Preparing for this Sunday, which is often called Good Shepherd Sunday, I came across a description of the things a shepherd in Jesus’ time would do to care for his — or her — sheep.
When night came the shepherd had to construct a makeshift corral in a U shape, and use thorn bushes as walls to keep animals and thieves from getting in. He would position himself across the one opening, in effect becoming the gate. And then, lying on that cold ground, try to get some sleep through a long and dangerous night. What mattered most to the shepherd was the care and safety of the sheep.
Here and in other places, Jesus identifies himself and His Father with just this scene. In today’s terms you might think of it as a video of caring encounter. If we were looking for a touchstone image for God, we wouldn’t have to look much further than this guardian at the gate. It is an easily imaginable figure, conveying such a core aspect of God’s own Self.
The Divinity, seen here in Jesus, is a selfless, all-on-our-side shepherd who is not only our gate to new life, but who also ventures outside the enclosure to bring us back into its safety — and then later on, lead us back out onto those soft green pastures.
I use that word, “touchstone” deliberately to get at a practice many have used to strengthen their sense of God’s nearness. And that is, having closeby some vivid image or mental construct to reach out and touch when at prayer, or in trouble or when feeling thankful or repentant. This Good Shepherd who protects and guides and lays down his life is an especially endearing visual. Touching down on it has fed many a life of faith through the centuries, the believer reaching out for its comfort and taking it into his or her heart.
But not only a reverberating portrait of God, this figure of the searching shepherd has supplied powerful motivation for Christian action. Think of all those believers — parents, health care providers, social workers and so on — who have given their lives over to the care of those most in need. And that is to say, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the homeless, the despondent, anyone in need of protection and guidance.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we come not only to praise and thank our God, but also to take up some close-at-hand image for who God is for us, for what God’s Son, Jesus, does for us, for how God’s Spirit lives within us. The Shepherd isn’t the only visualization, but it does draw together and feed into so many of the other consoling Biblical images and scenes that would convey the love and care God has for us.
In a letter to a frightened young disciple, St. Elizabeth Seton imagines this same scene. “The Shepherd takes it (the sheep) on his shoulder, casts his cloak about it, and the happy trembler finds itself at home before it knew its journey was half finished. (Volume: 2 | Page#: 20) added on 12/19/2014