Picture of the year? Could be for Good Shepherd Sunday, but this is the Pope visiting a Living Nativity just after Christmas.
[Jesus said] “….and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” John 10:3.
If ever there was a time in the world’s history that needed a caring and protective shepherd, it is now. The world is in lockdown, each of us in his/her own little sheep paddock, scared of the virus wolf at the gate, and not knowing when it will ever be safe to go out into the grassy field once more to work and play with everyone else. But today’s gospel has Jesus say he is the gatekeeper; it is he who will tell us when it is safe again. Let us hope that all the scientists who are examining this virus wolf get it right, fully using their God-given gifts to figure out when, in fact, it will be safe, and become, we hope, the voice of God.
Because of today’s gospel, psalm and second reading, this Sunday is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday. This was an image of Jesus that especially appealed to those early Christians who, like us right now, lived in a world of fear. Their fear was being captured by the pagan Roman power that tried to destroy Christianity for its first 300 years. Hopefully our virus fear will not last that long! The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is the earliest image we have, dating back to the 3rd-4th centuries. And remember that the Latin word pastor means shepherd. The crucified Jesus image, on the other hand, was almost tabu among the ancient Roman Christians: it was intimately associated with the worst criminals who, at that time, were still being executed in that way in the Roman world. The cross image only started to appear much later, after crucifixion had long been abolished.
Baptistery wall painting: Good Shepherd, c.232, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos, Syria, now in Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
This paint on plaster depiction above was removed from a 3rd century Christian house-church in Syria before World War II and probably shows the earliest picture of Christ the Good Shepherd we have. No baby lamb here! Note also that Jesus appears as a young Roman man in typical Roman garb. Most memory of Jesus as a strict Jew would have vanished from the Christian memory by that time. Hence no beard – the young Roman men were fashionably clean shaven. Once the Christian religion was legally recognized in 313, grander representations appeared, but still primarily of the Good Shepherd:
The Good Shepherd, anon., 300-350, Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome, Italy.
Clearly Jesus was universally seen as a young Roman with close-cropped hair (remember he was only about 33 years old when he died), dressed as such, one who would blend into the hillsides around Rome itself. He did not appear bearded for another few hundred years. Clearly the Roman Christians of the fourth century understood Jesus to be identical to the shepherds they were used to seeing in the hills outside Rome and throughout the empire. And the job of the shepherd is to ensure the safety of his flock. Therefore, at this critical moment and in today’s gospel, Jesus is at the gate, and keeps it locked, not with fear, but with hope. We are all in that sheepfold (home) where we are safe; outside the gate is the virus, prowling and searching for a host. Love of neighbor and self tells us to remain where we are until it is safe to gather together one day, hopefully to give thanks that it is safe once more to do so. The early Christians did the same. Indeed, they even created a system of secret signs to let others know that their homes were Christian, and therefore it was safe to enter them. Well we don’t have a government intent on destroying us, but we do have a virus capable of doing just that, and we have been told the best ways of avoiding it. And then we have prayer. And being so confined these days, we have no excuse for not praying fervently and frequently to God for a way out of this disaster. God has given us creative brains and dogged persistence which will eventually rescue us today just as in the past. And then there is the omnipresent obligation to help those who need assistance, be it in this country or abroad, especially where resources and money are scarce. Those are the places where the sheepfold is ramshackle and weak. The Shepherd is at the gate, but the virus has other ways of breaking in. If we can, we are obliged to do all we can to prevent that. Victory is assured, but it will take time and money and patience. All that and prayer.
Covid-19: A Prayer of Solidarity:
For all who have contracted coronavirus,
We pray for care and healing.
For those who are particularly vulnerable,
We pray for safety and protection.
For all who experience fear or anxiety,
We pray for peace of mind and spirit.
For affected families who are facing difficult decisions between food on the table or public safety,
We pray for policies that recognize their plight.
For those who do not have adequate health insurance,
We pray that no family will face financial burdens alone.
For those who are afraid to access care due to immigration status,
We pray for recognition of the God-given dignity of all.
For our brothers and sisters around the world,
We pray for shared solidarity.
For public officials and decisionmakers,
We pray for wisdom and guidance.
Father, during this time may your Church be a sign of hope, comfort and love to all.
Be with us, Lord.
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I Will Give You Rest, Yongsun Kim, n.d.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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