Now the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.
So wrote John Milton, one of our greatest 17th century poets. May is a month that many of us love above all others for it heralds the end of winter and the coming of summer. May is the month when our landscape changes, our gardens come into flower and the trees are newly clothed in green. The American author and philosopher, Henry Thoreau, put it even more succinctly when he declared: “Spring - an experience in immortality.”
Today, as we continue to celebrate the joy of the resurrection and our desire that Christ might Easter in us, “be a dayspring to the dimness within us”, we are presented with three focii for our attention. Firstly, Jesus’ gospel affirmation that he is the Good Shepherd. Secondly, the Baptism of Alfreda. And finally, the Crowning of Mary on this, the first Sunday of Mary’s month of May.
CHRIST, THE GOOD SHEPHERD
“I am the good shepherd.” said Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Shepherds, of course, are few and far between in Romford these days! I guess few of us will have ever met one. And as to talking about people as a lot of sheep, well, that could be thought of as highly insulting. When I lived at Hilfield Friary, in Dorset, my room overlooked the next-door farm and, at this time of the year, I had to put up with the sound of sheep bleeting away all night long. During the day, all they seemed to do was to aimlessly wander around the pastures chewing on this or that piece of grass.
And the shepherd who looked after them couldn’t have been further removed from the image we often have in the bible – someone who searches out good grazing on the barren hillsides of Palestine. This one used to whiz around the hillsides on a noisy four-wheeled motorbike!
“I am the good shepherd.” said Jesus. The emphases here is not on the sheep but on the shepherd and it’s one of the great “I am” statements that St. John places on the lips of Jesus and which he concludes by saying: “I lay down my life of my own free will and … I have power to take it up again.” St. John’s focus is on Jesus and on that dynamic of letting go and raising up, abasement and glory. The sheep in the parable need to be understood in relationship to the shepherd, and because of his power to bring new life they trust him and follow where he leads. The Good Shepherd will lead them into fresh, life-giving pastures.
But there’s more to the parable than this. The Israelites were a nomadic people whose wealth lay in sheep-rearing. This distinguished them from other nations, such as the Egyptians, and gave rise to the concept of the ideal leader as a Shepherd-King, an ideal focussed on David. The Shepherd-King not only provided pasturage but liberation from foes and protection from danger. Hence Isaiah prophesied that God would call the Persian King, Cyrus, “my Shepherd” because of his role in liberating Israel from Exile.
So for Jesus to say “I am the Good Shepherd” was for him to claim to be the Shepherd Israel sought – a claim which was political as much as a religious.
In the Old Testament Ezekiel had railed against the shepherds of Israel and prophesied that Yahweh Himself would take the role of Shepherd once more: he would rescue them, gather them in and give them good land for grazing:
“I will search for the lost
recover the straggler
strengthen the sick
leave the healthy and strong to play
and give them their proper food.” (Ez. 34: 16)
We’ve moved a long way from those insipid Sunday School pictures of Jesus: here he is projecting himself as the true leader for Israel. And, more than that, just a few verses before, Jesus had said: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” (Jn. 10:7) Shepherds in his day literally slept in the entrance to the sheepfold, both to protect the sheep from scavengers and to prevent them wandering off at night. Nothing could get in or out unless without permission of the shepherd.
Last week I asked how we ‘enter’ the Church – the people of God, or the ‘fold’ if you like – and the answer, of course, is through Baptism. Baptism into Christ enables us to become part of Christ’s fold, his Body.
Today we are welcoming Alfreda into this fold and the one lesson I hope her parents and godparents will take from our readings today is simply this – the she will need to keep her eyes fixed on Jesus – the Good Shepherd. And she will be helped in doing this if you, her parents and godparents, set the example. There is so much in the world that invites our attention, but keeping one eye firmly focussed on Jesus will make sure that the way we view and respond to life is through his eyes and heart. The Church, the fold of Christ, is there to nurture and nourish her. Here we are fed through Word and Sacrament: our Good Shepherd offers us His life and assures us that he will never desert us. We only need to look to Him.
MARY’S MONTH OF MAY
And, in all this, we have the example of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She who said: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
This month, which is about new-birth and new creation, has long been called ‘Mary’s Month’ because Mary, like the season, was pregnant with new life. So that wonderful phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Let Him Easter in us’ has a very particular resonance. Let Christ’s life, pregnant in Mary, be realised in us. Let His new life, pregnant in the world, Easter in us! As Hopkins wrote in another poem:
Ask of Her, the mighty Mother.
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?-
Growth in every thing… (The May Magnificat)
At the end of Mass we shall crown the statue of our Lady and salute her as our Queen and Mother. She who carried the seed of new life reminds us of the way in which each of us is invited to bring new life into the world. Each of us is called to be creative, like Mary, and make our own ‘yes’ to God. To offer ourselves to be bearers of His life and His love in the world.
So let today recall us, in all these different ways, to the new beginnings, the ‘green shoots’ of new life, which the Christian Faith seeks to affirm and nurture. Christ calls us to Himself, the Good Shepherd, and invites us into relationship with Him. To turn our gaze to Him as sheep to the shepherd, or a child to its Father.
To look to Mary and find, in her, encouragement and inspiration as we seek to nurture the life of Christ within us and within the world.
Holy Mary, now we crown you
Honoured queen of all our race
Noble Virgin, may our tribute
Win your love and gain us grace.
Queen of heaven, while creation
Speaks the grandeur of God's love,
Mould our hearts to seek his glory;
May we see the Shepherd’s face.