4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS, OUR GATE TO FULLNESS OF LIFE

outside-the-gate
woman praying outside the gate of Baclaran church, photo courtesy of Rappler

On my first year in Australia during my study leave in 2008, I adventurously drove alone from Melbourne to my cousin’s place in Ipswich, QLD, a distance of about 1,628 km. I drove it for three days taking stops, of course, at Redemptorist houses in Galong, NSW and Newcastle, NSW for a rest and sleep for the night. I was quite confident that I won’t get lost equipped with a GPS on my car. On my way to Galong, however, the GPS directed me to dirt roads passing through many ranches and farms. I have to get on and off the car in order to open the gates of the many farms I passed through. Someone in Galong told me that I could get shot opening those gates for trespassing.

In the gospel of today’s 4th Sunday of Easter, Jesus talks about gates,

“I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly.””

When I think of gate, the first thing that comes to my mind is that of exclusion. Talk of exclusive subdivision in Makati or gated mansions in Ayala-Alabang or high walls in New Manila. Gates are meant to prevent outsiders and those who don’t belong from coming inside the house or building or a village. Anyone who doesn’t pass through the gate can be suspected of robbers, outlaws or persons with evil intention. But gate can also be an image of captivity and repression so that those inside cannot get out and can easily be controlled by those who have power. Think about the gates of prisons, refugee detention centers and rehabilitation centers.

Do these images apply to Jesus when he said, “I am the gate”?

First of all, the context of in which Jesus spoke those words is in the context of sheep and shepherding.  The image of sheep and shepherd is not an image we are familiar in the Philippines. But in Israel where Jesus lived and grew, sheep is an important part of life, providing the people with wool, milk, and meat. In the Bible, the main symbol of God’s relationship with the people of Israel is compared to a shepherd and his sheep.

When Jesus spoke about himself as Gate, he was referring to the Gate of the sheepfold, meaning—a sheep pen, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus.  Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep.

Of all domesticated animals, sheep are the most vulnerable. Sheep will spend their entire day grazing, wandering from place to place, and never looking up. As a result, they often become lost. Unfortunately, sheep have no “homing instinct” as other animals do. They are totally incapable of finding their way to their sheepfold even when it is in plain sight. By nature, sheep are followers. If the lead sheep steps off a cliff, the others will follow. Sheep are also utterly dependent upon their shepherd to lead them to pastures, provide them with water, and protect them from danger.

Jesus as gate of the sheepfold, therefore, is where those who are vulnerable, weak, and helpless can get in. Jesus as gate is not about exclusion but welcoming all especially the least and the lost, the poor, deprived and oppressed. Jesus as gate is to give protection and comfort to the sheep who wish to belong and follow him.

Jesus as gate is not a gate for control and enslavement. We need not fear entering into this gate; we won’t get shot. Jesus is the gate where the sheep—we, the church—come in and go out and find pasture. The gospel passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  Entering into the gate of Jesus is to live life to the full.

In order to enter into the gate who is Jesus, we need to embrace a relationship and bond where we are all sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. We need to live out this relationship as one of the hallmarks of our being an Easter people.

As a sheep, we are weak, helpless, and vulnerable and dependent on God and one another. Many times we wander off and get lost. Like sheep, we get easily frightened and become easily confused and we plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd, we need someone to follow who will guide us to the true path towards fullness of life not someone who will lead us astray. Jesus is the true shepherd who has come that we may have life and have it to the full. He is the good shepherd who lay down His life for His sheep.

Being in the sheepfold of Jesus, however, does not mean that we become a passive sheep. It also calls us to participate in the ‘shepherdness’ of Jesus. We are called to shepherd one another, to search for the lost and the lonely, to care for the most abandoned, to protect the vulnerable and to defend the poor and the oppressed.

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, calls out the religious and clergy  to go out of the comforts of their convents and stay close to the marginalized and become “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” The call to be a shepherd, however, is not just a call for the ordained and religious. It is a call for all the flock—we, the church, lay and ordained—are called to shepherd one another and have the smell of each other’s ‘sheepness’.

Come, let us enter into the gate to fullness of life!

3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: BECOMING GOOD NEWS IN THE MIDST OF BAD NEWS

evacuation-kitchen
Mobile kitchen at Redemptorists Lipa for the evacuees of Taal eruption

Most of the news we heard and saw over the past week were bad news–the enormous suffering and gloom brought about by the eruption of Taal Volcano, bush fires in Australia, the outbreak of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus which has already spread throughout the world–to name only a few.

Behind these sad news, however, there were good news. Most of these good news represent the utter goodwill and generosity of hearts of many people in the midst of calamities–the many people who have generously given help to the evacuees most of them poor and victims themselves of the eruption, the Chinese doctor who gave his life to save others from the deadly corona virus, the three American firefighters killed in plane crash while helping battle the ferocious bush fire in Australia.

In the readings for today’s 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear of the proclamation of the good news amidst the sad news that has engulfed the chosen people of God in biblical times.

In the First Reading, Isaiah proclaimed that a great light has shone upon Israel amidst its dark reality of oppression and subjugation.  

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.

In the gospel, Jesus announced the good news in the midst of the bad news that John the Baptist was arrested by Herod. For many people, John the Baptist represents hope in the midst of the oppressive occupation of Israel by the Romans. John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the messiah which would bring back their glory days under God’s rule.

Matthew’s gospel see the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy here. The beginning of the public ministry of  Jesus is the great and glorious ‘light’ that is to shine to those who walk in darkness and the shadow of death.

The Gospel goes on to give us a summary of Jesus’ message: ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand’. Repent’ for Jesus means something far more than simple sorrow for sins. The Greek word used, metanoia, literally means a ‘change of mind’ – a change not just in an intellectual sense but involving a transformation of attitude at a deep personal level.  This means looking at one’s life and one’s hopes for the future in a totally new way, open and receptive to the – usually surprising – action of God. The Kingdom of God meant this kind of radical change of heart.

It is good to note the kinds of people Jesus chose for Apostles: from the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew to Matthew and John, they were all flawed yet graced. Leaving their family and their livelihood, they are to become his intimate companions and followers. Life with him, and association with his ministry of healing and proclaiming the Good News, will transform them from being fishers of fish to being fishers, ‘catching’ people for the Kingdom.

The inauguration of the public ministry of Jesus is an ongoing story. We are all called to participate in the inauguration of the Kingdom by Jesus by becoming the Good News, through witnessing the values of God’s kingdom in the midst of the darkness and misery of the world today, and through drawing others constantly (those who ‘live in the darkness and shadow of death’) into the freedom and light that Jesus has brought into the world.