Year A – 4th Sunday of Easter

 Sheepdogs and Angels

(Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1Pet.2:20b-25; Jn.10:1-10)

Have you ever seen a sheepdog trial?

These trials began in New Zealand in the 1860s, and today competitions are held all over the world. They test the ability of shepherds and their dogs to guide a flock of sheep through a maze of obstacles in just fifteen minutes. The way they work together is extraordinary.

Why do shepherds need sheepdogs? It’s because guiding, guarding and raising unruly sheep can be hard work.

We city-dwellers don’t often see shepherds, but they are all through the Bible. In fact, they’re mentioned over 90 times in the Old Testament, often in reference to the early kings and rulers of Israel who were meant to shepherd their people. But too often they failed at this, preferring to kill and steal instead (cf. Ezek.34).

So, God promised that one day he would shepherd the people himself, and that’s why Jesus is our Good Shepherd today.

When a flock is big, shepherds always need help. Jesus started with twelve disciples. Moses had Caleb and Joshua to help him lead his flock out of Egypt. And Paul had Timothy, Barnabas and Silas to help him in his ministry.

So, looking back into history, there have long been shepherds, and good sheepdogs, too. The Book of Job, one of the oldest books of the Bible, mentions sheepdogs in Chapter 30. And interestingly, ‘Caleb’ means faithful and even sheepdog in Hebrew.

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), the British spiritual writer, loved observing the natural world, and often used nature to explain mystical truths.

In 1938, after visiting a sheep dog trial in rural England, she wrote to a friend about the way shepherds and sheepdogs work together. Sheepdogs, she noted, were very active and loved running around. And although the sheep could be unpredictable, the sheepdogs controlled them well by making sure that none escaped from the fold.

But one thing really impressed her. While the sheepdogs were always ready to work hard, they spent an astonishing amount of time just sitting still, watching the shepherd. They always waited for a sign before moving an inch.

She also noticed that the sheepdogs didn’t bark or make a fuss. They had transcended their ‘mere dogginess’ and become an extension of the shepherd. Their only interest was in obeying him and waiting for his signal.

The sheepdog’s relationship with the shepherd was the centre of his life, and despite the frustrations, his tail never stopped wagging. He enjoyed working with the sheep. He was the agent of the shepherd, working to a plan that was not his own and which he could not possibly have understood; and yet that was the source of his joy. It was also the discipline with which he worked. [i]

When Jesus returned to Heaven, his mission didn’t stop. Rather, the sheep that had become his sheepdogs then became his shepherds, and they devoted their lives to searching for strays and returning them safely to his flock.

Someone who did this recently was Don Ritchie, a former insurance salesman and navy veteran. In 1964, he bought a house in Watson’s Bay, in Sydney, only 50 metres from a dangerous seaside cliff known as The Gap – a popular spot for suicides. [ii]

Ritchie soon found himself rescuing suicidal strangers from the clifftop.

In the beginning, he tried restraining them, while his wife called the police, and he even earned a bravery medal. But then he began taking a gentler approach, by approaching them with a smile and asking, ‘Is there something I can do to help you?’ Or inviting them into his home for drink. [iii]

On one occasion, he lay down on his stomach, talking to a terrified man just over the edge and threatening to jump. He gently encouraged him to return to safety.

Don Ritchie wasn’t always successful, but he came to be known as the Angel of the Gap. When he died in 2012, aged 85, his family said that he had saved some 500 people, although the official count is 160.

Perhaps Don’s greatest satisfaction, they said, was the gifts, Christmas cards and letters he received from those he’d saved, sometimes a decade or two after the attempted suicide.[iv]

Like a devoted sheepdog, for almost fifty years Don Ritchie kept one eye on the Good Shepherd and one eye on the sheep, and he made a real difference.

This, then, is our challenge: to keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, listening carefully for his word, while helping his sheep when they are in trouble.

We, too, can make a difference.

[i] Carol Poston (Ed.) The Making of a Mystic: New and Selected Letters of Evelyn Underhill, HarperCollins, 1993:381.


