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Perpetual Vows in the day of the Good Shepherd

Homily on May 8th 2022, Br. Juan Puech's Perpetual Vows (Fr. José Granados, dcjm)

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Dear Br. Juan, dear disciples, dear priests, families, friends: 

"No one will snatch them out of my Father's hand" (Jn 10:29). These are the words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, referring to his sheep. The Lord thus transmits to us his deepest secret: the mystery of the Father and of his love. And he applies to us what he would say of himself, in the context of the abandonment of the disciples, the scattered sheep: "I am never alone, the Father is always with me" (Jn 16:32).

1. "No one will snatch you out of your Father's hand”. The image of the shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders comes to mind. Or sometimes the sheep is also in his arms, and he protects and reassures it. To make perpetual vows is to place oneself in the hands of the Father. A companion of John once joked with the other disciples, just before making the vows: "You don't have me yet". In reality, when you make your perpetual vows, John, the one who will have you is the Father. No one will be able to snatch you out of his hand. In the vows, before you do anything, you let the Father do it: you let your hand hold you so that "neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword..." (cf. Rom 8:35) can separate you from his love.

This hand that sustains us evokes the vow of poverty. We vibrate with infinite desires that move us to and fro and give us no rest. Even the goods that seem the most secure, what we call real estate, are subject to change, can be devalued, can be lost. Trust in the Father means being able to rest in the true immovable good, in the radical good. He had nowhere to lay his head, because he could lay his head anywhere, even in the boat tossed by the waves. He who had nothing, found his rest in the hands of the Father.

Well then, no one will snatch you out of that hand, for the Father is greater than all. It helps to remember our complete postal address: Juan Puech, Madrid, Spain, Europe, the northern hemisphere, the Earth, the Solar Planet, the Milky Way... the Hands of God.

But aren't those hands of the Father too far away? Don't we have to pass through too many spaces to feel them close? It turns out that the Christian faith concretizes belonging to these hands. St. Augustine, commenting on this passage of the Gospel, put it this way: the hand of the Father is his Son, is Christ. No one will snatch you from his hand because with the vows you are fully configured to Christ. And so his hand is no longer the last distant space, but the first of your address: "John Puech, Christ (hand of God), Madrid, Spain..."

So poverty is not simply disinterest or renunciation of earthly goods. It means, rather, that when you say "mine", that "mine" is understood from another "mine": my Father, my Christ. You renounce now to say everything "mine" that does not pass first through your belonging to Jesus. Your house, your livelihood and your work tools are yours insofar as they belong to Jesus.

And since Jesus is the Risen One and the ultimate fruit of everything, with poverty you already possess the ultimate future of goods. You accept to be stripped of the leaves, the trunk, even the roots, because you possess, not only the grain, but the many grains that this seed will bear. The hand of the Father, in poverty, is not only the hand that supports and protects you, but the hand with a handful of salt that draws you to it.

 

2. "No one shall snatch you out of your Father's hand". The depth of this belonging to Christ, the hand of the Father, is also revealed in the image we read in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah (Is 44:1-5). He who "formed you from the womb" tells you that you will have this phrase tattooed on your hands: "This is the Lord's" (Is 44:5). 

And this implies that He Himself has tattooed you in His own hands: "This is John's" (Is 49:16), for he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. The hand of the Father touches you now by the vow of virginity.

This image of the tattoo takes another form in the context of the Good Shepherd: it is the seal with which the sheep were marked, a sign of belonging to the flock. The first Christians saw this seal in the cross that is formed on the forehead, the mouth, the chest. All of us have received this seal in baptism, and it is engraved within us. This seal manifests itself with its light and strength in the liturgy: now we can see it in all its glory, by your participation in these mysteries, your songs and acclamations, your gestures. Thanks to this seal you will be incensed during the offertory, because you are Christ.

Now, during your ordinary life the seal is normally hidden, because Christians live as one among other men, precisely so that they can mingle with them and infect them with the life of God. This seal will only become fully manifest at the end of time, and then it will blind us with its light, although in reality the seal will also mark our eyes, so that we can see the light.

But, and here is the mystery of the religious life, God has willed that in some of his children this seal is already manifested in their whole life, even though the resurrection has not yet come. It is the seal of his glory, the seal of Christ that now shows itself in all the dimensions of the person, and especially in our body, through the vow of virginity. Therefore, this life is the bodily following of Christ, so that Christ is, so to speak, tattooed on the flesh.

In this way the hands of God appear not only as those that support and protect you, but also as those that shape you. Through the vows you place yourself in his hands so that they may continue to shape you, as the potter does, to the flesh of the dead and risen Christ. Before St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus of Lyons identified the hands of the Father as the Word and the Spirit, the Word to model us on the outside according to his image, the Spirit to transform us on the inside, according to his likeness.

