. . . Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' He said to him, 'Tend my lambs'. He said to him again a second time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you'. He said to him, 'Shepherd my sheep'. He said to him the third time, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was grieved . . . and he said to Him, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you'. Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep'. (John 21:15-17)
On the third morning, the reflection was led by a priest who told a story that had been passed on to him by a friend, a veterinary surgeon who regularly volunteered in Third World countries. Pivotal to the story was the picture on display – a framed quarter-portrait of the child Jesus who was, as I remember it, holding a lamb closely to his chest. Jesus, portrayed as the Shepherd. The image appeared to have been mass produced, but was rich in decorative detail and had a pleasing composition. The frame – perhaps about 17 cm wide and 25 cm deep – showed wear and tear in a few places.
The priest’s friend had been in Vietnam just after the Vietnam War, helping with the reinstatement of animal husbandry practices in war-ravaged rural areas. In one household that the friend visited, once the family learnt that the Viet Cong would not be returning they brought out from a secret hidey-hole in the floor of the house the icon we in the reflection group were now viewing. It was explained that all Christian religious practices had been forbidden under the communist regime. The icon, a symbol of the family’s faith, had been kept hidden for years in spite of the threat of severe punishment if found. The family then presented the icon as a gift to the man who had gifted them with the assurance of their liberation and he, in turn, had passed it to the priest for safekeeping.
It was a powerful story, and powerfully told. The picture in its battered frame created a bridge to connect our hearts and minds across time and space to a small family within the same faith dimension. I was touched and inspired – as I think I was meant to be – by the family’s refusal to forget their faith and the simple, although dangerous way they chose to remember it. And, of course, I was aware of how much I take for granted the freedom of religious expression I enjoy in Australia.
At the same time I was deeply grieved, and deeply angry. I thought of Jesus and his gift of the eucharist. Knowing that he was going to his death, even so, he taught us how to take into ourselves his presence, his strength, his peace, his healing power – all in a simple ritual that has the appearance of a shared meal. ‘Do this and remember me.’
That Vietnamese family, and perhaps hundreds of others like them, had had access to a supremely powerful and very present symbol of their faith. No icons required. No danger. No risk. The death penalty already paid. I was grieved for the family but I was even more anguished for Jesus. How often and how long must Jesus suffer our disregard? How many times must he give, and give, and give again, only to be ignored?
Anger raged through me against those churches which not only assume an authority to determine who is fit to come to the Lord’s table but which also claim exclusive rights for their priests in preparing that table. These churches are wrong. The monopoly they would wield over Jesus’ body and blood does not tend Jesus' lambs. It more resembles the actions of those pegging out a prime piece of real estate, with all the usual attendant arguments over ownership, boundary lines, development approvals and rights of access. For those who attend these churches, the rents are very steep and, as we see with the Vietnamese family, the tokens of occupancy may even carry risk of physical death.
I do not accuse these churches of brokering outright spiritual death but, when it comes to the eucharist, they are surely guilty of inflicting on their flocks a severe form of spiritual starvation.
Jesus came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). Some churches could be doing more to help share it around.