for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Cycle C
April 29, 2007
If you were to visit the city of Rome, surely one of your special places of interest would be the catacombs - those underground rooms and corridors cut out of the soft rock where the early Christians buried their dead. The catacombs are fascinating, not only as the final resting place for so many heroic witnesses to Christ but also for their archeological riches, the evidence they offer about our ancestors in the faith. One of the oldest of the catacombs is that of St. Priscilla, to the north of ancient Rome, outside the old walls and on the Via Salaria. It dates back, probably to sometime in the second century and it is remarkable not only for its many, still legible inscriptions but also for several colorful frescoes, among which is one which is one of the oldest, if not the very oldest representation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, etched into that wall probably as early as l750 years ago. The colors of red, brown and yellow are still amazingly vivid. Jesus is depicted as a stalwart young man, wearing a rough, loose-fitting garment caught up over the left shoulder and reaching to just above the knees. Over His right shoulder, He is carrying a lamb which He secures with His left hand while His right hand is reaching out in a gesture of reassurance and invitation. He stands in the midst of a flock in a pastoral setting with birds and trees while the whole scene is enclosed in a red circle with Jesus in the center.
Suppose you were to put yourself in the place of that ancient artist as he set about his task of picturing Our Lord. Remember, too, that when he took up his brush to begin, it was still a very unsettled time for Christians in Rome, with dark threats of persecution and daily reports of imprisonments and martyrdom. And to compound the difficulty, he had few, if any precedents to guide him. All that would come later. He had to ask himself: "How can I depict Jesus in a way which will reflect the faith of this Christian community - a picture which will speak not only to their minds but to their hearts as well and fill them with courage and confidence, even in the face of death?" All he had to guide his brush were the Scriptures and the devotion of the people - the way they loved to remember Our Lord. But, of course, he could not have asked for better guidance. The Scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New, lead us into the mystery of Jesus under the imagery of the Good Shepherd. It is a rewarding study just to verify how rich is the scriptural metaphor. Not long ago, for example, in a back issue of The Bible Today, I came across an article entitled: Shepherding in the Hebrew Bible. The author brings together into scriptural synthesis all l89 references having to do with shepherds and shepherding and shows how, in the Old Testament, the image of the Good Shepherd belongs properly to God as the Shepherd of Israel, leading and guiding His chosen people, feeding and guarding them, seeking out the lost sheep, binding up the crippled and strengthening the weak - always their ever-present and compassionate Protector. Isaiah the prophet, in his Book of Consolations, captures for us this cumulative scriptural imagery of Godís regard for us: "Like a shepherd, He feeds His flock; in His arms, He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom and leading the ewes with gentle care." And, for course, in the 23rd psalm, we have scriptureís loveliest poetry of Godís constant care: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want... Beside restful waters He leads me.. He refreshes my spirit." God, the psalmist tells us, is not a remote and impersonal deity, a tyrant to be feared but rather, a protecting and providing God, always there, as close to us as a shepherd to his flock.
And in the New Testament, especially in Johnís gospel, Jesus appropriates to Himself the same lovely picture and in doing so, unequivocally identifies Himself as Divine, telling His disciples: "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and mine know Me. I call my sheep by name and they follow Me." Jesus tells them that He is the shepherd who guards his flock from the ravenous wolves. He searches out the wanderer, snatching it from danger and carrying it back to the safely of the flock. He is the Good Shepherd Who lays down His life for His sheep.
No wonder that ancient artist made his decision: "This is the picture I want to paint - the one which tells the story we all need to hear - a picture which puts fear to flight and fills our hearts with hope.Ē
Probably most of us here this morning have never seen a shepherd, staff in hand, leading his flock. The closest we have come to a sheep is in the form of lamb-chops. Yet the scriptural imagery continues to speak to us. Somehow it seems to transcend limits of time and place and culture and to speak to us as it did to our ancestors in the faith. Our anxieties may not be the same as theirs - our dangers are different; but for us as for them, trouble is never something in short supply. We have our share of worries, both for ourselves and our families and for the Church and country we love. All too quickly, we come to know how insufficient we are, how worrisome is the present, how uncertain, the future. It is all part of the universal human experience, this sense of our need for a powerful and reassuring Presence, lending strength to our weakness, standing between us and danger. The reassurance Our Lord gave to His anxious disciples, He continues to give to you and to me: "I am Your Good Shepherd. You are Mine and I call you by name."
Think for a moment what a difference that reassurance can make if only we really hear His voice in our hearts - let His words sink in so that they become for us what Our Lord intends them to be - our truth to live by and to hope by. We need to open ourselves fearlessly, in joyful faith to this wondrous self-revelation of Jesus. To do so will be to liberate us from the cramping atmosphere of a life full of fear and allow us to live and to love God comfortably, spontaneously, free from constricting anxiety and with serene confidence that we are not alone. So long as we faithfully follow Him, we can trust Him utterly. to be truly Our Good Shepherd.