For this Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we are given the image of the Good Shepherd from John’s Gospel. This image of the Lord is familiar to most of us and has been the subject of countless pieces of art. There is always the danger of sentimentality with the image of the Good Shepherd, the danger of creating an unreal image. In art, the Good Shepherd is always presented as clean, tidy, serene, but is that really a correct image of the Good Shepherd?
This past Tuesday, May 7th, a man by the name of Jean Vanier died in France at the age of 90. Some of you may have heard of him, most probably have not. He grew up the son of the governor-general of Canada when our northern neighbors were still not fully independent of the British Empire. He served in both the British and Canadian navies and considered the priesthood for a time before finding a unique calling from the Lord in his mid-30s.
In the early 1960s, following a visit to his spiritual director in France, and at his urging, Jean started visiting asylums in France In seeing the horror of the conditions that many lived in and the inhumanity that they were subjected to on a daily basis in inadequate and underfunded institutions, he felt called to act. In beginning his work with the mentally and physically disabled, Jean said that he found those he served to be a “source of life and truth, if we welcome them and put ourselves in their service.” What started in a broken down home in north-east France turned into what today is known as L’Arche International with 154 communities around the world in 38 countries in the service of men and women with physical and mental disabilities. The community’s name comes from the French word for “ark,” specifically Noah’s Ark, which served as a refuge for Noah and his family amidst the destruction of the world.
Jean noted “as we share our lives with the powerless, we are obliged to leave behind our theories of the world, our dreams, and our beautiful thoughts about God…to be grounded in a reality that can be quite harsh.” In speaking of the value of serving those in his community, he said “when those engrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”
For me, Jean Vanier was a living icon of Christ the Good Shepherd, seeking out those whom society saw as less than desirable, and bringing true Christian care and compassion to them.
Christ the Good Shepherd is not a sanitized figure in art but our loving savior who enters into the messiness of our lives and the brokenne ss of our sinfulness, to bring us back to life and love with God. And he invites us to do the same, to bring his goodness, love, and mercy to the broken, the vulnerable, and to societies “undesirables;” to bring anyone and everyone to God by our authentic living out of the Gospel.
To learn more about Jean Vanier and L’Arche International, you can visit L’Arche International’s website at larche.org and you can find the article that I read on May 7th about his death in the Washington Post.
Father Christopher House is the Rector of the Cathedral and serves in various roles within the diocesan curia, namely Chancellor and Vicar Judicial.