COVID-19 Reflection – Joe Chinnici, OFM (From 4th Sunday of Easter)

Gate Keepers

Dear Friends, both here and scattered, may the Lord give you peace.

As we enter now the third month of our pandemic quarantine and the fourth week of our Easter celebration, we see even more directly how much the mystery of Easter bursts forth in hidden ways in our world. We often do not think of it this way, but the pandemic has revealed not only the depths of people’s indifference to their neighbor also but Christ’s greater gift of enduring love signaled in some fashion in the goodness that has filled our daily life. The columnist David Brooks puts it well: “The pandemic has been a massive humanizing force — allowing us to see each other on a level much deeper than politics — see the fragility, the fear and the courage.” [April 30, 2020] Just yesterday, I attended a global health conference where some extraordinary scientists, Christian, non-Christian, and believers only in human betterment spoke movingly of solidarity and health. We need to pay attention; a global gate is being opened for all of us. How can we as Christians and Catholics contribute and join with our neighbors to create a healthier world and at the same time witness to the faith that is within us?

Part of our challenge is to incorporate into our daily lives the images in today’s Gospel, Good Shepherd Sunday. Let us pray that we might see the world through the width and breadth of this mystery of the Risen Christ among us. I’ll begin with a story.

Years ago I was privileged to ask one of our Franciscan friars about the origins of his vocation. He had spent his entire life working for the poor. Gifted as a master carpenter, he designed and fashioned chairs for those crippled by arthritis; built ramps into houses for those who were wheelchair-bound; created kitchen cabinets for those who could not afford to pay; made pews for rural churches that had fallen into disrepair because of a lack of resources. “What prompted you to use your talents in this way?” I asked. “I was a child of the depression,” he replied. “When I was little my father was unemployed and we had only small portions of food to eat. Our house was surrounded by a white picket fence with a gate on one side. And every night, when we sat down to eat, my mother did three things: She went outside and opened the gate; when she came back, she left the side door into the kitchen open. And, she insisted on setting an extra plate and chair at the table. One day I asked her, “Why are you doing this, Mom?” And she answered: “You don’t know, someone hungrier than us may come by, see our gate and door open, our table spread for a guest, and give us an opportunity to share.”

All of us need open gates and doors in our life; we need others who will set for us a table of plenty, even if the plenty is simply a morsel of bread or the touch of a hand shared with compassion. Our Lord was the same way: humble enough to accept his own fragility—he needed his Mother to open her heart and throughout her life to say “yes” so that he might be conceived, “yes” so that he might be strengthened as he went along his journey; “yes” so that he might have someone at the foot of his cross (Lk. 1.38, 8.19-21, 11.27, Jn. 19.26); he needed the disciples to profess the small mustard seed of their faith (Mk. 4.30-32); he needed the mute and the blind to cry out to him (Lk. 7.31, 8.22); he needed the travelling women to provide sustenance (Lk. 8.1-3); he needed the outsider, the Canaanite woman, to open the horizon of his mission by demanding that he recognize her faith (Mt. 15.21); he needed the small boy providing the five loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand (Jn. 6.9); he needed the repentant woman who washed his feet with extravagant love; (Lk. 7.36-50) he needed the family in Bethany to provide a place to rest (Jn. 12.1-8). Above all he needed his Father provide for him. Key to the flourishing of our new normal in the future will be the strength we receive from Christ to follow him in accepting our own human fragility and need for others. This will become our bridge to thankfulness and to a global community.

