Glory be to the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
It was the feast of dedication and it was winter. The Fathers tell us that the temple was dedicated three times twice in the fall and once in the winter. The first two are Solomon and Ezra’s dedication. The third took place in the time between the two testaments when Judas Maccabeus dedicated the temple. Today we know this festival as Hanukkah.
In the statement, “It was winter.” St. Augustin sees a lead in to the question that the Jews are asking. He compares the cold weather to the spiritual coldness of the Jews. He says,
They had become icy cold to the sweetness of loving him, and they burned with the desire of doing him an injury. They were far away, while there beside him.1
Our proximity to Christ does not guarantee our warmth towards him. The Jews had been there observing and listening to his teaching for much of his ministry and they remained cool towards him.
The fathers see two reasons why the Jews asked him this question. The first is because Jesus preferred to demonstrate that He was the Christ by His actions rather than by his words. So, there is a possibility of ignorance in some of the Jews in asking this.
The second is from hatred and spite. This is taken from the fact that Christ was always at the feasts and said nothing in secret. They lead into their remarks with subtleness or flattery, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?” They are speaking as if they are eager to know the truth, but they are merely looking for something to grasp a hold of which they might be able to hold against Him.
There were probably Jews in both of these groups. Notice, however, how Jesus answered them. His answer was full of grace and love. This fit both those who were asking from ignorance and those who were asking from spite. He did not bring up all the things that had been said against him in the past. As St. John Chrysostom tells us,
He did not reply, “What enquire ye of me? Often have ye called me demoniac, madman, and Samaritan, and have deemed me enemy of God, and a deceiver, and yes said but now, Thou bearest witness of thyself, thy witness is not true; how is it then that ye seek and to learn from Me, whose witness ye reject?” But he said nothing of the kind, although He knew the intention with which they made the inquiry was evil.2
What an example for us to follow! Our Lord and Saviour who knows the thoughts and desires of every heart, responds in love to spite. How much more for us ought we to respond in love and grace to those around us who seem to be acting toward us in spite. He did not hold those things that had been previously said against him by them.
In another place we know that he responded to a question by saying why are you tempting me, you hypocrites? But here, he said nothing like that “teaching us not always to rebuke those who plot against us, but to bear many things with meekness and gentleness.” Even in His response he was encouraging them towards himself with the words “not among my sheep”. He is offering to them what could be theirs if they became his sheep.
What is the distinguishing factor of Christ’s sheep? Isn’t it their willingness to hear? His sheep hear. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us that included in the word to hear is obedience. He also says,
The mark of Christ’s sheep is their willingness to hear and obey, just as disobedience is the mark of those who are not his.3
Let us, therefore, purpose to be those who hear and obey the words and instructions of our Saviour. St. Cyril also says,
By a certain God-given grace, believers follow in the footsteps of Christ. No longer subject to the shadows of the law, they obey the commands of Christ and guided by his words rise through grace to his own dignity, for they are called “the children of God.”4
We can obey, we can live the words of Christ through the grace that has been given to us. It is through His power that we can become the children of God. He promises His sheep, that is us, eternal life. We are to understand this in a twofold way. First, we understand that we have eternal life with Christ freed from death and corruption.
Second, we understand it as the blessing of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, Christ plants his life into us as we partake of the body and blood of our Saviour. Just as it says elsewhere, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”
We are safe in His hands, and no one can take us from him. However, the Fathers warn us that while no one can take us from His hands from without, we can fall from his hands if we are negligent. We remember also St. Paul’s warning,
But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
In our passage, from the Acts of the Apostles, we see the example of one who heard and listened to the voice of the shepherd, namely Dorcas. She was completely occupied with good deeds and alms-giving. This is what described her life. There are some people that you meet, and it is hard to put your finger on it, but they just resonate with doing the will of God. At times they are annoying because they are a constant quiet rebuke, but they are a real example to how we should be living our lives.
St. John Chrysostom tells us that living such a life is a better memorial than anything that we could build with money or materials. Generosity is a remembrance that will last for all eternity. The Venerable Bede tells us,
They interceded for the dead woman, not with their voices but by means of her own works, for almsdeeds free one not only from the second death but also from the first.5
This is what Fr. Pat talks about a lot. We are to live a sacramental life. Everything that we do is to be a prayer, a work to God. We serve him and pray to him in the ordinary things of life. May we seek to pray and serve God in our every activity.