[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, Death of the Angel of The Gap: the man who saved the suicidal from themselves, May 14, 2012,


Year A – 3rd Sunday of Easter

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus

(Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1Pet.1:17-21; Lk.24:13-35)

In today’s Gospel, two grieving disciples are walking to Emmaus, 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. They are depressed and confused because Jesus Christ has died. They simply cannot comprehend it.

A mysterious stranger then joins them on their walk. It’s Jesus himself, but they don’t recognise him. As they journey together, he listens to them and interprets what has happened through the Scriptures. And when they reach Emmaus, they invite the stranger to join them for supper.

This meal is the subject of Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Supper at Emmaus, which he painted in Rome in 1601, at the age of 30.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio shows Jesus sitting at table with two disciples. He takes the bread, says the blessing and breaks it, and then he gives it to them. Just as they recognize Jesus, he vanishes from their sight.

Why do they recognise him? It’s because Jesus repeats the action he performed at the Last Supper (Lk.22:19), and they are utterly astonished. It’s this emotion that Caravaggio tries to capture in this painting. [i]

Now, notice that Jesus is unusually clean-shaven and fresh-faced, while his robes hide the wounds from his crucifixion. This might explain why they didn’t recognise him.

But Caravaggio could also be saying something to us here, for how often are we unaware and unthankful when Jesus journeys with us?

Standing next to Jesus is the unshaven innkeeper, who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.

On the right, Cleopas is so shocked to see Jesus that he flings his arms wide like a cross. The scallop shell he’s wearing indicates that he’s a pilgrim ‘on his way,’ just like us all. We’re all pilgrims in this life. [ii]

To the left is the unnamed disciple, with a torn sleeve. Could he be Cleopas’ son, Simeon? He, too, is shocked to discover Jesus. He’s gripping his chair and just about to spring to his feet.

On the table, the roast chicken symbolises Christ as the sacrificial victim. And teetering precariously on the front edge of the table is a fruit-basket. This points to the significance of Christ’s apparition, because if death is no longer absolute, then all our earthly expectations are no longer secure. [iii]

The basket itself represents the riches of Holy Scripture, and the fruits therein symbolise the nourishing teachings of the Old and New Testaments. [iv]

The fresh fruit also symbolises new life, but notice that the apple is starting to rot; this reminds us of the sin of Adam and Eve. Behind the apple is a pomegranate, split open. In Judaism, the pomegranate symbolises righteousness, as the ‘613 seeds’ are said to correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. But the pomegranate also symbolises the richness of the promised land (Deut. 8:8), and of the Church, where many are united as one.

Now, do you see the piece of cane sticking out from the fruit basket? It’s casting the shadow of a fish, symbolising Jesus and his ministry. It also reminds us of his call to his disciples to be ‘fishers of men.’

There’s so much for us to reflect on in this painting, but one important thing to note is that this is no ordinary table. It’s actually an altar, and what Caravaggio is depicting here is the very first Mass after Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, Jesus is celebrating the Holy Eucharist himself.

The grapes allude to consecrated wine and Christ’s blood spilt during his passion and crucifixion. And on the left is a trio of bread, water and a jug of wine, the three central elements of the Holy Eucharist which Jesus consecrates at every Mass.

And notice that as Jesus blesses the bread, his hand is pointing towards us. He’s inviting us to join him at the empty space in front.

Notice, too, the white prayer shawl on Cleopas’ lap, tied in a knot. This indicates his absolute commitment to the faith, and today we’re all being invited to share that same faith.

Finally, this painting reminds us that right from the very beginning, after Jesus’ resurrection, many people struggled to believe or understand what had happened – even those who personally knew Jesus. However, they did come to believe because Jesus revealed himself to them. He revealed himself to Mary Magdalene (Jn.20:14), to Peter (Lk.24:34), and to these two disciples in Emmaus, among many others. And he did so through the power of the Holy Spirit, through Scripture and through the sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist.

It’s no different today. Many people still struggle to believe or understand what happened all those years ago. But through the power of the Spirit, through Scripture and through the Holy Eucharist and all the sacraments, Jesus continues to reveal himself to us.

