The gospel image for today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is the good shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10: 3). Unlike the hired hand who cares little for the sheep, Jesus loves his flock. He will lay down his own life for them. And they in turn know exactly where to put their trust. “I know my own and my own know me” (John 10: 14). “The sheep that belong to me hear my voice … and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Sheep are not a part of my daily life, so I didn’t fully appreciate the metaphor until I visited a sheep market in Jerusalem in 1989. Starting at 6 a.m. on Fridays, shepherds would bring their sheep in trucks, vans and even the back seats of cars to a stone-walled corral to begin spirited negotiations with potential buyers.
Once the corral had been crammed with wall to wall sheep, I wondered how the different shepherds would ever keep track of their own. But it soon became clear what Jesus was talking about: I know my own and my own know me. Although many human voices were speaking and calling simultaneously, each of the sheep responded only to the distinctive voice of its own shepherd.
Our own shepherd’s voice can still be heard, calling us every time we open the Bible. The attentive reception of Scripture is a form of real presence. When the gospel is read in the Eucharistic assembly, or meditated upon faithfully, Christ speaks – not from the past, but addressing us now in our own present with words of challenge and refreshment: Turn your lives around … Follow me … Take up your cross … Don’t be afraid … Your sins are forgiven … Peace be with you … Love one another.
Countless Christians through the centuries have heard and answered the voice of Jesus mediated in this way through the written texts of Scripture. But are there other ways of hearing the shepherd’s voice? Does it still find ways to speak in the now, without the mediation of ancient texts? Or is the God who spoke long ago now wrapped in permanent silence?
In the first book of the Bible, God speaks directly to human beings. Although we are never given a location or visual description of the speaking God, the words themselves seem as naturally delivered as any of the human speeches in the text. In the second book, the divine voice becomes less “natural,” uttered mysteriously from a stormy cloud or burning bush. By the fifth book, divine speech is largely of the past, something remembered and taught instead of heard directly: “Yahweh then spoke to you from the heart of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).
By the time we reach the First Book of Kings, the God whose voice had thundered commandments to Moses is reduced to “a still small voice,” or more accurately translated, “a sound of thin hush” (I Kings 19:12). The voice of God has become the sound of silence.
Thereafter, God’s biblical speeches are secondhand reports from the mouths of the prophets. The whole narrative arc of the Hebrew Scriptures “from Eve to Esther,” as Richard Elliott Friedman puts it, may be described as a “step-by-step diminishing of God’s apparent presence.”[i] As Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.”[ii] Or as the Psalmist complains, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”[iii] In the public, shared experience of God’s people, the face of God becomes hidden and the voice of God grows silent. God disappears as a speaking character in the Bible.
However, incarnational faith understands this not as a process of divine withdrawal from the world, but an ever deeper embedding of God within it, until the Word of God is delivered not in thunder and lightning, but in the ordinary human speech of the man named Jesus. It turns out that the eventual disappearance of the God of power and might was a way for God to draw ever closer to us, so that now, as Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the facts themselves.”[iv]
For those attached to a more majestic divine self-disclosure, this has made God much harder to see. As Pascal put it, “when it was necessary for [God] to appear, he hid himself more deeply yet, by wrapping himself in humanity. He was much more easily recognizable when he was still invisible than when he made himself visible.”[v] But for those with ears to hear, the still small voice may be heard every day from our neighbor’s mouth.
Still, I wonder. Can God yet speak, not just in sacred text or through the mouth of friend and stranger, but more directly? Is there still an audible Voice that calls us each by name? John Milton argued that God makes a “general vocation” to all “in various ways” but sometimes “invites certain selected individuals … more clearly and insistently than is normal.”[vi] His seventeenth century contemporary, George Herbert, described such a moment of address and response in his poem, “The Collar,” whose very title uses the sartorial sign of priestly vocation to make a pun about “calling”:
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply’d, My Lord.
But as the word “methought” indicates, the experience of being addressed by God, undoubtedly a real one for the prayerful Herbert, was filtered through imagination, reflection and poetic language. We can’t assume it to be verbatim.
Three centuries earlier, English mystic Julian of Norwich, while gravely ill, had an intense visual and auditory experience of the suffering Christ, which she would later recount in the first book written by a woman in English. The book’s title, Showings, categorizes her visions as something received, not simply produced in her own mind. The things Christ said to her were not simply variations on gospel texts, but words never before heard, directed specifically to Julian.
As Veronica Mary Rolf has noted, Julian was careful to specify “which of Christ’s words she heard spoken distinctly within her mind, and which words arose in her mind ‘as If’ Christ were addressing her directly, according to what she understood to be his meaning.”[vii] Julian’s experience is compelling, and when Jesus tells her that “all shall be well,” who can say she was not hearing her shepherd’s voice?
“Jesus calls us,” the hymn says. “Day by day his clear voice soundeth.”[viii] How literally should we take this? Have you, dear reader, ever heard the Voice that calls you by name? I myself have never heard it in an auditory way, as an actual sound. But I can remember one particular occasion when, I believe, the Voice addressed me, simply and directly.
In preparation for my fiftieth birthday, I spent four days at the Taize community in France. The chanted worship was very beautiful, but something about the place left me ill at ease. Most people had come to spend an entire week, but I had only arrived on Thursday, missing out on the natural bonding process of the hundreds who had been together since Sunday. I felt like an outsider. And the prevailing European reserve didn’t exude any of the warmth I associated with religious retreat. As one of my British roommates told me, “Oh, you Americans! You expect everyone to smile and say howdy.”
For whatever reason, I was not having the uncomplicatedly beautiful experience I had anticipated. I felt disappointed. On my second night, the two-hour liturgy centered around a large painted Byzantine cross. All who wanted could draw near for a time of prayer and adoration. When my turn came, I leaned my forehead against the cross and prayed, “Well, God, here I am at Taize. It’s not at all what I hoped for. Now what?” I waited, not really expecting an answer. But then these words came into my thoughts, precise and clear like something given, rather than any halting formulation of my own: Stop looking for a gift for yourself. Look for the gift you can give another.
It was an awakening. Tears filled my eyes. Tongues of flame danced in the red votives around the cross. A thousand voices chanted in the German tongue of my ancestors, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray.” After that moment, everything was different. My remaining days at Taize were full of grace.
When the liturgy ended, I went out into the summer night. People were sitting in small groups on the lawn, watching spectacular bolts of lightning play across the far horizon. First the still small voice, then the fire from heaven. Theophany indeed.
[i] Richard Elliott Friedman, The Hidden Face of God (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995) 79
[ii] Isaiah 45:15
[iii] Psalm 22:1
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1971) 191
[v] quoted in Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963) 326
[vi] De Doctrina Christiana, q. in David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans) 815
[vii] Veronica Mary Rolf, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013) 262
[viii] Cecil Frances Alexander, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation) #549