That we may know him (or her) who calls us each by name…

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Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when the Church recognizes and rejoices, through scripture and hymns and prayers, the special guidance, sure protection, relentless pursuit and loving care of God and Christ as a “good shepherd.”  It is a metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus the Good Shepherd
…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!

It doesn’t happen often (Easter being a movable feast after all) but it does happen, when “Easter 4” falls on an early Sunday in May. For those special years, a marvelous combination of traditions occurs, when much of secular society celebrates “Mother’s Day.” It is a time of giving thanks and paying tribute to those special women in our lives who have supplied those same traits of a “good shepherd” — guiding, protecting and caring for each of us in unique, and uniquely needed, ways.

The psalm appointed for today is probably the best known of all psalms, the 23rd, proclaiming “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and praising a protective, attentive God providing all our real needs. The appointed Gospel speaks of Jesus as a shepherd who calls each of us his sheep by name, and whose voice we know. (John 10:22-30)

Even for those who — for any one of an infinite number of reasons — were not fortunate enough to have an earthly mother able to nurture them, many have been blessed with some motherly figure (sometimes more than one) who “shepherded” us through much of the “valleys” and “shadows of death” in our lives. It makes Mother’s Day a time of special significance.

It is an unusual joy, then, when church and secular calendars align just right, and we are called to focus an “attitude of gratitude” not just for our earthly moms but also our Heavenly Creator God. This awesome God (whom our patriarchal tradition often calls “Father” but Who of course transcends beyond all gender) so frequently reminds me of certain things, I think, if I could only be more open to them. Despite my cynical lawyer’s streak, I am coming to believe more and more that we are indeed creatures of Love, created for Love by a Creator Who is Love, and Who wraps perfectly loving arms around each precious creature…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!

Growing up, somehow I could pick out my mom’s voice over all other voices whenever she cried out to me, especially when calling me by name. (If ever my middle name was included, I knew I had better come running!) I suspect I am not alone in having such precious memories. So it is not surprising that today’s collect for this Good Shepherd Sunday, with its special timing this year honoring all moms, earthly and heavenly, bears special resonance.

“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

…for those we love but see no longer.

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One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at just the right time in just the right circumstances, can express an intimate knowledge and awareness that says to the hearer “I think I know some of what you are feeling, what you are going through…I’ve been there.”

One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:

Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who have ended their time on this planet, and yet still very much alive in my heart. Those eight words speak of special loved ones never again to be gazed upon this side of paradise, except in the mind’s eye and perhaps glimpsed in the most fortunate and happiest dreams.

Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the high holy days of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come and gone before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service, the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.

The next day, November 2, is the companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones. The Feast of the Faithful Departed is celebrated with such things as listening to music they especially liked, or preparing and enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, or wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.

Most often in most Episcopal churches in the U.S., the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” — which happens to be today. It seems an especially appropriate time then to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed, to let it embrace us.