Thanks to this seal no one can snatch you out of the Father's hands. For what is most to be feared, what is most likely to separate us from the love of God (cf. Rom 8:39) is precisely our own rebelliousness. Even if the hands of God are always determined to accept us, is it not possible for us to reject them? If we ask to be released, will he not let us go, for he hates violence? Will the sheep not get fed up with the shepherd and go astray?

 

The answer is given to us in the reading of the Apocalypse: "the Lamb will feed them" (Rev 7:17), that is to say, the Shepherd became a Lamb so that the sheep could correspond to the love of the shepherd. The seal of the covenant is no longer engraved only from the outside, but from within man, because the Son of God loved the Father with a human heart. It is now possible, from our poor humanity, to love God with a love worthy of God Himself, as unbreakable as He Himself. Follow, then, dear John, the advice of Irenaeus himself: "Present your Heart to Him, soft and malleable [...] His Hand has fashioned the substance in you; He will anoint you within and without with pure gold and with silver" (Adv. Haer. IV).

This seal is, therefore, the seal of love, a spousal seal, engraved in your heart, with which you make Jesus the Beloved. We already know that Jesus is the most lovable of all men, and that does not depend on us. But Jesus also has the name "Beloved" and the greatness of that name does depend on us. Today is a day of joy. For Christ, who when we leave the Church will be as lovable as when we entered, is going to be more lovable at the end of this Mass, because of these vows that you will soon make. This is how the call of every Christian is defined: to make Jesus go from lovable to beloved. And in the religious vows this is manifested visibly, in the flesh, before everyone who has eyes to see: Jesus is the Beloved par excellence, because he can fill all our strength to love.

 

3. "No one shall snatch you out of your Father's hand". This seal that God imprints on his sheep so that they are always in his hand is a particular seal. The rabbis praised the difference between God and the other rulers because, while these with a single mold printed an infinity of coins all alike, God, with a single mold, that of his image and likeness, creates an infinity of persons all different. Love wants your free response, and so the hand of God (the hand that guards, the hand that shapes) now becomes the hand on your shoulder, the hand that guides, the hand that battles with you. This third hand is contained in the vow of obedience, by which you identify your project with the project of Christ, or rather, by which Christ himself becomes your project.

A few days ago I was discussing with Fr. Ioan Gotia some sketches he is preparing of the Good Shepherd, trying to put the Good Shepherd on the Cross. The problem is that the sheep on Christ's shoulders was asking for a hand to hold it, and that made it impossible to extend his hands. What if Christ let the sheep rest on his shoulders and extended his hands? The sheep was then left in an unstable equilibrium. The idea arose to tie a rope around the sheep's legs, so that the Shepherd could extend his arms. But didn't one then have the impression that the sheep was going to be sacrificed, instead of being protected?

Actually, there is something of that in the image of the Apocalypse that we read today: a Shepherd who is a Lamb. The Passover Lamb, who has been sacrificed, happens now to be standing, slain, to lead the People, taking the place of Moses, protecting them from the sun and the heat towards the good pastures (Rev 7:15-17). In fact, the Apocalypse presents us in other places with a fighting lamb, a ram or battering ram that fights against the enemies (Rev 5:6). Only His fight consists precisely in dying for the enemies, and that is why His army is that of the martyrs, who offer their blood with Him in the good fight.

Now the hand that never abandons you is not only the maternal hand that welcomes and protects you, but the paternal hand that puts itself on your shoulder and fights at your side, as St. Ignatius of Loyola says, "taking part with me in the labors so that I may also have a share in the glory." "No one shall snatch you out of his hand," he wants to say, now that, thanks to obedience, you will have the assurance that this hand fights at your side. Thus, the blood of the Lamb that washes the white garments is also the blood of your surrender and of your concord with Christ.

This hand of the Father, from which no one will snatch you, and which is the hand that protects, the hand that shapes, the hand that works with you, can still take a fourth form. Fray Luis de León says that it is proper to the Good Shepherd to take particular care of the sheep and that this is shown in a personal and affective detail: the Shepherd "makes music for them". The sheep is a musical animal because it has a fine ear. The Latins used to say that sheep, agnus in Latin, comes from agnoscere, which means to recognize, because it recognizes the voice of its mother even in a large flock. And it recognizes the call of the shepherd, who calls each sheep by name. And, since religious life is communitarian, we can perhaps see the hands of the shepherd as the hands of a conductor. May no one snatch you from these hands that harmonize the music, that is, from this concord of the Church and of the family of the Disciples. May you build this concord with your voice. May you follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Rev 14:4), and sing the song of the Lamb (Rev 15:3).

 

Fr. José Granados, DCJM

Superior General of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary

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