Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Alleluia Shepherd

Each week Fr. Gregory, OJN, the Guardian of our Order of Julian of Norwich, of which I’m an Oblate, sends us a copy of his Chapter Talk to the Members Regular. I took special note this week of his opening question: “Why do we say ‘Alleluia’? What is the actual content, the belief or experience behind our ‘Alleluia’?”

He goes on to observe that most Christians, whose connection with the Easter mystery may be rather tenuous in their everyday living, probably say “
Alleluia” because everyone else in church is saying it; because it’s something which our prayer books prescribe that we do between the feasts of the Resurrection and of Pentecost; because saying “Alleluia” confirms that we, indeed, belong to this community which is doing the same thing. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that in itself. But what if that’s the only reason you and I join in saying it? If that were so, “Alleluia” wouldn’t mean much of anything. It would be but another “church word” which crazy Episcopalians and Lutherans seem to throw around so frequently!

As with so many words which we use in the liturgy, “
Alleluia” is a Hebrew combination of “hallelu = “praise or give praise to” and “ya” = an abbreviation of the sacred name, “Yahweh”, which the Jewish faithful respectfully don’t even pronounce. “Alleluia” is an ancient liturgical invitation, in both Judaism and Christianity, used some 23 times in the Psalms, a religious cry possibly used to encourage congregational participation. After the time of the Macchabees (2nd cent. BCE) and beyond, it became primarily a joyous shout: for example, by the Jews of Alexandria after being saved from annihilation by the Egyptians, and as the angels song of praise to God in the Book of Revelation. But what does “Alleluia” really mean to say? What does it celebrate? Why praise God more, liturgically speaking, during Eastertide than at other times of the Church year? Why does it have such an important place in our 50-day long celebration of the Resurrection mystery? Perhaps the texts for today's liturgy, Easter 4, -- 1 John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18 -- give us some understanding.

To do proper justice to the reading from 1 John, however, we need to go back several verses and notice what’s said in vv. 11 ff.: “
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who...murdered his brother...All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them...

Then, at this point, the passage for today begins: “
We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us...” John the Evangelist is writing from the perspective of his own church community in the late first century CE which is consumed with a “sibling rivalry” which has torn the community apart. He says earlier: “...Children, as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come...They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us...

Only John uses the unique word “
antichristos” = “the one against the anointed or Messiah”, and by that he refers to early second century secessionists in his community, false teachers, schismatics, possibly even Gnostics, i.e., those who claim to have “special” or secret knowledge of the the truth. How very relevant, both in his day and in the 21st century Episcopal Church, where even some of our bishops' recent actions, sadly, seem to fit the description! It seems that there are people in every age of the Church who “hate” and, figuratively, “murder” fellow Christians, clearly distancing themselves from Jesus, the source of “eternal life”. In a favorite book of mine from back in the 1950’s, called God’s Frontier and translated from Spanish, author José Luis Martin Descalzo puts these words in the mouth of his main character, Don Macario, a priest who is dying: “...Toward love there is one straight road: love. All the others are devious. But of them the shortest is hate, which so often is only a way of love, a disguise...

John proclaims that there’s only one way to understand and know what love really is: from the One who “
laid down his life for us” so that “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The meaning of the word "love", especially as applied to God, of course, can be slippery and hard for us human beings to define. But John gets about as specific as one can. He says that if you and I want to know if and how God who is love abides in us, we need only ask this: “Do I, with all that I possess, notice brothers and sisters in need, any need whatever, and still refuse to respond to those needs?” John says that our words and speech are one thing, but when it comes to love only truth and our actions can tell us if we really have it. I’m guessing that reading John’s words can make you, like me, feel pretty guilty. John was obviously aware of that, because he reminds us that when our hearts “condemn us”, his words, -- and they will -- we can be comforted by realizing that “God is greater than our hearts”: that God knows the truth of our struggle to truly love, that all he expects is that we continue to ask, to try to obey, to forge ahead in trying to “do what pleases him”; that we believe, i.e., “set our heart on” the Person and example of Jesus; that we open ourselves to the gift God sends us, which is the Spirit who “abides” in us: not for just a little while, but always and in all ways. In another part of the book, God’s Frontier, which I cited earlier, Don Macario observes: “...Yes the hardest thing to bear at the Last Judgment will not even be the sight of our own emptiness, but knowing that God is so good that He forgives event those of us who take advantage of that kindness of His to sneak through to salvation by the back door...

In the Collect we pray: “
God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls each of us by name, and follow where he leads...with you and the Holy Spirit...” All through these first three weeks of the Easter season, we’ve heard stories of the Risen Jesus’ interaction with various people: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, Thomas, Peter, Nathanael, James and John. In almost every case, Jesus addresses these people by their name. Each person is personally important to Jesus. Though they may have some reservations, doubts, fears, Jesus is nevertheless completely at ease with each one; he feels an intimate bond with each of them.

That’s the kind of person John describes in his account of the Gospel today, using an image familiar to his hearers, and one repeated in today’s Psalm 23: that of the shepherd. Sheepherding in Jesus‘ time was far from the domesticated, idyllic metaphor which sermons on this Sunday generally tend to conjure up. It was hard, dangerous work, and no particular honor went with it. The animals were pretty stupid, and shepherds and their flocks were always on the move, whether the weather was inclement or not, and there were always unknown factors present. Despite this, ancient Israel used the shepherd metaphor, in referring both to God as well as to other great leaders.

John speaks of Jesus as the “
good”, the “noble”, the “ideal” shepherd -- one who, as he later says in his Epistle, “lays down his life for his sheep”. He contrasts Jesus to the “hired hand”, the one who merely goes through the motions: sloppily, inattentively, usually and primarily out of financial considerations, and with an eye to taking care of his own self. But Jesus knows “my own” and they know him. There’s relationship between them, a mirror of Jesus‘ relationship with the Father: a relationship of love because love comes from God because God is love.

As the ideal shepherd, according to John, Jesus excludes no one from the “
flock” or from the embrace of his love and mercy.  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
Everyone, without exception, is called by name, to be one with Jesus and with all the others, to share the love which is Godself. Jesus proves it by his willingness to “l
ay down my life in order to take it up again”. Jesus intention is unambiguous: that there be “one sheep-herd and one shepherd”, abiding in the love of God.

How does that sit with you and me? What if you and I were willing to live like this? to treat every sister and brother we encounter today as Jesus does? to be willing to call one another by name: the name of Love?

I think, then, that we could not resist shouting -- all the time -- with full awareness of what we are saying: “Alleluia! Praise God for Godself!  Alleluia! Praise God for myself!  Alleluia! Praise God for my sisters and brothers!”

No comments: