“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Christ is Risen!
I’d like to begin this reflection with the words of the St. John Paul the Great:
“What a blessing it is to know Christ, the Good Shepherd, to know Him as the Redeemer who laid down His life for the sheep, to know Him as the Risen Lord, the source of everlasting joy and life. What a blessing it is to know the Good Shepherd and to believe in Him. This gift of faith is the greatest blessing we could ever receive in life.”
Chances are you do not know any shepherds. For the first Christians, who were familiar with shepherds, the Good Shepherd was a favorite image to associate with Christ. In fact, the earliest Christian art depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd, not the crucified Savior. Often he was portrayed as a beardless youth. I have put some photos of some of these early images in the bulletin.
Surprisingly, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is still popular. In fact, early childhood education experts tell us that young children find the concept of a shepherd and his love for his sheep enchanting.
It’s not just in the New Testament that God is referred to as a Shepherd. For instance, in Psalm 23 the psalmist sings that the shepherd leads him to green pastures near refreshing waters. The shepherd guards him in right paths and protects him from evil. God says, “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest. . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
On this 4th Sunday of Easter, called “Good Shepherd Sunday” Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd in the Gospel. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). A shepherd knows his sheep well. There is a personal relationship between Jesus and his followers. Jesus knows each of us by name. On the other hand, we respond to his voice and do not follow the voice of strangers who may lead us to harm. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Unlike a hired hand who flees to save his life, Jesus saved his flock from the wolf even though it meant sacrificing his own life.
When Jesus gave St. Peter the responsibility of leading his Church, he again used shepherd imagery. He told Peter, “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Knowing about shepherds sheds light on the image of Jesus as shepherd. The shepherd uses a staff with a hook on the end to guide the sheep and pull back the stray. Today Jesus guides his flock through his pastors, the Latin word for shepherds. The image of shepherds is that they are kind, loving, patient, strong, and self-sacrificing. They are a good image for Jesus.
As I mentioned earlier, in the early Church, the figure of Christ as the Good Shepherd was a prominent image. This image is seen often in early Christian art. Clearly, it had great meaning for the early Christians since it often appeared, painted or sculpted, in the catacombs and on sarcophagi and baptismal fonts. Clearly, our ancestors in the Christian faith were moved by this image of Jesus.
Jesus as Our Good Shepherd reveals something really important about God’s love. Jesus says that He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us. Having just celebrated Holy Week only a few weeks ago, and still in the Easter season, Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection is before us in the Scriptures of Mass every day. In fact, right now in the weekday Masses we are reflecting on the Sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the “Bread of Life Discourse.” His love not only saves us, but feeds us, and through the Eucharist plants in our souls the gift of eternal life.
Jesus not only says that He knows His sheep; He also says that His sheep know Him. The knowledge is mutual. The more we know Christ, the more we trust Him and love Him.
Not only are we encouraged to reflect this Sunday on Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are also being encouraged to imitate the Good Shepherd. Let’s face it, everyone is shepherding someone else. It may be our children, our spouse, a friend, a family member, someone who is ill and reliant upon us. Jesus, as always models for us what we are to become and imitate. He shepherds us, and gives us the grace to shepherd others to Him.
God bless, Fr. Dennis