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A priest speaks of his trip to Timbuktu in West Africa to visit and work with some missionaries. The missionaries told him that in that culture the larger the women were the more beautiful they were thought to be. In fact, a young missionary who had a small, trim wife said that the nationals had told him she was a bad reflection on him—he obviously was not providing well enough for her. A proverb in that part of Africa says that if your wife sits on a camel and the camel cannot stand up, your wife is truly beautiful.
Coco Chanel said, “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous,” and the ladies go through quite a bit to look that way, some of the instruments closely resembling torture devices. But we can’t say that it’s just the ladies, the men have their fair share of products as well. I don’t just wake up looking this good, you know. How much do we spend? If you combine the revenue of the perfumers, skin care products, beauty shops and barber shops, cosmetologist, manicurists and pedicurists, all of them, it is an industry that generates approximately $445 billion annually in revenue. That’s a lot of lipstick. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” and we don’t mind paying for it, but we also know the old sayings, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “Beauty is only skin deep.” Beauty then is not always about external appearance. As Dorothy Parker said, “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
Our Gospel reading from John began: Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For me, I hear this phrase and I think Jesus would have conveyed the point more accurately by saying, “I am the most excellent shepherd” or “the superior shepherd,” because, for me, “good” seems to fall a bit flat. As we leave the house, we say to the dog, “Be a good boy,” and we’re hoping they don’t piddle on the floor. When we say, “He made good grades,” it simply implies that he didn’t fail. Or, perhaps when thinking of Jesus, when we say that he is good, we mean he is morally correct, but still… flat. That word does not convey who he really is, but John, in writing his Gospel, chose a very specific word that we translate as “good”: kalós (καλός) however, it is far more nuanced than we generally understand, because it also translates as: “handsome, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious, useful, suitable, commendable, admirable.” But more specifically, the word which we translate as good, most properly translates as “beautiful.” Jesus said, “I am the beautiful shepherd. The beautiful shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Now we may be getting somewhere.
The former Bishop of Durham and theologian N.T. Wright states that “beautiful” “does not refer to what Jesus looked like. It’s about the sheer attractiveness of what, as the shepherd, he was doing. When he calls, people want to come. When they realize he has died for them, they want to even more. The point of calling Jesus ‘the good shepherd’ is to emphasize the strange, compelling power of his love.” Jesus said, “ And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) The strange, compelling, attractive, beauty of Jesus’ love expressed on the hard wood of the cross, draws all people to him, but it doesn’t end there.
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” “I in them.” “I in them.” The same strange, compelling, attractive, beauty of Jesus’ love is in us, so that we too may draw all people to the Father.
This beauty of Jesus is beyond the skills and talents of that $445 billion beauty industry. It is a beauty that is free and a beauty that can be anyone’s, but it must be received before it can be shown. But once received, this beauty of Jesus, radiating from within you, can build a Kingdom for the glory of God.
Jesus walked into the temple in Nazareth, open the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and began to read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
But what if I told you that we are to make those words our own. You are to make those words yours?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
the beauty of the Lord is upon you.
because he has anointed you
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
He has sent you to proclaim the freedom of the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
You are the beautiful people of God, and how beautiful you are. We are called to present this beauty of Jesus to the world. The alternative…
Fred Craddock is one of the great preachers of our day and he tells of the first church he served in the tiny, rural community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. During his time there, the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. Craddock wanted to attract the workers to his church, but there was just one problem: the church didn’t want them.
It all started when Craddock began noticing recreational vehicles, trucks, wagons, and tents dotting the landscape. Since his church was nearby, he naturally began thinking about reaching out to the workers who’d migrated to the area.
After services one Sunday, he called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” Rev. Craddock countered with another plea to his church, but ran out of time before convincing them of their spiritual obligation. It was decided that they would take a vote on the following Sunday.
At the outset of the meeting one week later, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed. The workers would not be allowed to join the church (along with anyone else who was too poor to own property), so there was no reason to invite them.
Years later, Craddock – now a nationally-renowned preacher – returned to the area with his wife and wanted to show her the church he’d served. The countryside had changed over the years, along with the roads, but Dr. Craddock eventually found the little white building and stopped the car.
The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a new sign: “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.
Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church…otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.”
Jesus is ____. Scripture fills in that blank with many titles: Son of God, Alpha and Omega, Bright Morning Star, King of Kings, Lion of Judah, and more. Jesus is also the Good Shepherd, the Beautiful Shepherd who laid down his life and we are his disciples, called, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to complete his work in the world.
My friend St. Josemaría Escrivá writes in The Way, “Everything that is done out of Love acquires greatness and beauty.” (#429) You, go out into the world and be great. Be beautiful.
Let us pray:
The Lord is my shepherd…
The Lord is my beautiful shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.