The Good Shepherd, 3rd. Century, Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome, Italy.
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Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. John 10:27-28.
You might think that the image of Christ crucified is the oldest Christian art work we have. You would be wrong. The earliest Christians were frequently persecuted, tortured and killed in the pagan Roman Empire for the first three centuries of the church’s history. Crucifixion was the deliberately shameful and brutal execution at that time, and to show the Son of God in such a way was unthinkable. Only after the first Christian emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion did the image begin to appear, but even then very slowly. By far the most popular image of Christ at that time was as the Good Shepherd. By that time, of course, the Jewish roots of Christianity were becoming vague and indistinct, so any image of the young man Jesus (remember he died at age 33) was the same as any young, beardless, short-haired Roman man of the time, in a contemporary short tunic. Look at the picture above from deep down in the Catacomb of St. Callixtus in Rome, possibly from the 3rd century. That was a much more satisfactory image of the Lord for the early Christians then a man nailed to a cross. In fact, possibly the earliest image shows a pagan sketch ridiculing Christian belief:
“Alexamenos worships his god”, 2nd Century Graffito, Palatine Hill Museum, Rome, Italy.
As you can see, it is easy to understand Christian reluctance to show the cross of Jesus. So in today’s gospel we have the Good Shepherd, an image coming from the lips of the Savior himself. It was the most popular depiction of Christ for a long time. It was also an image with which everyone was familiar (unlike a crucified felon!). Ancient societies were above all rural, and so shepherds would have been a daily reality. Hence Jesus was addressing everyone here, announcing that he was the good shepherd, one who knows his sheep (us) and who know him. A shepherd’s whole life was to protect and care for his sheep, night and day. He kept them safe from preditors and dangers, rescued them when they got into a mess (which sheep, not known for their intelligence, frequently do) and made sure they were well cared for. The Latin word for shepherd is pastor, from which we get the title given to a priest, and that is what a good pastor’s life work is supposed to be. Remember last week’s gospel where Jesus instructs Peter to feed his lambs and sheep. The first reading shows two other disciples doing that. Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Antioch of Pisidia, in what is now Turkey.
The Ancient Aqueduct, Antioch of Pisidia, Turkish Archeological News, February 2017.
They stood up in the Jewish synagogue and proclaimed what we would call the Good News of Salvation. Some accepted that, others not. The powerful of the city drummed them out, at which they “shook the dust from their feet” and went elsewhere. Failure is not condemned here, perseverance is praised. They went somewhere else. The point is, they did not give up. They offered the message of forgiveness and eternal life, but it was refused. So they went on. That is what the Lord wants of all of us, to be stubbornly Christian, no matter the consequences. If we follow Jesus’ example, where he loved all, never condemned (but did correct), accepted all, we too might be rejected and ridiculed, but should never give up. Sometimes we have to be prepared to be the lamb of sacrifice (as Jesus was), and take the consequences. No-one said the pathway would be always smooth. The second reading today attempts to offer a vision of the future which awaits all of us who do not give up, but remain true to our mission to be Christ to the world. An eternity of heaven.
The Ghent Altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb c.1530, Jan van Eyck, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.
Christ the Good Shepherd from 3rd and 4th Centuries.