by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ
Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”
One of my favorite characters in the children’s TV program, Sesame Street, was Count von Count, who was a muppet version of Count Dracula. He was “ze one” who loved to count things, from telephone rings to cookies that the Cookie Monster ate. He relished counting just about anything (one! mwa, ah,ah…) and there was always thunder and lightning to go with the counting.
In one scene, he is with Ernie who cannot sleep. When Ernie starts to count sheep, the Count follows with his usually loud Transylvanian voice (one! mwa, ah, ah!), which only exasperates Ernie and keeps him awake all through the night.
The first picture I get out of the Gospel image of the shepherd and the sheep is not really Sesame Street but one that is comforting, if sobering: it is a picture of the Lord counting sheep (and never falling asleep), knowing each and every one that is his, and making sure not one is lost or forgotten or ever stolen.
I would think that for him to keep track of those who were lost or stolen from him, the Lord would have had to count his own first. And I would like to believe that Easter joy has something to do with this sense of faith that we are somehow counted, that we are included as his very own, and that we therefore count for much in the eyes of the Lord.
This sense of belonging or inclusion is something that the early Church celebrated. To this day, it is the one sense that is instrumental to our identity, meaning, and happiness. Our feelings, motives, and actions are very much driven by our ultimate desire to belong and to come home. Belonging is what we long for. We seek to belong to someone, to family, to some team or community. We yearn to belong to where we come from, to where we are now, and to where we are going. We are lost when in isolation. We are hurt in times of alienation. We are afraid of death in the end and of every manner of dying along the way because we are afraid of disconnection.
This is why the Lord in this Easter gospel affirms our fundamental (even primordial) belonging to him while, in the same breath, promising us that we shall never perish. “We are his people, the sheep of his flock,” the psalmist proclaims. Not even death will disconnect us and take us away from him. “My sheep… I know them… I give them eternal life.”
Belonging and eternal life. Think about these coupled graces for a moment. If we had a pie chart of our leading desires, how much of a slice of that pie would be all about belonging. Ponder how much of what we do is driven by our desire to belong and by our fear of things ending. And consider how much of what we do now would change if we were somehow assured that we (like love and all things precious) did not have to end.
But surely things that are most precious to us can be ended in this life. They can be taken away from us. The Boston marathon bombing is a tragic reminder of what can be stolen from us. It is also a terrible symbol of our vulnerability and isolation and exclusion. The loss is enough to compound our alienation from each other. In the end, there is only pain and bitterness and scattered bits of longing to give up and leave.
All that have been stolen from us would have been enough to convince us that love (like life) does not last. And yet, in the very end, there would only be these bits of despair indeed were it not for a good Shepherd who continues to count us as his own, counting even the fragments of our dreams that have fallen on the floor.
I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count…. These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
In the end, and every bit along the way, we are counted and we count for much in the eyes of the Lord. All that is precious (even tears that have fallen) can never be lost or forgotten or stolen. We are loved as much as we are known. For all that we’ve become, we are still and will always be his very own.