Our challenge is to believe and to always remain open to Jesus.

[i] John S Dixon, The Christian Year in Painting, Art/Books, London, 2018:136.

[ii] Op cit. p.137.

[iii] Sr Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-Loved Paintings, SPCK, London. 2019:72.

[iv] Silvia Malaguzzi, Food and Feasting in Art, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2008:222-223.

Year A – Divine Mercy Sunday

The Image of Divine Mercy

(Acts 2:42-47; 1Pet.1:3-9; Jn.20:19-31)

We know from her diary that in 1931, Jesus appeared to St Maria Faustina Kowalska in Poland as the King of Divine Mercy. He was wearing a white garment with rays of white and red light streaming from his heart.  

He asked her to paint this image with the words: Jesus, I trust in You, inscribed underneath. ‘I want this image to be venerated,’ he said, ‘and I promise that the soul that venerates this image will not perish.’ [i]

But poor Faustina was no painter. She asked her confessor what she should do. ‘All you need,’ he said, ‘is to paint Jesus’ picture in your soul.’ But it was a real picture Jesus wanted, so she asked her superior, who gave her some canvas and paints. ‘But I don’t know how to paint!’ she cried.

It was only after relocating to Lithuania that her new spiritual director helped her find an artist, and the first Divine Mercy image was painted in 1934.

In The Seven Secrets of Divine Mercy, Vinny Flynn writes that it’s important that this picture be seen as an icon, and not as an idol. An idol takes our attention away from God, but an icon draws us towards him.

An icon is not an object of worship, however. It’s more like a window we look through with the eyes of our soul to see God.

This picture is of Jesus, but as St Paul says, Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God.’ So, this is also an image of our heavenly Father. As Pope St John Paul II writes, the Father’s invisible nature becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, and most especially visible in his mercy.[ii] For Jesus doesn’t just talk about mercy – he is mercy itself. ‘Making the Father present as love and mercy is… the fundamental touchstone of Jesus’ mission as the Messiah,’ he says. [iii]

Now, see Jesus’ right hand – he’s giving us a blessing. What is a blessing? It’s a divine and life-giving action, but it’s not only Jesus giving us this blessing; his Father is too. And because this action is ‘frozen’ in time, that blessing is unending. The Father is always giving life – all the time.

Jesus’ white garment reminds us that he is a priest. Indeed, Jesus is the only priest; he is the one great and eternal High Priest. All others share in the one priesthood of Christ. So, it’s fitting that his hand is raised in blessing, because the first function of the priest is to bless.

Look now at Jesus’ left hand. He’s touching his heart and his fingers are opening his garment. Jesus is inviting us to come into his heart and to rest there.

Like his ‘frozen’ blessing, this gesture is also permanent and unchangeable. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Mt.11:28). 

Now, see the rays of mercy streaming from Jesus’ heart. When St Faustina asked Jesus what they meant, he said: ‘The two rays denote Blood and Water (which) flowed from the depths of my tender mercy when my agonised heart was opened by a lance.’[iv]

The pale rays, Vinny Flynn explains, point to Jesus’ promise of ‘Living Water’ and our rebirth in the Holy Spirit through Baptism. But they also remind us of the Sacrament of Reconciliation because the cleansing of Confession is an extension of our Baptism.

The red rays represent the Holy Eucharist, the blood that is the ‘life of souls.’ In the Old Testament, before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai, Moses sprinkles the people with the blood of the sacrifice, proclaiming it as ‘the blood of the covenant’ (Ex.24:8).

And now, pouring out his red rays upon us, Jesus is the new Moses (and the new sacrificial lamb), fulfilling on the Cross his gift of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, when he proclaims the ‘new covenant’ in his blood (Lk.22:20). [v]

The Divine Mercy image has spread widely since 2000, when St John Paul II canonised St Faustina and established Divine Mercy Sunday, to remind us to always trust in God’s merciful love.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples are hiding in the Upper Room, terrified of Jesus’ wrath. They know they were wrong to have abandoned Jesus when he most needed them during his Passion. But when Jesus arrives, he simply says, ‘Peace be with you.’ In fact, he says it twice.

