If someone were to ask you, “What is the one object which symbolizes Christianity the most?” what would you say? We would probably each respond immediately, “The cross.” Walk into any Catholic church, look straight down the middle, and you’re apt to see a big cross. But it was not always so.
If you ever go to a place like Rome, you can take a tour of some of the early Christian catacombs in and around the city. And on the walls, instead of a cross, what you’ll typically find are primitive drawings of a shepherd, either carrying a sheep on his shoulders, or playing a pan flute with sheep gathered around his feet. This was one of the primary symbols of Christianity for the first few centuries of our Church. Once crucifixion stopped being used by the Roman empire, and the cross was no longer a terrifying instrument of oppression and terror, it then began to find its way into our churches as a reminder that what we do during the Mass is offer the sacrifice of the Cross to God the Father.
And so today’s Gospel helps us to rediscover our deepest roots as Christians. Whenever our blessed Lord says something about Himself, we can also learn something about ourselves, because Jesus never separates Himself from His mission as redeemer of the human race. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “…Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
In declaring Himself to be the Good Shepherd, Christ commits Himself to us forever. Just as a shepherd goes after the wandering sheep until he can lead it back to safety, so our Lord never gives up on any person, no matter how far they have strayed. Like the shepherd, He is vigilant, never sleeping, always offering new graces, second chances, fresh opportunities to begin again or to go deeper into the friendship we already have with Him.
In the very idea of a Good Shepherd, there is presumed to be a flock. There can be no shepherd without sheep. We are the “humble flock” mentioned in today’s Collect. As Christ came into the world for a distinct purpose - saving us and accomplishing the will of the Father - we too have a purpose in this life. We are to be called the children of God and to truly be so by our way of life. We are to follow where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
That there is a genuine meaning to our lives is a great consolation. So much of the sorrow in Western cultures today lies in a crisis of significance. The understanding that our lives are grounded in something beyond ourselves has slipped, and so many people are adrift and tossed about on a sea of despair, suspecting that beneath all the frantic movement and noise of their lives lies only emptiness and darkness. A chaos. And rather than confront this dark specter, people turn to anything else - as much stimulation and distraction as possible. Anything to postpone facing this terror - that I am without a name, without a purpose, sinking away with nothing solid upon which to stand.
Christ is the answer to the longing of the human heart, the everlasting yearning to be known and to know, to love and to be loved in a definitive, permanent, and limitless way. Many beautiful experiences in life hint at this or provide little foretastes, but taken by themselves, they cannot fill our hearts, which soon turn to the next horizon, ultimately seeking one that opens upon eternity. Unfortunately, so many both inside and outside of the Church, understand the faith only in terms of rules which constrain freedom. They see the Good Shepherd merely as One who wields a staff and whacks the sheep back into a narrow pen where they can’t move freely. Such people show that they have never really encountered Jesus.
The joy of having a purpose in life means that our actions have real significance. That purpose isn’t just an abstract idea. It imbues everything we do, giving it meaning. We always
remain free, and we choose to follow Christ, even along a difficult road, because He alone leads us to a place of true rest and fulfillment. We reject certain other paths because experience shows that they don’t lead to fulfillment. Such is the purpose of the Church’s moral teachings - each person doesn’t need to discover everything by trial and error. The experience of thousands of years of human life have marked out the path which the Shepherd has set to bring people to happiness. People are free to go whatever way they want, but not all ways lead where they really want to go.
Through every age, the way of Christ remains open for all who would freely set out upon it. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us, there is no other name given by which we may find salvation than that of Jesus. How blessed we are, and what gratitude we should have, to be part of the flock of the Good Shepherd, to know His peace, to be near Him. And perhaps this gratitude might inspire us to share this blessing with others who may seem lost, in search of meaning, and finding the sand of time slipping through their fingers. Joy is meant to be shared. May God grant that every thirsting soul be one day united to this humble flock. “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”