13 Apr 2008
“‘[The Good Shepherd] walks ahead of [the sheep], and the sheep follow Him because they
Fr. Randy Calvo
recognize His voice.’” (John 10: 4b-c) In the name …
Have you ever been shown an old photo and someone will ask if you can pick them out when
they were a child? You can look at all of the faces closely and see nothing. Then they point
themselves out, and all of a sudden it becomes clear, you can see the resemblance between child and
adult. At that point it becomes so obvious that you wonder how you didn’t see the connection in the
first place. Or down in the parish hall there are large group photos of General Church Synods and
Diocesan Youth Retreats. You can scan across the photos a number of times and not see any one
particular face that you’re looking for, even if the face is your own, then when you finally find it, every
subsequent time the face jumps right out at you like there’s a spotlight on it. And every parent of a
young child knows how this effect works when you’re sitting in a pediatrician’s waiting-room and an
I Spy book or a Where’s Waldo will keep a child occupied the whole time you’re sitting there, even if
the child isn’t feeling well.
The technical term for this is change blindness. It’s the frequent inability of our eyes to detect
something that can be staring us straight in the face. While it may make finding Waldo nearly
impossible, it’s an absolutely necessary tool in the larger puzzle of human development. Our brains
have only so much capacity, and our eyes take in far more information than our brains can possibly
analyze. Think about your computers. Someone sends you a words-only e-mail and it opens
instantaneously. If someone else sends you an e-mail with pictures, it takes much longer. It takes an
awful lot of data to communicate pictures, and that takes time. If vision is a necessary survival trait,
the brain can’t allow everything else to stop while it analyzes every single bit of visual information, if
it did our ancestors would all have been eaten by lions in Africa long ago or we’d all kill ourselves
driving home from church today. Instead, the brain has learned to allow large rivers of data to pass by
Scientists say that our vision takes in between 30 to 40 objects per second. We scan and sweep
our visual field constantly, even without being conscious of it, until something grabs our attention.
And there’s two ways that something can grab our visual attention. Either it comes from the outside,
something external like a friend in a crowded restaurant standing-up and waving his or her hand, or it
comes from something internal, like our own choice to go looking for a particular face in a large group.
So what we have then is a lot of stimulus and a limited capacity, which means that most information
will pass by completely unnoticed, like maybe who’s the person two pews behind you or what car is
beside your car in the parking lot, which also means that only a very small percentage of information
will actually be recognized and thought about, and then maybe acted upon.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus pictures Himself for us as the Good Shepherd, and His followers as
those who are able to recognize Him. It’s not difficult to visualize this image, and that’s why it’s
become one of the most recognizable images of Jesus. But even though it’s one of the most common,
it is far from universal. In our modern society, it is not difficult to go from day to day, week to week,
without ever having to think about God. The Greenfield Recorder has discontinued their weekly
religious listings. I don’t blame them. They’re a business, and as a business they found out that those
couple of pages were not being read on a consistent basis. People will read the news, sports, comics,
obituaries, but skip right over the religion section. Based on what we were just talking about, our brain
can only process so much information, which means that much of our world passes us by unnoticed.
That’s happening to religion. The Good Shepherd is recognized by fewer and fewer followers.
People from generations passed have told me a number of times that to miss church on Sunday
made the whole rest of the week feel awkward. To many families today, however, church is not
missed; church is an intrusion into their week. Now some may say church is only one hour and it’s
only one way to God, but if we really think about, outside of church where will people meet a healthy,
intelligent, living image of Christ? I don’t know where. And without some contact or reminder of
Jesus, then even images of Him as the Good Shepherd are going to be passed right over, ignored by
our conscious brains, as if He were never there. Just like the face in the crowd, Jesus will be there, but
will be unseen, unnoticed. That’s why church can never be ignored without consequence.
But all is not lost because the world chooses to ignore Jesus, but it does mean that the church
has to work harder than she did before. The image of the Good Shepherd is a picture so comforting
and healing that it continues to bring people to faith. We want, need and search Him out. In that sea
of stimulus out there in the world, we here have sought-out Jesus and found Him. And like that Good
Shepherd, who in another place says He goes out to find the one lost sheep, it then becomes our
spiritual responsibility to stand up and wave our hands so that Jesus has a chance, through us, to come
into view for those who may not be looking for Him. They haven’t rejected Him; they just don’t see
Him anymore. Ignore religion long enough and it will become invisible. We have to find ways to
make Jesus noticeable so that others can again recognize Him too.
We have come to recognize Jesus and follow Him, just as the parable says. For this we thank
God. But may we also pray that we somehow find a way to help others recognize Jesus too, so that His
message isn’t passed-by and ignored, that it may gain the attention of others so that they also have a
chance to follow the Good Shepherd, and for this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)