Fourth Sunday of Easter (B) | Fr Aidan Nichols considers the “mind-blowing claim” that we are to be known by Christ as the Father knows him.
Being compared with sheep is not generally regarded as highly complimentary. As reflected in the phrase ‘as silly as a sheep’, sheep have a reputation for being over-docile, following each other snout-to-tail in an uncritical fashion. There are even those who maintain that speaking of the Church’s faithful as sheep has had, over the centuries, a depressant effect in stifling initiative among the laity. But are these negative qualities of sheep, whether real or alleged, the ones Jesus had in mind? Almost certainly not. In a largely pastoral society – so unlike our economically diversified and largely urban one – there would be a great deal more respect for, and understanding of, what sheep are and the kind of relation they have to their shepherd. What aspects of that relation, may we ask, are important for this Gospel?
First and foremost, the shepherd enjoys a kind of instinctive communication with his sheep. It’s actually an acquired capacity to read little signals or symptoms, so that the shepherd has a sense for what the sheep are wanting. They are transparent to him, so that whether the sheep’s preoccupation is hunger or thirst, predators or better grass on the other side of the mountain, the shepherd can pick it up and act on it. There’s a network of stimulus and response which creates a mutual knowledge. ‘I know my sheep and they know me.’
We all have a desire to be known: to be perfectly, intimately, known. One of our great needs is to share our sense of ourselves with what our contemporaries call some ‘significant other’. We want someone else to understand our fears and anxieties, and to witness and share our joys and happiness. But – and this is a very large ‘but’ indeed – we want this someone never to abuse this knowledge. We need to be known in this intimate way by someone who will never disparage or humiliate us, never use or manipulate us. We require a well-grounded absolute trust in this perfect confidant or we might be seriously damaged by him or her. And, unfortunately, though there may be some wonderful marriages where people come near to it, in general this is asking for the moon. If these are the non-negotiable criteria, human beings are virtually bound to be sheep without a shepherd. Yet precisely this is the quality of relationship offered by Christ since, in his divine-human perfection, he really is the Good Shepherd.
What he says is, ‘I know my sheep and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’. The second part of this statement – the part about the Son’s knowledge of the Father – is obviously vital to understanding the first part, the inter-relation of the shepherd and the sheep. Friendship with the Good Shepherd is not simply a crutch to help us hobble a little better through life. It is something far more. It is nothing less than an invitation to enter upon the mystical way: to begin, if not to end, an experiential journey into the life of God himself. What he says is that the knowledge he will have of us will be like the very knowledge the Father has of the Son. We need to ask, accordingly, So what is that knowledge like, pray?
It is an extraordinary knowledge. The Father’s loving knowledge of Son is the act whereby the Son exists – generated from before all worlds. For Jesus to promise he will know us in the way the Father knows him is for him to say he wants our existence to blossom with that same generative love, the love that has been going on in God before the world was made. It is a mind-blowing claim. It concerns our deification, a word that, I recall, has alarmed converts I have instructed but our Catechism contains it. Perhaps had the Alps existed in Galilee Jesus would have compared us not so much to sheep, intrepid adventurers though they can be on their own terrain, sometimes to their cost. Perhaps, I venture to suggest, he would have compared us to the ibex, the Alpine goat, which can leap up to where the edelweiss flowers. That wonder-world is where the redeemed are headed.