Today is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Both the Old and New Testaments use the image of a shepherd and his flock to describe the unique relationship of humanity to God. Jesus is our Good Shepherd.
Today we heard psalm 23 (sometimes known as psalm 22), which is perhaps the most famous of all psalms and is often chosen for funerals. For many people, it is their most favourite psalm or Scriptural passage.
In the early Church, as early as the year 150, there is evidence to show that this psalm was sung after the baptism of Adults during the Easter ceremonies, as the newly-baptised made their way to the altar to receive their first Communion. It is not a coincidence that it is prayed today, in the midst of the Easter season, in the context of our Eucharistic celebration.
Psalm 23 was considered by the early Fathers of the Church to be “a mysterious summing up of the successive sacraments of initiation” – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.”
Today I would like to focus on a few elements within this great psalm.
“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
St Gregory, bishop of Nyssa in the 4th century said “By this psalm, Christ teaches the Church that first of all you must become a sheep of the Good Shepherd.” Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus is the Shepherd and the gate or door to heaven. Shepherds at the time of Christ tendered and looked after their flock. At night, the shepherds would lead their sheep into an enclosed area, but most enclosed areas did not have gates, so the shepherds would lie down across the entrance and would become the gate or door. Jesus lay himself down for us, so that we would have limits and we would know that Jesus is protecting us and keeping us safe.
The Psalm continues: “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.”
St Gregory said that we “see in these pastures the catechesis required for Baptism, in which the soul is nourished with the word of God.”
St Cyril of
“Near restful waters he leads me, to revive my drooping spirit.”
St Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century wrote: “The restful waters without doubt signifies holy Baptism by which the weight of sin is removed.”
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil would I fear.”
St Gregory said: “You must be buried in death with Jesus by baptism. But it is not death itself, but a shadow and an image of death.” St Cyril says that baptism is not to be feared.
Psalm 23 continues: “My head you have anointed with oil.”
My friends, at Baptism and confirmation our heads are anointed with holy oil. Psalm 23 is loudly and boldly proclaiming the sacramental rituals of the Church. We didn’t invent this stuff because we liked complicated services.
It continues: “You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes.”
St Cyril says that this “sacramental table is the flesh of the Lord, which strengthens us against our passions and the demons.”
The Fathers of the Church understood this banquet as being the Celebration of the Eucharist. This is what we are entering into now. The last few weeks the Gospels have been talking about Eucharistic themes. The Eucharist, not just any old Church service, but the Eucharist is the service and celebration of the Risen People. The New Testament explains it, the Old Testament prepares for it, and Christians from the time of Peter have celebrated it. The Eucharist feeds us as Christians.
“My cup is overflowing.”
The earliest Greek translations of the Hebrew Psalm 23 translated this verse as “the inebriating chalice.” St Cyril makes reference and comparison between this verse and getting drunk. He says: “the inebriation that comes from the chalice of the Lord is not like that given by profane wine.” When we drink from the chalice, we don’t drink to get drunk.
Fr Witold was telling me a few weeks ago about how after Mass one Sunday, he drank the rest of the chalice, which was quite full, and he then finished the
The Chalice of the Lord contains alcohol. But the effects are felt spiritually. St Cyril says “the chalice of the Lord inebriates in such a way that it leaves us our reason, it leads to spiritual wisdom, by it each person comes from a taste for profane things to the understanding of the things of God.” When someone is drunk, they can often be full of joy, carefree, and have a feeling of satisfaction. The Eucharist produces spiritual effects which are similar to those of drunkenness. We receive spiritual joy, forgetfulness of the things of earth, and even ecstasy of God through receiving the Eucharist. The difference is that the inebriation given by the Eucharistic wine is a “sober inebriation.” It is not like a drug. This is real. This is why people choose to come to Mass on Sundays and why many people choose to come to Mass every day.
St Ambrose said that “the inebriation of the chalice is good, for it does away with the sadness of a sinful conscience and pours out the joy of everlasting life.”
My friends, I could continue the explanation verse and word at a time, but I am not going to. St Ambrose said: “How many times have you heard Psalm 23 without understanding it?” Let us understand it and treasure what it is telling us.
Jesus our God, is our shepherd. He wants to protect, to nurture us and to give meaning, purpose, joy and love in our lives.
My friends, let us believe what is occurring in our midst. Let pray to receive the graces that God is wanting to pour out on us by eating at this banquet.
The Eucharistic Celebration is not a medieval invention of the Church. The Old Testament has prepared the way for Christ and has prepared the way for the Church and for the sacraments. What we are doing here is what King David prophesized about in Psalm 23, more than 3000 years ago.
This is our faith. Let us enter into this celebration expecting to receive Christ’s nourishment and power in our lives.
“Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.” Amen.