The message that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we will never be lost is all fine and good, (John 10:27-30) until troubles come our way. Then, as we become anxious or depressed, or illness or death comes close, our faith begins to weaken, and we wonder whether God is caring for us at all. So the question is : “How can we get the faith that other people seem to have, or how can we strengthen our existing faith?” The point is, of course, that being a Christian does not protect us from the troubles and dangers of this world, even if it does promise support while we face such things, and peace and joy at the end. Indeed, we Christians need to remind ourselves that, as soldiers of Christ taking up our cross and following him, we may well face more troubles rather than less, just as he did. If we join the fight of Our Risen Lord against evil and sin, we must face the prospect that the struggle may be harder than we think, and we will need a strong faith in God’s presence and power to bring us through.
This, as I have been pointing out this Eastertide, is precisely the problem that the writer of the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) is trying to deal with in his extraordinary piece of writing that we are hearing parts from during Eastertide. Last week we heard how Jesus is the Lamb who can open the scroll to set God’s saving work into action, and now today we hear his vision of all the Christians “a huge number impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language” praising God in the glory of heaven. (Rev 7:9.14-17) But if we read between these two passages we would see that opening the scroll, far from bringing instant peace, strangely brings an increase of pain and conflict.
What the writer is doing is trying to show that as evil realises its defeat by the power of God through the Resurrection, it thrashes out even more fiercely and desperately, in a last ditch attempt to grab back the victory it has lost. We see this in our world today. The more the Church proclaims God’s message of salvation and goodness and love, the more the world tries to find any and every way in which it can mock the Church, and show us up as false and evil. These attacks are what we have to live with. For we are sinners, the Church is not perfect. It is precisely why the priest prays for us after the Our Father at Mass, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church”
The writer of Revelation shows us that this faith must be and will be discovered and deepened in the midst of difficulties, not despite them. So he gives us pictures of horror and destruction, alongside images of glory with God in heaven. He puts the two side by side as if to say to us “Whatever you face, keep reminding yourself over and over again, that God is all-powerful, that his peace and joy will prevail in the end, that we must not let the struggle and agonies of life, prevent us from the knowledge, as St Paul says that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”” Look at the example too in our 1st Reading (Acts 13:43-52) where Paul and Barnabas are attacked, but are “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit”
What can we do then to make ourselves more aware of these truths in the midst of our troubles?
The main answer is prayer. But be careful here because I do not mean by prayer endlessly asking God to solve all our problems. Yes, sharing things like this with God is part of prayer, which is why we have our Bidding Prayers at Mass, but the more important part of prayer is a constant reminder of God’s love and power. Modern psychologists call this process “Cognitive behaviour therapy” and use it to teach depressed people not to dwell on their problems but to affirm all that is good in their lives and in themselves.. to learn to think in a new way.
We Christians have always done this, mainly using set prayers to affirm again and again the love of God. “Holy, holy, holy Lord…” is one given from the Book of Revelation, or any of the texts we repeat at every Mass. Or we can use the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me” or the Rosary. What we do with them is use them in the way the Eastern religions call a “mantra”. Wee repeat the prayer over and over again, as we might say “God loves me, God loves me, God loves me.” Some Christians teach that we should say repetitive prayer like this under our breath, again and again and again, letting the words be part of our very breathing, so that in a way it begins to be part of our very being. We affirm that God is with us whatever we face. We drown out with our prayer, the forces of darkness and fear, and thus place ourselves firmly and for ever in the care of the Good Shepherd who we follow whatever the future holds.