By Msgr. Joseph Calise
About 50 miles north of New York City is a large complex run by the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. On this “Holy Mountain,” as it has been called, are the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center, St. Christopher’s Inn, and the Sisters’ Retreat House. Although the Franciscans of the Atonement are most know for their work in ecumenical and inter-religious affairs, the scope of Graymoor’s ministry is much wider. As you walk the grounds, you will also find a thrift shop and, within the Spiritual Life Center, a well-stocked book and gift center.
One Sunday, after finishing a retreat, I had the opportunity to spend some time looking over the collection of books and religious articles to see if there was anything I wanted to bring back. They had a wonderful supply of greeting cards for religious occasions. Looking at the stationery items they had to offer, I was very happy to come across a notecard that bore one of the most well-known and appreciated images of Jesus but with an interesting twist.
The image was the Good Shepherd, whom we hear about in today’s Gospel. Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. The emphasis is clearly on the care the shepherd takes of his flock. He knows them, loves them, and leads them. But what about the sheep? Certainly, as part of the flock, the sheep are expected to be obedient, to stay with the rest of the flock, and to follow the shepherd’s lead. But to become part of the flock, to be numbered among those loved and protected, what must we do? Simply asked, “What do we have to do to earn God’s love?”
Walking through the bookstore that afternoon, I saw something on that notecard that added a new significance to this question. The picture was by the artist Nathan Green and it depicts Jesus holding a black sheep. According to Wikipedia, “In the English language, black sheep is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family. The term stems from sheep whose fleece is colored black rather than the more common white; these sheep stand out in the flock and their wool was traditionally considered less valuable as it was not able to be dyed. The term has typically been given negative implications, implying waywardness.” Jesus cradling a black sheep tells me that God’s love is freely given, not earned. He loves us even when we are sinners but calls us to more.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, wrote, “But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation.” But God’s love changes that and gives us the opportunity to become so much more.
In the Second Reading today, taken from the First Letter of St. John, we hear, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God.” It is that love, freely given even to the black sheep, that invites us to transformation. That is where our responsibility begins. We are challenged to live as children of God, to show our gratitude for His love by loving Him and our neighbor, and by trying, from day to day, to be the best we can. As Urs von Balthasar also wrote, “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you become is your gift to God.”
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Psalms 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26,
1 John 3:1-2
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of Transfiguration-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, Maspeth.