Return to the Field, Jacque, 1880, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, California, USA.
To read today’s Sunday Mass Readings, click here.
[Jesus said] “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” John 10:9.
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Jesus lived in an age which was much much closer to raw nature than most of us are today. If he talked about sower sowing seed or a shepherd tending sheep, his audience would know all about it, the techniques, the strength, the knowledge and the experience required to do a good job, and so on. For almost all of us, we wouldn’t have a clue. When was the last time you saw a live sheep? When did you last walk over an agricultural field or visit a farm? For me, not in many, many years. For Jesus’ listeners, they would not even have look over their shoulders! So to us, sheep are those woolly animals who are scared of us and move around in flocks, are served up as lamb in restaurants and maybe have a reputation of being rather stupid. Yet Jesus was very fond of calling all of us his sheep. He would be the good shepherd leaving all the others to go in search of each one of us individuals if we got lost. And then, famously, there was Pope Francis’ call for the pastors of the world to become familiar with the “smell of the sheep”. Note also that “pastor” is the Latin word for a shepherd… And apparently, from studies conducted on them which strongly support Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, sheep do not deserve the modern reputation they have for being stupid. There’s much more to a sheep than ever I knew, but I bet Jesus’ first listeners knew everything about them, and would not have been the slightest bit insulted by being called to enter Jesus’ flock when he named not only himself as its shepherd, but also, as today, the gate by which we enter into his flock. And then there is the supreme ennoblement of the sheep when John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God. The image of the lamb as a totally innocent, utterly harmless creature is perfect for the Lord. In addition, remember it was a lamb without blemish which was sacrificed for the first Passover dinner to nourish the Hebrew people for their march out of slavery in Egypt towards the freedom of the Promised Land. Note the full parallelism here. So there is a perfect fit for Jesus not only being the perfect shepherd, but also the perfect sacrifice, another term for his passion and death.
St. Peter, the chief shepherd following Jesus, is recorded in today’s first reading as speaking to the crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem gathered for the feast of Shevuot, the Feast of Weeks, 40 days after Passover. He spoke only minutes after the Holy Spirit had descended on the frightened and cowardly followers of Jesus hidden away in Jerusalem and transformed them into lions for the new faith. In fact, he was repeating the very claims that had got Jesus condemned to death, so fundamental was his Spirit-inspired fearlessness. His words were so new and profound that the first converts to the new faith were made that day, about 3,000. He told them of the Lord Jesus, crucified by them, but who was the long-awaited Messiah offering them the Holy Spirit of God if they would but repent and have their sins washed away in baptism. And so the first of God’s flock entered by the baptismal gate as the first converts. This same Peter, in today’s second reading, actually picks up on Jesus’ image of himself as the supreme shepherd welcoming even those whose sins had been washed away by the blood of the crucified Savior.
So profound was this image of the Lord as a shepherd that is was possibly the first image of Jesus which began to appear widely in the years following the legalization of the faith in 313. Not Christ on the cross, but the Good Shepherd. Crucifixion was still considered a most shameful death at that time; the image of a shepherd tending us, his sheep, was much more acceptable, and so it proliferated throughout the Roman Empire. Typically this showed a young man with a Roman appearance (most Christians by that time were descended from converted pagans, not Jews, and so had no idea what a young Jewish man would look like). That was the image which appealed more than any other of Jesus, and from today’s readings we can understand perfectly why that was so. It would not be surprising if it was also our favorite image today that were the subject of an opinion poll. The thought of a shepherd overseeing us, protecting us, someone to whom we have access and can call upon at any time, is surely highly attractive. And so he is.
The Good Shepherd, Catacombs of St.Priscilla c.Second half of 3rd Century, Rome, Italy.
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