sword, love one another, love your neighbor, especially your enemy, as yourself." It looks to me as though the life that speaks those words is what it means to rise from the dead. The voice that speaks those words is the voice of the shepherd.
You have spread your banquet before me
In the unbroken sight of my foes
While my head is anointed with kindness
And the cup of my life overflows.
God alone may lead my spirit
Far away from want and fear.
For the Lord is my true shepherd
And I know the Lord is near. (Tom Conry, "Psalm 23," © 1994 Team Publications, published by OCP)