Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, Italy.
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11
The picture above shows a young shepherd taking care of one of his sheep, possibly a lamb. Scholars are pretty certain it depicts Jesus. It stands in the Catacomb of Domitilla in Rome, and dates from the mid-3rd century. It is possibly one of the the oldest representations of Jesus that we have. If any one of us were placed in front of this picture and asked “Who is it?”, Jesus would not be the first person we would think of. No beard, no robes, no long hair, very young looking, utterly different from any of the traditional renditions of the Lord. And yet, compared to our time, it is so close to the time of the Lord….
Well, first of all, there were very few Christian Jews left in the Christian community by that time. 300 years is some time from the first Christians. By then, most Christians were converts from all over the Roman Empire. It means they didn’t have a clue what a young Jewish man would look like! They certainly knew what a young Roman shepherd would look like; most people at that time either worked the land, or lived very close to those who did. If Jesus, not yet 33 years old, called himself the Good Shepherd, then he must have looked like this! And this was one of the very first representations of the Lord that appeared in the Christian community. Note that it was the Good Shepherd, not the crucified One. Crucifixion was still going strong in the Roman Empire, and the shame and degradation associated with such a death was too great for these early Christians to show in statues or pictures. Crucifixes only began to appear once the Roman Empire began to disintegrate, and the punishment by crucifixion began to disappear.
A more “traditional” view of the Good Shepherd. This style is sometimes rather disparagingly called “Sulpician Art”
Now, in north Wales in the U.K., there is a Jesuit retreat house called St. Beuno’s:
If you go there, you will have a spiritual experience and come close to God in the special Jesuit way. But you will also get to know two other realities: Rain. It rains a great deal. North Wales is one of the wettest areas of Britain. And second, you might learn how dumb sheep can sometimes be. There are 10 million sheep in Wales, accounting for 80% of the country’s agriculture. As you wander the country lanes nearby, you might see a sheep walk up to a hedge, stick its head in it and not be able to get out. The next day you might well see the same sheep do exactly the same thing again. Jesus, calling us his flock, gave us a kind of backhanded compliment I think. Yes, it is comforting to be part of a flock tended by the Son of God, but calling us his sheep is, well, deflating. Are we prone to doing the same dumb things time and again, getting ourselves into messes and scrapes? I’m not going to answer that one. But do you think the Jesus statue above shows a sheep/lamp who has just been rescued from such an embarrassment and is whispering “Thank you Lord” into his ear?
I just said it was “comforting” to be part of Jesus’ flock. A better term would be life-saving. We have a shepherd willing to give his life for us, as Jesus states. But these are not simply words. The man proved it. He did actually die for us. How? He had preached a message of love and forgiveness for three years. He supported his message with wonders no-one else could possibly do. When confronted with a jealous and enraged authority, supported by angry and disappointed people who had stereotyped him as the all-conquering military messiah they had expected and baying for his blood, he stood by his message despite the threat of condemnation. He was put through a humiliating and degrading public execution, still proclaiming forgiveness and love, neither of which was remotely present. That is the kind of shepherd we have. Nothing stands in his way in his determination to be our shepherd, to defend us to the end. The first reading sees Peter, whom we believe to be the first Christian leader following Jesus, openly preaching the exact same message as Jesus, thereby bringing upon himself the same threat that had killed his Lord. So it seems that being a good Christian requires courage and conviction to the end. Is that the message of today’s readings? Each of us, as Christians, should be fearless in demonstrating that we are total followers of the Lord, prepared to forgive, to love and never to belittle or hate. In other words, to become the good shepherd? Now wouldn’t that be a sight to see? Gandhi is reported to have said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”, which may or may not be true; but it should give each of us pause. Our baptism gave us our identity as children of God, and our vocation, to be Christ to the world. Hence we are called to be good shepherds, now and always. Perhaps that is today’s message. We are all to be good shepherds, helping others out of difficulty, restoring them to dignity in whatever way we can. And when, perhaps inevitably, it is us stuck in some mess. Guess who helps us out of that?
Here is another takes on today’s theme, where Jesus is calling us “sheeple”:
And here is another rendition of the Good Shepherd, several hundred years after our Vatican statue. Jesus now seems to be between a young Roman man and a young Jewish man:
Christ the Good Shepherd, 6th century, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.