We have all heard psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus knew it too; it was probably taught to him by Mary and Joseph or explained when he was little and attended synagogue. Have we ever imagined him as John the Baptist does (Jn. 1.29) as a lamb, one of the sheep who belonged to God, saying in the course of his life as he took on the collective voice of God’s people:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, in verdant pastures he gives me repose.” Could it be that Jesus said this prayer to his Father as he raised his eyes to heaven to give thanks for the bread that he held in his hand and felt divine compassion to feed all those who were hungry? (Mt. 14.13-21)

“He guides me in right paths, for his names sake.” Could it be that Jesus prayed this as he walked with confidence through the midst of his own townsfolk who wished to throw him over cliff. (Lk. 4.28-30)

“Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.” Could it be that these words came as he set his heart and mind like flint to go up to Jerusalem. (Lk. 9.51)

“Surely goodness and kindness follow me, all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” Could these words have sustained Jesus as he said on the cross, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” (Lk. 23.46, cf. Jn. 14.1-3)

Could Jesus have prayed this way to the Father of all?

Living in him, in the midst of the terrible ravages of a pandemic, can we also pray with faith Psalm 23? Could following him in his life and in his prayer open our own doors to the fact that God raised Jesus our Brother from the dead? (Lk. 24.6, Rom. 4.17, 24)

But there is more: Our Lord was not simply the Lamb of God; he was also God’s only begotten Son, God’s beloved. At the Baptism, a voice from heaven proclaimed: “You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests.” (Mk. 1.13; cf Mk. 9.9) He is “in the Father and the Father is in him.” (Jn. 14.11) ); everything has been given over to him by the Father (Jn. 3.35); as his Father works, so does he (Jn. 5.17, 19). The Lord knew from the synagogue the passage from Ezekiel where Yahweh promises to bring into community the scattered sheep of Israel. The Lord carried within himself God’s desires to shepherd those who were suffering from others who had forgotten their common humanity, who did not strengthen the weak, nor heal the sick, nor bind up the injured, nor seek out the lost. (Ez. 34.1-15). Our Lord knew first hand God’s justice and faithfulness to his creation: “Life is more important than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they do not sow, they do not reap; they have neither cellar nor barn, yet God feeds them.” (Lk. 12.23) It is in that knowledge that he could say, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn. 10.10) It is in his union with the Father, as the Word become flesh that we can begin to comprehend today’s Gospel.

It is in the light of his humanity and in the glorious fact of his divinity that our Lord can say in the Gospel, “I am the sheep gate…whoever enters through me will be safe. He or she will go in and out and find pasture.” (Jn. 10.9). In the Word becoming flesh, God’s gate, God’s door, God’s house is always open, so that a passerby may find life if he or she chooses to partake at the table of plenty. When we enter through this gate and pasture in God’s perpetual presence we no longer need to steal a life that belongs to another; we no longer need to use others for our market profit; we need no longer to destroy someone else’s humanity in order prove our worth. Instead, we “go in and out” on our journey of life, safely, securely, knowing ourselves to be provided for, alive and forgiven in Christ, hopeful for the future because we are called to risen life.

It is in the light of his humanity and in the glorious fact of his divinity that our Lord can say in the Gospel, “I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (Jn. 10.11-14) He knows us, our wanderings and our frailties, and still he calls us by name, as he has called Peter, or Mary, or Lazarus. Unlike the hired hand, he does not work for wages but gives his life freely, gratuitously, inviting us to the table of plenty: “Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare.” (Is. 55.2; cf. Mt. 11.28-29).“

In the light of his humanity and in the glorious fact of his divinity we recognize and cooperate with all people of good will who today are engaged in building a healthier world.

One last thing, there is a third important player in today’s story. The gate keeper is the one who has the responsibility to recognize the Shepherd and open the gate. If Jesus is the gate and the good Shepherd, who might be the gate keeper, except we who are his disciples? How can people pasture within and without unless the gate be opened? When we understand what he has done for us, It is we who are sent on mission to open for others the gate of life, to introduce those who do “not yet belong to his fold” to the fullness of God’s love in Christ (Jn. 10.16). In our little story of the friar whose mother left doors and gates open so the poor could eat at their own table, we see our mission, and like the mother’s son, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus so that our fellow creatures might all enter the one fold of a truly human and risen life. Christ is risen, Alleluia.

Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM
Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego
Immaculate Conception Church, Old Town
May 3, 2020

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