Let us now turn our attention to the Psalm reading. It is quite a familiar Psalm, however, the Fathers bring out something that I had not thought about before. The previous Psalm as we know speaks a good deal about the Passion of our Saviour while this one lets us know the joy of our resurrection. It speaks of our rebirth. Cassiodorous comments,
Through the whole psalm it is the most faithful Christian, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, who speaks; he has laid aside the age of the first man. He gives thanks that through the Lord’s generosity he has been led from the desert of sin to the region of pasture and the water of rebirth.6
Resurrection and baptism are very closely related. If you remember a few weeks ago during our Easter morning services, we renewed our baptismal vows. Now is the season, where we are reminded to walk in the power of the resurrection, to listen to the voice of the shepherd in all that we do.
The pastures mentioned here are the words and commandments of God. Upon these we feed and meditate, and the waters are the waters of our baptism as it is testified by St. Augustin, Theodoret of Cyr and Cassiodorous.
We have the words of God and we have the new life imparted to us through baptism. We now walk along the paths where God leads us and suddenly we are in the valley of the shadow of death. Notice though, we are prepared before we walk into such a place. God has fed and washed us.
The fathers state that this valley is the devil and demons who assault us. St. Augustin phrases it in a way that is a little more easy to grasp.
As long as you remain in this present life, you are walking in the midst of vices, of world pleasures, which are the shadow of death. Let Christ shine in your heart, who lights the lamp of our minds with the love of God and neighbour; and you will not fear any evils, since he is with you.7
During the season of Easter and we have gold everywhere to remind us of that fact. We worship facing east not only because that is the direction that Christ will return from, but also because the rising of the sun reminds us of the resurrection. Christ is shining in our hearts and during this season we have extra reminders that He is shining there.
In the rod and staff, we have a picture of the cross. Two pieces of wood joined together form a cross. The upright staff strengthens and comforts those who believe in Him while his rod beats back the demons from harming us.
A table in the presence of our enemies, the Fathers are unanimous on this. This is speaking of the Eucharist. In the same way as cares are set aside and the mind is relaxed through the drinking of wine, so in partaking of the Eucharist we set aside the memory of the old man and forget our former and worldly conduct. Our heart is made glad through the joy of divine mercy and we are no longer pressed down by our sins.
We shall dwell in the house of the Lord. This is the life that Christ has promised to us in our Gospel portion. It is living with Christ in each and every day. It is something that is now and also forever.
Finally, let us take a look at our passage in Revelation. The fathers are quick to point out that it says, “I saw a people” and not “I saw another people”. This is the same people as the mystery of the 144,000. It is the whole body of the church. All the nations have been grafted into the root. This is also hinted at when Jesus tells his disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. In the resurrection, we must remember that the church has become Israel or has become part of Israel. The two groups are joined together in one people as St. Paul testifies in Ephesians.
They are dressed in robes symbolising that these are those who have been baptised. They are holding palm branches reminding us of the triumph of the cross. Salvation comes to them from God and the lamb reminding us of Christ’s statement, “That they might know you and Jesus Christ whom you sent.”
These sing salvation with a loud voice, or we could say in our more modern terms enthusiastically. They are full of joy because they recognise that their salvation is not from any merit of their own but because of what God has done.
Their robes are white through being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Of this apparent contradiction, one of the fathers tells us,
To be sure, one might think that robes dipped in blood would be red, not white. And so how is it that they have become white? Because according to the opinion of all-wise Paul, baptism is completed in the death of the Lord and wipes clean every filth of sin, so that those baptised in him are made white and clean. However, the reception of the life-giving blood of Christ also gives the same grace, for the Lord said concerning his own blood that it was poured out “for many” and “for the sake of many” and “for the forgiveness of sins.8
The sacrament of baptism has made us white and the sacrament of the Eucharist continues to make us white. Let us not limit those who have been made white or clean to the martyrs only. This is true of all believers for it is not their own blood that cleanses them but the blood of our lamb.
Therefore, let us partake with joy of the Eucharist knowing that it cleanses us, gives us life, and strength to endure going through the valley of the shadow of death. We ought to look to ourselves and examine ourselves are we listening to and obeying the voice of the shepherd? Have we grown cold toward the Lord? Let us look at the colours of the season and know that Christ is shining in our hearts, he is cleansing us, he is enabling us to live godly. We should endeavour to live a life of good deeds in actions, not only words in His power and in His strength, as Christ did through His actions. Let these be a testimony and a memorial after we pass on that we followed our Lord and Saviour with our life.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
~ Fr. Matthew
Trinity Church, Boston – Tabitha, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51534 [retrieved July 31, 2019]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson
1 Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 356
2 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 14, Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Hebrews, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 222
3 Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 356
5 Thomas C. Oden and Francis Martin, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament V (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 116-117
6 Craig A. Blaising, Carmen S. Hardin and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 178
7 Thomas C. Oden and William C Weinrich, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament XII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 114