Some of you might be familiar with a reality TV show called The Voice that’s been on for a few seasons. Contestants come on stage one at a time and sing to three [actually four] judges whose backs are turned. Based solely on the sound quality of the singing voices and their potential, the judges try to choose the most promising contestants to continue on in the competition.
There’s something compelling about a distinctive voice. The music industry is filled with great voices from many different genres and eras.
In the world of pop music, artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin have been amazing listeners for over sixty years. Today’s radio listeners might be impressed by the voice of Celine Dion, Josh Groban, or Sarah Brightman.
We don’t even have to know what an artist is singing to appreciate their voice. When opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti or Joan Sutherland fill a concert hall with an aria we are so astounded that a human being can make sounds like that, it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand the language. Their voice becomes a musical instrument that transcends the written word.
It’s not just singing voices that resonate with us. I grew up with the authoritative voice of Walter Cronkite on the news and the friendly, energetic ring of Dick Clark [I meant Casey Kasem!] counting down the top forty. And what would Star Wars have been without the deep tones of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.
The human voice is fascinating.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.”
It’s significant that he says “My sheep hear my voice,” rather than “My sheep hear my words,” or “My sheep hear my teachings.”
Like listening to an opera singer, the compelling quality is not in the words necessarily, but in the voice itself, in the timbre, the tone, in the familiar depth of sound that the breath forms as it comes across the vocal chords.
The sheep are so close to the shepherd, their lives are so intimately bound together, that his voice is instantly recognizable to them.
Science tells us that no two human voices are alike.
If we meditate for a bit on what makes up a human voice, we discover a miraculous interconnection between the lungs, the vocal chords, and the mouth. Our lungs pump air across vocal chords that loosen, tighten, and change thickness. The position of our tongue and the shape of our neck and body change the vibrations that come out of our mouth. And these vibrations go out of us and become sounds when they are encountered by ears close enough to hear them.
Sinatra, Pavarotti, Sutherland, each of them make their own unique sounds out of air, out of the very breath of life. We, too, each make our own unique sounds.
And so does God.
Our Almighty God, the great God of the Universe–after speaking for centuries through the motion of the stars and planets, after speaking through leaders like Abraham and Moses, after speaking through the Law and the prophets–this great God finally speaks to his people in His own unique voice. In a human voice.
The creator of galaxies, the maker of star systems, the builder of planets, takes on a heart, and lungs, and vocal chords, and speaks with a human voice.
He breathes in, his lungs fill with air, the air moves back up over his vocal chords as he loosens and tightens them, and he calls to his sheep.
Sheep do not follow a shepherd because they understand his Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. They follow the shepherd because they feel the vibration of his voice in their ears and they recognize it.
They feel in their bones that this is the one who is always speaking to them, this is the one who comforts them, this is the one who nourishes them.
It’s the same way with a newborn baby who hears his mother’s voice for the first time.
I remember watching Brenda hold each of our children after they were born. With each child it was the same thing. She would start talking and instantly their eyes would follow the voice. They recognized her voice first of all, and they followed it. Did they know what she was saying? Did they understand the words? No, not really.
But they knew that this was the one who had carried them for nine months, who had fed them, who had spoken to them in the very vibrations and movements of the womb.
Mothers can say, like Jesus, “My baby knows my voice.”
New infants feel it in their bones, just as the disciples could feel the voice of Jesus in their bones, even though they might not understand all that he was saying.
Do we feel it in our bones? Are we so intimately connected to the shepherd that we know the one who carries us through our days, who feeds us at this altar, who speaks to us in every movement of the world?
Do we recognize the vibrations of his voice in our souls?
We might say, “But we don’t hear Jesus’ voice any more, since he no longer lives among us.”
We might look at the events in Boston, or West, Texas or China this past week and ask “Where is our shepherd?” It may seem to us that his voice is silent as the tomb.
But we cannot forget the lesson of Easter.
We cannot forget that in rising from the dead and sending forth the Holy Spirit, Jesus makes us one with him and speaks now through His Church.
The Church is the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. Christ speaks through a human body today just as he did two thousand years ago.
When scripture is proclaimed here in our midst, in a human voice, we hear the voice of Christ.
When the bread and wine are lifted up, and the priest says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” we hear the voice of Christ.
And even more: when we pronounce the “I do” at our wedding, when we speak words of comfort to the sick or dying, when we take the time to talk with someone in need, then Christ speaks through us.
When marathon runners run toward a blast and not away from it, when they talk to a lost child or a disoriented fellow runner, they speak with the voice of Christ. When a little boy’s parents cry over the death of their son, when the country mourns with them, it is Christ himself whose weeping voice is heard.
Jesus still speaks to us in a human voice. Our loving God is as close to us as the air we breathe, as the air that forms the words we say. Are we listening? Do we recognize the voice of the shepherd?
We might not understand the words. We might not comprehend his teachings. We may even have our backs turned to him, like those judges in that TV show.
But if we let that voice resonate within us, if we follow after that voice, we shall never perish. Like a newborn in the hands of a mother, no one can take us out of his hands.