There’s no anger or retribution. Only love, mercy and a blessing.

We shouldn’t be surprised, because Jesus is Divine Mercy itself.

Today, we are all called to focus on the incredible goodness of God, who is always loving us, always blessing us, and always inviting us into his heart.

When we firmly fix our eyes on Jesus, through God’s grace we are gradually transformed into the image and likeness of what we see.

We become living reflections of our loving God [vi]

[i] St Faustina Maria Kowalska, Diary of Divine Mercy, Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2007. n.47, 48.

[ii] Pope St John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), 1980, n.2.

[iii] Op cit. n.3.

[iv] St Faustina Maria Kowalska, Diary of Divine Mercy, Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2007. n.299.

[v] Vinny Flynn, 7 Secrets of Divine Mercy, Ignatius Press, Fort Collins, CO, 2015:65-89.

[vi] Op cit. p.209.

Year A – Easter Sunday

The Scent of Liberation

(Acts 10:34, 37-43; Col.3:1-4; Jn.20:1-9)

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus meets Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, he kisses him on the cheek and asks, ‘Friend, why are you here?’ (Mt.26:50)

Today, we might ask ourselves the same question: Friend, why are you here? What brings you here this Easter?

For most people, what brings us here is Jesus’ story. It’s the story that has intrigued and inspired countless millions over the millennia. It’s the story of love, both human and divine, and the victory of good over evil. And it’s the story of love’s triumph over sin and death, as Jesus clears our pathway to eternal life.

In one way or another, we’ve all struggled with life. We’ve all suffered pain, disappointment and death of some kind. And yet, the wonderful thing about Jesus is that by his Cross and resurrection he has conquered these things. He has broken their power over us. He has shown us that God is alive and well, and that he truly cares for us.

But if Jesus really has conquered sin and death, then why are so many people, including good Christians, still struggling with them?

Two theologians, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) of Britain and Anders Nygren (1890-1978) of Sweden, asked themselves this same question many years ago. They both noticed important parallels between life in New Testament times and the situation of ordinary people during the Second World War. And it occurred to them that the victory Jesus won over sin through his death and resurrection is very much like a country being liberated from Nazi control.

In the 1940s, the Nazis were a foreign occupying power and a sinister and menacing presence in many countries. People feared them and suffered under them, and for years they could do nothing about them.

This is very much like people today living under the oppressive weight of sin and death.

But then comes the electrifying news: there has been a far-off battle, and somehow it has turned the tide of the war. A new phase has developed, and the occupying power is in disarray. Its backbone has been broken. In the course of time, the Nazis will be driven out of every corner of Europe. But in the meantime, they are still present in the occupied country.

In one sense, the situation has not changed, but in another, more important sense, the situation has changed totally. People can smell victory and liberation in the air, and this results in a huge psychological change.

The Nazis might still be around, and the people might still be suffering under their rule, but deep down the people are getting excited. They have a real sense that something good is on its way. They have hope.

A similar story is told of a man who had been held prisoner in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. In 1945, there was an astonishing change in the camp’s atmosphere when one of the prisoners (who owned a short-wave radio) heard about the collapse of the Japanese war effort.

Although everyone in the camp was still locked up, they knew that their enemy had been beaten. It would only be a matter of time before they were released. And those prisoners began to laugh and cry, as if they were already free.

The Second World War ended in Europe about a year after bridgeheads were established in Normandy in June 1944. But in those final twelve months, the course of the war had changed and so had the hearts and minds of the captive people.

And so it is with us today. In one sense, victory has not yet come; but in another sense, it already has.

Because of Jesus, sin and death no longer have the final word. They no longer have power over our eternal souls. However, this doesn’t mean that they have disappeared, because for now death is still a natural part of life, and there’s still so much sin around.

But remember this: Jesus’ resurrection points to God’s total victory over all evil, sin and death. Their backbone has been broken; they’re on the run, and that means we can now live in the light of the coming victory.

We know that the long night of their oppression will one day end. [i] It’s only a matter of time.

