Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Today we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Easter. In each of the three annual cycles, it is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is because at this stage of the liturgical year, the Church has us reflect on passages from chapter ten of St John’s Gospel, a different section in each cycle. Jesus tells us in this chapter: “I am the Good Shepherd”. He insists that as such he “came that they [we, his sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly”. And he spells out what this entails for him: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep”. This is always a consoling revelation for prayerful reflection.
And our response? In the gospel reading (John 10:27-30), Jesus says to us this morning: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice”.
We belong to him; we are his sheep. We are called to relate to our Good Shepherd. How? He says to us: You belong to me; listen to my voice and follow me.
On December 8 last year, nineteen men and women were beatified in Algeria, all of them martyred in a few years at the end of the 1990s. Seven of these were our Cistercian monks abducted and killed in 1996. You may have seen their story in the film entitled Of Gods and Men. We celebrated their liturgical memorial for the first time this past Wednesday, 8 May. In recent months I have found myself drawn to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of them. They have been a source of inspiration for me.
On 14 December 1993, twelve Croatian Catholic workers living and working 4 kilometres from the monks of Tibhirine, and worshiping at the monastery, had their throats cut. Ten days later the same armed rebel group came to the monastery on Christmas Eve and made three demands which, if responded to, would have involved monastic complicity with the rebels. Dom Christian, the Prior, courageously refused all three demands, and, amazingly, prevailed. The first reaction of some of the monks was that they should leave immediately. Within a few days, in dialogue with each other and their bishop, they had adopted a wait-and-see, wait-and-listen policy.
Over the next two and a half years they listened on a daily basis for the voice of the Shepherd. They listened for God’s will for them – in the psalms and readings of their liturgy; in their ongoing discernment together as brothers in community; in their interactions with their bishop in Algiers; in their membership of the much shrunken local Algerian church; in their relationships with the leadership of our Order; with their neighbours, the simple threatened Muslim people of their locality who, for so many years, had been their close friends, shared part of the monastery buildings as a mosque, and relied on Br Luke, the doctor, for medical attention. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice”. The Shepherd’s voice came to them from many sources. They obeyed Jesus: “Listen to my voice”. They obeyed St Benedict: “Listen carefully, my son, and attend with the ear of your heart”.
The fundamental message they heard was: “I lay down my life for my sheep”. This profession of faith in “Crucified Love” (a favourite term) occurs over and over in their journals, chronicles and letters. Hearing this word became the rock foundation of their stability at Tibhirine. Violence and death surrounded them daily. They received news at regular intervals of the killing of eleven of the other twelve martyrs, their friends, not to mention so many others, Algerians and foreigners. But: “I lay down my life for my sheep”. “I give them eternal life”. “No one will ever steal them from me”.
The complementary message was that those who belong to Christ, who listen to his voice, follow him. In its most extreme form, as in the Algeria of that time, it could mean being willing to lay down one’s life for the friend. When Christian de Cherge, as a young man, was a National Serviceman in Algeria, he had a friendship with a young Muslim called Mohammed. One day the two friends were walking on the street. A gang attacked Christian. Mohammed defended him. They both knew that what he had done had made him extremely vulnerable. The next day Mohammed was found murdered. Christian never forgot this experience, never forgot Mohammed’s deed. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), took on a profoundly personal meaning for him and became formative of his understanding of true human and Christian life. To be willing to lay down one’s life for the other: for Christ, for one’s brother or sister, even for the “enemy”. This often appears in their reflection on the latest killing. For example, after the murder of the first of the Algerian martyrs, the Marist Brother, Henri Verges, Dom Christian de Cherge wrote to a group of friends:
“‘There is no greater love than to give one’s life for those we love’, said Jesus in the gospel of this May 8, 1994. If this verse sounds so applicable to the life of Brother Henri, it is not because it describes the last day of his life, but because he was essentially ‘given’, even to the point of that perfect gift which is forgiveness. This perfect gift was already contained in the first recommendation that he had sent me for adjusting our community guidelines to the present situation. This was that in our day-to-day relations, we should openly be on the side of love, forgiveness and communion, against hate, vengeance and violence’”.
The fact of the matter is, of course, that, barring a road fatality, most or all of us here this morning are going to die in a bed somewhere, and even of old age. The Algerian drama isn’t likely to be ours. But I think today’s gospel isn’t suggesting that. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life”. In another letter Christian wrote of Br Henri: “His death seemed to be so natural, just part of a long life entirely given to the small ordinary duties”. As sheep who belong to Jesus, this is our call: to listen to him, to follow him by lives entirely given to the small ordinary duties. What concretely does this mean for each one of us as we try to live our Christian discipleship? I will end with the challenge Dom Christian put before his brothers in community on Holy Thursday two years before they gave their ultimate witness to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, by taking up his example. He said:
“From experience we know that little things often cost a lot, particularly when we have to go on doing them day after day. It’s alright to have to wash one’s brothers’ feet on Maundy Thursday… but how about doing it everyday? Or washing the feet of anyone who turns up? When Fr Bernardo (Abbot General) told us that the Order has more need of monks than martyrs, he was not, of course, referring to this type of martyrdom, which is in fact what shapes the monk through so many little things. We have given our heart to God once and for all, and we find it hard when he takes it piecemeal. Taking up an apron, as Jesus did, can be as serious and solemn an act as to lay down one’s life… and conversely, laying down one’s life may be as simple as taking up an apron. We should tell ourselves this when the everyday tasks or deeds of love weigh on us with this threat which also has to be shared with all.
“We know from our own experience that it is easier to give to one person than to another, to love one brother or sister more than another, even in community. Yet the professional conscience of the doctor, the oath he or she has taken, oblige him or her to treat all patients, ‘even the devil’, Brother Luke would add. And does not our ‘professional oath’ as religious (indeed as baptised persons to begin with!), oblige us to love all, ‘even the devil’ if God asks this of us? What do we do about it? …”
The Good Shepherd calls us to create good shepherd communities. What do we do about it?
By Dom David Tomlins