16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Ps 23, Mk 6:30-34) “Psalm 23: A Celebration of the Christian Life” PDF Version
Homily for 16thSunday of OT, Year B (2018): (Ps 23; Mk 6:30-34)
Of the 150 compositions that make up the Book of Psalms, ranging from canticles of praise, to hymns sung during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, to laments about one’s sins and even a wedding song sung between a Bridegroom and Bride, Psalm 23 is quite possibly the most beloved and well known of the psalms of King David and Israel.
Countless funerals have had those consoling words of “The Lord is my Shepherd” bring peace to those who mourn the loss of a loved one, while many soldiers have recited this psalm before battle, trusting that God would watch over them as they marched into the darkest valley, fearing no evil for the Lord was with them.
For the Church Fathers, those remarkable theologians of the first centuries of Christianity, Psalm 23 was also understood to be a celebratory hymn about the entirety of the Christian life, most notably how the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion) transformed someone into a child of God under the care of the Good Shepherd to lead them to the Heavenly House of the Lord.
St Gregory of Nyssa taught that the opening verses of Psalm 23, which speak of The Shepherd leading people to lie down in green pastures and beside still waters, shows how God brings someone to the waters of baptism by first instructing them in the Word of God and teachings of the Catholic Church to give them spiritual strength and hunger to eventual receive the sacraments of initiation.
In the early days of Christianity, this time of preparation for baptism could take many years, in which a catechumen was slowly nourished in the green pastures and still waters of the Scriptures and teachings of Christianity, helping them to take refugee in God and seeing their soul being restored to God’s grace and prepared to leave behind one’s sinful past after they were baptized.
We see this activity alive in the Church today for all those who are going through RCIA and preparing to enter into the Catholic Church, which is why we should always keep these individuals in our prayers as they journey ever closer to receiving the sacraments from heart of the Good Shepherd.
The psalmist then speaks of being lead on the right path, even unto the darkest valley, that we should fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd protects us with his rod ands staff. St Gregory of Nyssa understood walking through the darkest valley to be the moment of baptism, when someone dies to the life of sin and is mystically buried with Christ; for just as Jesus descended into the tomb to rise to eternal life, so too does everyone who is baptized die in Christ to be raised up to the newness of the life of grace. Once baptized, a Christian no longer needs to fear death, for it no longer marks an eternity of separation from God, but the beginning of eternal life.
St Gregory taught further that being guided by the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd are symbols of the Holy Spirit, since the word for being guided in Greek is paraklesis, from which we derive the word Paraclete or Guide that is one of the many titles of the Holy Spirit. Thus once someone has passed through the darkest valley in baptism, they are now able to receive the Holy Spirit, being guided in His ways and comforted by rod and staff of His divine love.
The psalmist then goes on to speak of the joy of dining at the table set by the Good Shepherd, having one’s head anointed with oil and their chalice overflowing with wine. St Ambrose recalled how the newly baptized of his city would begin to sing these verses of Psalm 23 after their baptism, for they were now ready to dine at the table of the Good Shepherd as they approached the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time. The enemies before whom this table has been prepared were said by St Paul of Jerusalem to be those demonic powers that sought to turn someone away from receiving the sacraments of the Church, and he rejoiced that those who had been baptized rebuked those powers of evil to sit at the spiritual table God had prepared for them.
The overflowing chalice was a further allusion to the Holy Eucharist, since to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ is to avail oneself to the sacramental joy that can become an overflowing torrent of gratitude and peace when one cherishes the Holy Eucharist and longs to receive the Lord well, free of any mortal sin, and void of any indifference or inattention that can too frequently creep into our hearts as we prepare to receive the Bread of Life and Chalice of Everlasting Salvation.
The oil that the psalmist speaks of that anoints the one who dines at the Lord’s table was understood by St Athansius to be the Sacrament of Confirmation. While we typically receive this sacrament in our teen or adult years, in the early Church Confirmation was given right after someone was baptized and just prior to them receiving the Eucharist.
In Psalm 23, we read how the psalmist prophesied of the future age when the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, would inspire His church to call men and women to the green pastures and still waters of learning about the Christian faith, then to pass through the darkest valley of sin to rebirth in baptism, and guided by the protecting rod and staff of the Holy Spirit approach the table of God to receive the Eucharist, have their heads anointed with holy chrism of Confirmation and experience in their hearts the overflowing of spiritual joy and peace like that of a chalice that spills over with the best and choicest wine.
But Psalm 23 offers one final lesson for the Christian life in affirming us that the goodness and mercy of God will follow us all of our days, until one can know that eternal rest of dwelling in the house of the Lord, all the days of our life. In these words we are reminded of the need to persevere in the Christian life, continually approaching the Holy Eucharist for strength and encouragement, in addition to the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever we choose the path of sin and need to be once again rescued from the darkest valleys, so that our eyes are set on the House of the Lord which is to come.
Psalm 23 is one of the most incredible pieces of divine poetry ever composed and a valuable source of meditation and reflection. We read today how our Lord invited His disciples to depart to a quiet place to rest and be strengthened in the presence of the Good Shepherd. So too may we take sufficient time in these summer days to also be refreshed by the Lord. May I suggest we consider praying with Psalm 23 on some warm summer evening, recalling the ways our Lord has been with us, giving us the gift of His Sacraments and encouraging us to continue onwards to that house where we can dwell with the Lord our whole life long.
Reference to the Church Fathers mentioned in this homily come from a chapter entitled “Psalm XXII” in the work The Bible and The Liturgy by Jean Cardinal Danielou SJ (University of Notre Dame Press, 1954), Pgs. 177-191.