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April 15, 2002

‘I am the gate for the sheep’

by Fr. Vincent Hawkswell

4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 21, 2002
First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36b-41
Second Reading: 1 Pet. 2:20b-25
Gospel Reading: Jn. 10:1-10

We often imagine Jesus as the Good Shepherd of this Sunday’s Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.... He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and staff, they comfort me.”

Indeed, Jesus Himself said, in the passage which follows this Sunday’s Gospel Reading: “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father.”

However, I can sympathize with the Pharisees’ failure to understand the “figure of speech” Jesus uses at the beginning of this Reading. Is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper, or the shepherd? In verses seven and eight, the figure is of a gate by which the shepherd comes to the sheep, while in verses nine and 10, the figure is of a gate by which the sheep come in and go out.

In His explanation, Jesus said explicitly, “I am the gate for the sheep.... Whoever enters by Me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.... I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This “life” He speaks of cannot be our merely human life, which lasts only about 80 years, but must mean the life that is open to us because Jesus came among us as a man; that is, divine life, God’s life, eternal life, the kind of life lived by God in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls Himself the gate by which we pass from human life to divine life, but without losing our human life: we will “come in and go out” by this gate. The image reminds me of what cell biologists call “active transport” across a cell membrane: the process by which molecules of a chemical are carried into or out of a cell by becoming part of a carrier molecule which is “recognized” by the cell membrane.

Grafted on to Christ

Jesus is the only Son God has begotten. Because He is begotten and not made, He has the nature of God. However, by His conception in Mary’s womb (an event we celebrated recently in the solemnity of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas), He also acquired our nature, human nature. Now He offers us a chance to become what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “divinized”; that is, to acquire the nature of God.

He does this initially through baptism, by which He adopts us as His children, with all the privileges of a first-born son and heir. He continues the process by feeding us with His Body and Blood. In Holy Communion we become vitally attached to Him, one with Him like a molecule with its carrier as it crosses a cell membrane, grafted onto Him like a branch onto a vine so that the life of the vine flows into it and transforms it.

Only as a branch on the vine of Christ, only as a member of His Body, can we cross the barrier between human life and divine life. Only in this way can we enter the sheepfold, for it is only for His Son that God the Father, the gatekeeper, opens the gate; “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him.”

This union between us and Christ is so close that as soon as it had taken place, as it did for the first time when Jesus distributed His Body and Blood to the apostles during the Last Supper, Christ “deserved” to die, since He now bore “our sins in His Body.” The Jewish authorities said that Jesus deserved to die because He had claimed to be God’s Son; the truth is that He deserved to die because He had taken on our fallen human nature.

Our true destiny

However, because He was God as well as Man, death could not hold Him: the “divine Person of Christ” remained “united to His Soul and Body, even when these were separated by death,” the Catechism says, and by “the unity of the divine nature,” His Soul and Body were reunited.

Christ’s resurrection was not a return to earthly life, like the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus returned to a normal earthly life and at some point he had to die again.

In contrast, since His resurrection, Christ’s “humanity can no longer be confined to earth,” the Catechism says; it is “not limited by space and time,” but is “able to be present how and when” Christ wills. “The risen Jesus enjoys the sovereign freedom of appearing as He wishes: in the guise of a gardener or in other forms familiar to His disciples.”

This is what is in store for us. I recently heard of students asking their teacher whether, by allowing their bodies to be frozen suddenly, they could be put into cold storage until scientists had discovered how to overcome death. In one sense, that is nonsense, but in another it is only a faint, feeble image of our true destiny.

What must we do to achieve it? St. Peter tells us in this Sunday’s First Reading: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

This Sunday, let us praise God in the words of the Communion Antiphon: “The Good Shepherd is risen! He Who laid down His life for His sheep, Who died for His flock, He is risen, alleluia!”

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