Thirty-fourth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of Jesus’ Most Sacred Heart
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16; Romans 5b-11; Luke 15:3-7
It’s amazing to see the Church’s feasts reinforce each other, how they help us through worship and celebration to understand the great truths of our faith on both the mystical and the personal levels, to see salvation at work in both universal and daily life. For example, the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist is contemplated in all its institutional mystery and cosmic dynamism on Holy Thursday and recognized as a most intimate and loving gift in the recent feast of Christ’s Most Holy Body and Blood. The great and central mystery of the Incarnation, whose grandeur is celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and whose promise of hope is contemplated at Easter and Ascension Day, is also recognized in a practical and relatable way on two feasts. One of those is the both old and new Feast of Divine Mercy; the other is today, as we celebrate the very Heart of God.
The prophet Ezekiel, writing at the time of the exile, tells in our First Reading of a time when God Himself, dissatisfied with those who are charged with taking care of His people, will come to do the job Himself. “I myself will pasture my sheep,” the prophet relates from the Lord; the almighty Father, in His infinite mercy, is coming to exercise that mercy upon His children directly and impartially. And so He continues: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.” This almighty pastoral care of God over His people was realized in Jesus, through the mystery of the Incarnation. And Jesus Himself gives witness to the truth of this prophecy in His famous Parable of the Lost Sheep, found in today’s Gospel reading: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” In this image of God as a shepherd of the flock, He does not simply indicate the manner in which He intends to act towards His people, but He relates it in an understandable way, appealing to His people in the manner in which they also act.
We notice, however, that God’s impartiality also leads Him to say, through Ezekiel, “[T]he sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” At first glance it may seem an overly or unnecessarily harsh statement, one perhaps at odds with the proposal of a merciful and all-loving God – especially one Whose ever-bleeding Heart is aflame with love. But God’s mercy is impartial – it must be impartial in order to be almighty. Look again at the Gospel reading, at how Jesus translates the image of finding a lost sheep into heavenly terms, stating that heaven rejoices more over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons. This distinction between the righteous and the repentant is like the distinction between the obedient and prodigal sons: love is always with those who are already caught up in it, but new and restored love is always a cause for celebration and rejoicing. The sleek and the strong cannot be caught up into love; they have no “use” for it, no “need” for it. Like the prodigal son or the lost sheep, we must break open a new place for something new to enter in. In order to receive love, there must be a weak spot.
In the Second Reading, a continuation of the one we read on Trinity Sunday, Saint Paul relates the outpouring of the God’s love in the Holy Spirit directly to this idea of the weak spot. The Redemption which effected our salvation was accomplished not when humanity had reached a state of perfection – unattainable even under the Law – but “while we were still helpless,” and “for the ungodly” just as much as for the people God called His own. The Incarnate Deity, the God-Man, made Himself entirely weak in order to save the weak. The Heart That bleeds without cease broke upon the Cross, and from that wound the Church was born. The Heart That is eternally aflame continues to sustain creation in an ever-living love. The Heart That so loved Man shares for ever in Man’s weakness so that He might bring Man to an eternal share in His divinity. “[O]nly with difficulty does one die for a just person,” wrote Paul. “[P]erhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die,” he thoughtfully adds. “But God proves his love for us,” he emphatically concludes, ”in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
If metaphors of lost sheep and prodigal sons don’t quite resonate with you, try this: imagine explaining a concept or arguing a point to a group of people, and everyone understands you except one person, and so you work and struggle with that one person until at last – and you can see it in the eyes! – there is an internal click of recognition. Light dawns, and the both of you smile in satisfaction – not that the task is finally done and over with, but that you are both of the same understanding and may now move forward. “[I]n just the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”
In these and many other ways, each of us too has the heart of a shepherd. And so each of us can enter into the awesome love of God.