It’s wonderful to be back to work at St. Mary’s after my “time away.” I’ve certainly missed you all, and am profoundly grateful for the love and generosity you’ve shown me over the course of my convalescence. It is no exaggeration to say that I owe my life to the efforts of doctors and medical professionals who cared for me. While you don’t need to hear the details, I would like to share a moment with you that made an impression on me. Lying in bed after the procedure, it was not possible to eat as usual. A nurse had to feed me my applesauce, spoonful by spoonful: something I hadn’t experienced since Mom performed the same task when I was two. This tiny action symbolized all the care—medical and personal—I received from kind people who did for someone what he could never do for himself.
This might sound strange, but I think it might be good for people—particularly those who exercise authority—to be sick or hospitalized at some point in life. Those of us who are in charge can suffer from the delusion that we have everything under control. We whistle past the graveyard and think that while terrible things can occur, they will never happen to us. Undergoing some disability, even for a short time, has the salutary effect of reminding us how very close we are, at every moment, to losing everything. So what would our lives be like if we were to take seriously the precariousness and fragility of our existence? There was an 18th-century Protestant theologian (with an unpronounceable name) who made this experience the basis of his religious thought. He calls it the feeling of “absolute dependence.” For him, this is not some general, vague perception of the material universe, but a primal, human awareness of God himself. Absolute dependence does not extinguish free will, but reveals the difference between limited, frail human beings and the infinite, almighty God.
This week the Church celebrates “Good Shepherd” Sunday, one of the oldest and most enduring images of Christ. Our artwork this week is a depiction of the Good Shepherd from the catacombs in Rome. Interestingly, the Shepherd was a far more popular symbol for Christians in the first three centuries of the Church than either the Cross or the image of Christ the King. Some believe that the crucifixion was still a fresh memory for early Christians, and excessively disturbing, whereas a Shepherd emphasizes God’s love. The picture of a king evoked thoughts of the ongoing persecution of Christians by the civil authorities of the time, whereas the gentle, beardless youth who cares for the flock is reassuring. Notice also that in this particular image, Jesus feeds and protects not only the sheep, but the goats as well! (cf. Matt. 25:32). It suggests that even sinners remain in the embrace of a merciful God, who seeks out the lost.
Apart from the lessons one takes from these images, the fact of these paintings counters the erroneous idea that early Christians were overly spiritualized and iconoclastic. On the contrary, James Hadley argues that concrete realities—the flesh-and-blood Jesus, the beauty of his person, and holy places like the catacombs—all convey the grace of God. Likewise, God shows his care for the most helpless among us through our Mothers. Happy Mothers’ Day!