Thursday, April 3, 2014

By the Whites of His Knuckles

 “You can be sure there is joy in heaven’, he said, over one sinner who repents.
To give the same lesson he revived the man who, having fallen into the hands of the brigands, had been left stripped and half-dead from his wounds; he poured wine and oil on the wounds, bandaged them, placed the man on his own mule and brought him to an inn, where he left sufficient money to have him cared for, and promised to repay any further expense on his return.

Again, he told of how that Father, who is goodness itself, was moved with pity for his profligate son who returned and made amends by repentance; how he embraced him, dressed him once more in the fine garments that befitted his own dignity, and did not reproach him for any of his sins.

So too, when he found wandering in the mountains and hills the one sheep that had strayed from God’s flock of a hundred, he brought it back to the fold, but he did not exhaust it by driving it ahead of him. Instead, he placed it on his own shoulders and so, compassionately, he restored it safely to the flock.

So also he cried out: Come to me, all you that toil and are heavy of heart. Accept my yoke’, he said, by which he meant his commands, or rather, the whole way of life that he taught us in the Gospel. He then speaks of a burden, but that is only because repentance seems difficult. In fact, however, my yoke is easy, he assures us, and my burden is light.

Then again he instructs us in divine justice and goodness, telling us to be like our heavenly Father, holy, perfect and merciful. Forgive, he says, and you will be forgiven. Behave toward other people as you would wish them to behave toward you.
Saint Maximus the Confessor

Reflection – I have on my desk a very precious gift from a directee. She is an iconographer, and wrote me an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd (an image of this icon is the image of Christ I use for this blog.
Christ is holding the sheep on his shoulders, as Maximus describes here. In this particular icon, he is gripping the feet of the sheep tight—so tight that the whites of his knuckles are showing. The sheep meanwhile has a most contented look on his face. Clearly, he is not going anywhere, and clearly, that is just fine with him.

His head is resting on the Lord’s shoulder, so that if Jesus has anything to say to him, he has only to turn his head and whisper into the ear of his lost sheep. And the Lord’s hands are pierced—it is the crucified and risen Jesus who is bearing the lost sheep home. The whole icon radiates tenderness, security, peace, strength, calm.

And this is the simple fact of Christian life in the world. We may have an ocean of raging emotions. We may have dozens if not hundreds of questions, things we don’t understand about our own lives or the life of the world. We may be deeply unhappy about all sorts of things: why the Church does this, why the world is like that, why this happened to me, why that happened to the person I love. On the level of worldly life, our future may be uncertain and our present most definitely disordered.

But the deeper truth is that we are the little sheep in the icon of Christ the Good Shepherd, the son returning home to the father’s house in the parable, the man who fell among robbers being tended to by the Good Samaritan who is the Lord Himself. Our emotions may tell us something quite different, but one of the key insights we have to learn in the spiritual life is that it is precisely here that our emotions most let us down. Emotions react and rise in us in response to direct sensory input; the deepest realities of God and us, the life of grace in the soul, and what Jesus is doing on our behalf and for our healing and salvation are all happening at a level far deeper than the senses.

And so we are left with the Word of God, as always the surest and truest revelation of the reality of things. And in connection with this whole business of mercy and grace, repentance and conversion, help and salvation coming to us by the tender love of the Father in Jesus, the Gospels have given us this string of images and parables that are unparalleled in beauty: the lost sheep, the lost son, the lost coin, the man beaten by robbers… all of which captivate our imagination with their loveliness, all of which are telling us the true story of our lives, hold up a mirror to us of our souls and the Soul of God, all of which is summed up in the loving shepherd carrying a little lamb on his shoulders back to the sheepfold, back home, back where we belong and where our happiness lies.

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