On this Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear two great images of Christ crucified and resurrected as the basis of our life with God in the Church.
The first, from the Gospel, is Christ the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The second is from our psalm, taken up by St. Peter in the reading from Acts: Christ the stone rejected by the builders which has become the cornerstone.
Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep, called to hear his voice and follow him. If Christ is the cornerstone, Peter writes elsewhere, in his first letter, we too are called to be living stones, as he is a living stone, built up with him into a spiritual house, a holy and royal priesthood, a holy nation, called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
A spiritual house, a holy priesthood, a holy nation. To follow the Good Shepherd as his sheep, to be living stones built on Christ the cornerstone, is to be called to holiness. St. Peter says so, and Peter’s successor, Pope Francis, has recently reminded us of the same thing in his new apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exsultate, which means “Rejoice and be glad.”
The universal call to holiness
Now, at our parish you don’t need me to tell you that every one of us is called to holiness. You’ve heard it many times from our pastor. It’s one of his favorite themes! But what does it really mean? Some people think, Pope Francis says, that holiness means “withdrawing from ordinary affairs and spending much time in prayer,” but no. The pope says:
We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus…
Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation … When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better”. In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness.
There are two great roadblocks that keep people who would like to be holy from walking the road to holiness.
One roadblock is the temptation of thinking that I’ve already basically arrived. I’m one of the good people! After all, we know who the bad people are, and I’m not like them! I have the good beliefs, the good ideas. My bad habits aren’t like their bad habits. I’m not the one with a problem.
The other roadblock is the temptation of thinking that my problems are just too big. My sins are too shameful. Up in Maine they have a saying: “You can’t get there from here.” Holiness is just too far away.
If we resist these temptations and walk the road to holiness, we will have life and joy. Christ the Good Shepherd tells us, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Pope Francis tells us that the call to holiness is a call to be more alive, more human.
Holiness and hardship
As we look around, though, we see for so many people today life and humanity are slipping away. So many people are saying “No” to life through abuse of drugs, the opioid drug abuse crisis which has been growing for a long time. Drug overdoses have become a leading cause of death, more than car crashes or firearms. Alcohol and tobacco take so many lives. Suicide is on the rise. So many people saying “No” to life.
Why? Well, life is hard. People suffer with stress, anxiety, depression. They struggle with problems at home, at work, at school. They feel lonely and isolated. They want to stop feeling bad.
I wish I could tell you that if people just became holier — if they just spent more time praying, receiving the sacraments, living their lives with love, helping the poor — these problems would just go away. But the truth is that holy people struggle with stress, depression, mental illness, isolation and other problems just like everyone else.
But they don’t struggle alone. They’ve learned that holiness doesn’t mean you don’t have problems or you don’t struggle. Holiness means that struggling and suffering doesn’t separate you from God; that as we carry our crosses for him he is with us in our suffering.
The good news is that having problems like these doesn’t disqualify us! Don’t think that because of your problems you can’t grow in holiness.
What are the first two steps in a 12-step addiction program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, or programs for any kind of self-destructive, compulsive behavior, whether it’s drug abuse, overeating, gambling, sexual behavior, pornography, whatever it is?
The first two steps are admitting that one has a problem, an unmanageable problem, that one is powerless over; and turning to a higher power for help. Basically rejecting those two temptations on the road to holiness, isn’t it? Thinking that I don’t have a problem or that even God can’t help me. We do and he can.
Now, in AA they talk about God as whatever we understand him to be, but of course what really matters is not how we understand God but as he is in himself.
And this above all is how God in himself has been revealed to the world: Christ crucified, suffering for us and with us. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for you. He is there for you and he does not mean for you to suffer alone. Gaudete et exaltate! Rejoice and be glad.
He’s with us in our sufferings and he means us to share one another’s burdens, as stones in a wall share the load they bear. If there’s someone in need in your life, reach out to them. Let them know that they’re not alone. Be the means for God to show his love to people around you.
Coda: Earth Day and holiness
By the way, in addition to being Good Shepherd Sunday, today, April 22, is also Earth Day. As Catholics, Earth Day is a reminder of our calling to be stewards of creation, to care for the earth and the environment.
One way that we can grow in holiness while caring for creation is through the virtue of simplicity, by living as simply as we can and not letting advertisers tell us that we need all the new things. We should ask ourselves: Do I need that new thing, or can I live without it? Do I need to throw away my old thing, or can I still use it? If I can’t use it, could I give it away or donate it instead of throwing it out? If I do need a new thing, do I need to buy it new or can I find it secondhand?
These are small things, but a habit of asking ourselves questions like this won’t just save us some money. In these small ways we can help to save the planet, and, through the virtue of simplicity, to grow in holiness and help to save our souls.