I recently watched a film on PBS titled “Animal Reunions. What happens when people are reunited with the wild animals with which they forged deep bonds years ago? Dr. Rebecca Atencia is chief veterinarian and executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute in Congo, where she cares for sick and orphaned chimpanzees.
For nine years Dr. Atencia raised an orphaned chimpanzee named Kudia, with whom she formed a maternal bond. Kudia was raised with the intent of returning her to the wild. After nine years, Kudia was released. After a two year wait; Dr. Atencia went back to the same forest where Kudia was released. Stepping off the boat she walks into the forest and calls out “Kudia, Kudia. At first there was silence. Then, after a few minutes there is a rustle in the high trees – and there coming down the tree is Kudia. The chimp hears the voice she recognizes, it is the one who nurtured her, who loved her all those years. She slowly moves towards Dr. Atenica – she places an arm on the doctor’s shoulder – then backs away – then, comes back and embraces her, quite a moving moment. The chimps under Dr. Atencia’s care hear her voice – just like the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd.
Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The focus of the Gospel reading is on Jesus - as our Good Shepherd. In the Old Testament - God appears as the shepherd of Israel. We have all familiar with the verse in David’s Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd. It is a declaration of what it means to be God’s child – the sheep belonging to the shepherd. This theme of God as shepherd is even more developed in the book of Ezekiel, who proclaims the promise that God himself will seek out his sheep and care for them. Jesus uses the same image of the shepherd to explain his mission. For it is Him who protects, gathers and lays down his life.
Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” What is it about a voice? Books are wonderful to read - but how wonderful it is to hear someone tell their story with their voice? I can remember so well - when I was a child - my father would take a chair and sit next to my bed - and tell me stories of rocket ships and space. I can still hear his voice. Steven Spielberg gave Holocaust Survivors a chance to tell their story – not in a book - but by a recorded voice. Their inflections tell a story that the printed word never could. Even before we are born, we are listening for voices. Research shows that a child in the womb shows a discernible preference for a mother's voice.
Christianity is not a bunch of ideas; it is not a philosophy, though we do use philosophy to help explain the underlying truths of our faith. It is not ideology, and certainly not a club that meets once a week. Christianity is a “relationship” with a “someone” – someone who has a voice. The first disciples who Jesus speaks to today – how privileged they were to hear the voice of Jesus. How privileged “we” are, for we too are the sheep of the fold who hear Jesus’ voice.
You may ask, how do WE hear Jesus’ voice? first and foremost, in scripture. When the scriptures are proclaimed at Mass - we hear his voice. We hear Jesus’ voice through the living voice of the Church, the magisterium, the Pope with his bishops who interpret and safeguard of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
We hear the voice of Jesus through our conscience. John Henry Cardinal Newman said the conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ in the soul. A formed conscience, formed by the teachings of Christ and his Church, becomes finely attuned to all that is true, good, and beautiful. It is our sense of morality – it is not an instinct; it is a voice – as though someone were speaking to us in it.
I will share some examples of “conscience.” – If I am going to the store, and I make a mistake and drive down the wrong road, I’m not happy about it – but I don’t feel that I offended anyone. If my wife sends me to the store and I forget to buy milk, I may have disappointed – but I did not offend. But if I commit immoral sin – against myself – or another person, If I break the commandments, I know I did something wrong. When we do something morally wrong, we feel – we know - that we hurt someone – someone who loves us. That someone is the shepherd.
We also hear Jesus’ voice in the good counsel of others – in those who encourage us – who guide us - our family - our friends – our priests.
We live today in the midst of many voices, media – music – internet – politicians - all different points of view – trying to lead us in many different directions – the good road, the bad road. So, who do we follow? We must gain the capacity to discern the voice of Christ our shepherd.
First and foremost, God never says anything that contradicts Scripture. God's voice is not the voice of anxiety, for unbelief is the Root of Anxiety; He is not the voice of unsettledness, a wavering or uncertainty, or spiritual fatigue. God's voice is not the voice of obscurity or gossip. God's voice is not the voice of condemnation.
Jesus says “I give them eternal life, they shall never perish.”
Why do we listen to Jesus, and discern HIS voice and follow him? Is it just to make us better people? Make us more upright? To be more just - more peaceful? All these things will happen when we follow Jesus, but we can become these things by listening to many teachers - the Dalai Lama, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Deepak Chopra.
Why do we follow Jesus? It is only Jesus that can lead us to eternal life – to a renewed - and transformed life - on high with God – where we will never perish – where we will see God face to face. Where we will stand before God’s throne - and worship him day and night in his temple.
This is where the Jesus the good Shepherd is leading us, on a journey to the heavenly Jerusalem.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me”
Let us rejoice that the Lord has made us members of his flock - and knows each of us by name! Let us follow him with joy - and let him guide us in all our ways.