So, let’s give thanks and celebrate!

Christ is risen!


[i] Alister E McGrath, In the Light of Victory, in Arnold, Augustine et al, Bread and Wine, Plough Publishing House, NY, 2003, 271-275.

Year A – Palm Sunday

The Ragman

[Is.50:4-7; Phil.2:6-11; Mt.27:11-54]

As we enter Holy Week, we are all invited to witness the most remarkable events that have ever occurred in history. Today, let’s prepare ourselves by reflecting quietly on Walter Wangerin Jr’s famous story of The Ragman. [i]

What does it say to you?


Early one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking through the back streets of the city, pulling an old cart filled with bright, new clothes. He called out, ‘Rags! Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!’

The air was foul in these dark streets, but as he called out, the air seemed to become cleaner. ‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags!’

He was tall and muscular, with intelligent eyes. I wondered what he was doing and I followed him. There was a woman sitting outside her house, crying into a handkerchief. She was miserable, heartbroken. Her body may have been alive, but her soul wanted to die.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly he walked over to her, stepping around tin cans and old rubbish. ‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently, ‘and I’ll give you another’. The woman saw his compassionate eyes and stopped crying. The Ragman took her handkerchief and replaced it with a clean new cloth. As she looked at it, the Ragman slowly kissed her forehead and returned to his cart.

As he pulled his cart again, the Ragman did something strange: he put her old handkerchief to his face and he began to weep, just as she did. But she’d stopped crying and now she had a look of wonder on her face. ‘That’s amazing’, I thought.

‘Rags! Rags! New rags for old!’ said the Ragman, weeping.

A girl was sitting on the kerbside, her head wrapped in a bandage. She was bleeding. The weeping Ragman stopped and took a beautiful yellow hat from his cart. ‘Give me your rag,’ he said softly. He took her bandage and put it on himself. The girl’s head healed, while the Ragman’s head started to bleed. He put the hat on the girl’s head, and returned to his cart.

‘Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding Ragman. ‘New rags for old!’ He was moving faster now. He stopped in front of a man leaning against a telephone pole. ‘Are you going to work?’ he asked.  

The man shook his head. The Ragman asked, ‘Do you have a job?’

‘Are you crazy?’ he replied, and he showed the Ragman his missing right arm.

‘Give me your jacket,’ said the Ragman, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’ The one-armed man took off his jacket, and so did the Ragman. When the other man put on the Ragman’s jacket he had two good arms, but the Ragman only had one. ‘Go to work’ said the Ragman, and he returned to his cart.

Then he saw an old drunk lying sick and unconscious under a blanket. He took the blanket and wrapped it around himself, and left new clothes for the drunk.

Now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. He was weeping and bleeding and he struggled to pull his cart with one arm. He was old and sick, drunk and stumbling, and yet he moved quickly through the streets.

It hurt to see his sorrow, and yet I needed to see where he was going. The old Ragman finally came to a garbage dump. He climbed to the top of a small hill made from the rubbish of a thousand lives, and he cleared a little space.

With a deep sigh, he made a bed from the contents of his cart and he lay down on it, pillowing his head on a handkerchief and a jacket, covering his old bones with a blanket. His eyes wept; his bandage bled. And then he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I sat down in an old, abandoned car, mourning and weeping because I’d come to love that Ragman. I’d watched him work wonders and change lives so profoundly that it didn’t seem fair that he was gone.

I fell asleep, and I slept all through Friday night and all through Saturday. On Sunday morning, I was awakened by a blinding light. As I blinked and opened my eyes, I saw the greatest wonder of all.

There was the Ragman, carefully folding the blanket. He had a scar on his forehead, but he was healthy, with no sign of sorrow or old age, and all his rags shined bright and clean.

I got out of the car, trembling from what I’d seen. With my head down, I walked up to him and told him my name with shame. I said, ‘Please take my tired old rags and make me new again.’

And he did. He took the tired old rags of my existence and he replaced them with the new clothes of a life spent following Him.

The Ragman.

The Christ.

[i] Walter Wangerin, The Ragman, in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004 (abridged).