The Good Shepherd lays down his life for His sheep … He has power to lay it down and power to take it up again. What does this mean for us today? Is it just a consoling, comfortable metaphor we think of as a nice painting… or is it actually a challenging call to move us to courage, sacrifice and a deeper participation in Christ’s love and truth?
This is perhaps the most moving aspect of our Gospel. The Good Shepherd demonstrates the authenticity of His love by emptying Himself – giving His life for us by laying down His life for His sheep. This is not just a sweet metaphor without effect or power … He endured the worst torture and death to save us. But because He is God, He also takes it up again as He wills.
In laying down His life – He triumphs with the Resurrection!
If Christ is God, with plenary power over life and death, the Shepherd need not die … “no one takes it from me… I lay it down on my own.” Again, this reveals the Good Shepherd’s motivation for laying down His life … LOVE for His sheep. It also reveals the courage, confidence and determination the Shepherd puts into all that He does in service of His sheep, for He does so for His Father “who knows me and I know the Father… and “this is why the Father loves me.”
Hence, Christ manifests what a true leader, a true Shepherd is … one who teaches the truth to the sheep and lays down his life for them.. as Christ says, they will “hear my voice and there will be one flock, one Shepherd”. There is one truth, one source of truth – the Word… the voice that is heard by the sheep who know Him and they are “one flock”, united not in some vague concept but in Christ – who is absolute truth and absolute love.
Christ appointed Shepherds over His Church – Peter and the Apostles, and their successors, the Pope and bishops and priests and deacons. They are the “voice” of Christ and are called to “lay down” their lives in service of the sheep. They feed the sheep in Word and sacrament – fulfilling their office of service as a bridge between God and His People.
The sheepfold are the laity, who comprise with the clergy – the People of God. The sheep are called to listen to the voice of the shepherd – Christ – through the voice of the Church’s teaching authority (magisterium), and receive the power to act in obedience to the voice of the Shepherds and to be a leaven in the secular world, blending and witnessing supernatural faith in every day secular life, ordinary duties in civil society – like leaven transforming the culture and world and causing it to rise up in the service and glory of God.
We are all called to imitate the Good Shepherd, who is loved by the Father because he lays His life down for His sheep. We are therefore called to lay down our lives for the love of Christ and our neighbor.
What does is it mean to lay down one's life like the Good Shepherd?
It means to witness to God’s truth and love as Christ and the saints and martyrs did. To put the love and truth of God above all things, even above our physical lives, if necessary. For us in this moment, it does not now mean an actual shedding of blood for Christ but we must remember this is exactly what it means today for our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq who are being put to death and driven from their homelands and Churches by Islamic extremists at levels surpassing early Christian martyrs. Pope Francis has forcefully addressed this in recent homilies and speeches.
In the Beatitudes, which are a portrait of Christ’s attributes and His New Law of love … our model for living … he says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” If we live our faith authentically as witnesses, we will find ourselves persecuted in some manner, for not giving in to the pressure of political correctness and modernism and conformity to modern culture and values.
So in our country, “laying down our lives” means firstly standing up for human life – against abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide which is now being debated in MN and for marriage as established by God between man and a woman. These are the pressing, critical issues of our age. If we don’t get these right, then all else is lost.
For the sheepfold too, are leaders and in the image of Shepherd with regard to their witness to the world. All of us must be willing to be countercultural and be the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd to those around us in our words and actions that must reflect not the secular culture but Christ’s Gospel. This is a laying down of one’s life because it requires love, courage and will entail persecution, being called names.
But for both shepherds and sheep in our country “laying down our lives” for Christ means when a bishop is attacked for simply requiring Catholic schools to teach the faith as given in the CCC and for staff/faculty to exemplify the faith in their lives… and draws intense criticism and persecution from both within and outside the sheepfold .… this is a good example of “laying down one's life” for Christ and the sheep, a selfless emptying and humility to endure ridicule for the sake of authentic truth and love of the Gospel.
· When we stand up for the authentic meaning of marriage between a man and a woman and condemn the sin – of same gender impurity as we do any unchastity and disordered use of sexuality – this is laying down one’s life.
· When married couples remain open to life by refusing to use contraception - this is laying down one's life in witness.
· Spouses resisting infidelity and remaining faithful – is laying down ones life
· When Bishops speak out against pro-abortion, Catholic politicians...
· When we serve the dignity of every human person unborn in the womb, vulnerable at the end of life or in need of food, clothing and shelter – we lay down our lives.
· When we speak out against government intrusion on religious liberty...
· When we resist negative talk and backbiting at home and in the workplace...
· When we set aside our own time and agendas to serve the church and those in need it around us – this is to lay down one's life.
· When we take time to pray for those in our families and those in most need, when we live the corporal/spiritual works of mercy: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, instruct the ignorant, encourage and counsel the doubtful, visit the sick, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently – this is to lay down one’s life.
To follow the Good Shepherd and imitate Him, requires the recognition of our sin and need for His forgiveness, the sacramental, especially Eucharistic grace and power to do His will, the faith and courage to speak and act as witnesses to the truth, always in charity, and the deep and committed prayer life of dialogue with God, always in communion with the Catholic Church and her teaching.
May we truly listen to and follow the voice and example of the Good Shepherd, so that with Him … we too may lay down our lives for Him.