This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:1–10:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Our Gospel reading today offers us one of the most beautiful parables of Christ’s ministry on Earth and perhaps the most compelling portrait of His love for us. This analogy spoke so powerfully to the early Church that the imagery of the Good Shepherd was among its earliest iconography. The image adorns ancient catacombs and worship spaces. Our front-page image comes from a mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy that dates back to the fifth century.
Why did this parable speak so powerfully to the early Church? In those days, the role of a shepherd was much more central to the lives of those in the region, so the bond between shepherd and flock was clearly understood. Jesus used the common knowledge and nuance of the lives of the people to whom He preached to pierce their hearts and open their eyes. Good shepherds did not willingly separate themselves from their flocks and would never lead them into harm, and their flocks grew to love and trust the sound of their shepherd’s voices.
This has a darker meaning, though, as Jesus makes explicit to the Pharisees. Robbers and thieves that enter illegally and pose as shepherds can confuse flocks and lead them to destruction. After this passage, Jesus continues to point out that “hired hands” abandon flocks to the wolves, in an even more pointed barb at the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is only the shepherds that put their lives on the line for their flocks, and Jesus declares himself “the good shepherd” who will “lay down my life for the sheep.”
This parable is so important that the Catholic Church includes it annually on the fourth Sunday of Easter, referring to this day as Good Shepherd Sunday. Its meaning runs deeply enough that bishops’ croziers are shaped as shepherds’ crooks. Priests act in persona Christi for the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Lamb of God, as well as provide the kind of spiritual leadership Jesus discusses that will bring their flocks to the gate of Heaven. Even under normal circumstances, the teaching of this Gospel passage is critically important to our grasp of theology and the relationship between Christ and His church in this world.
In our present circumstance of global pandemic, Good Shepherd Sunday has special meaning in a world where the flocks are physically cut off from their shepherds. Through no fault of these shepherds and no fault of community leaders struggling to protect public health, these flocks have been cut off from our shepherds. The priests and bishops cannot physically go out and find the strays, nor can the flocks easily listen for the call of those shepherds. Instead, we have all become strays, looking for comfort and security from our shepherds in a time of crisis but unable to venture from where we are hiding from a particularly insidious form of wolf.
Fortunately, we have some opportunities that previous generations would not have known. Many parishes, mine included, have begun offering Masses and services on live streaming, both daily and on Sundays. Even those require some participation to accomplish, and I was fortunate to serve at Mass last night in my parish as part of the effort to call out to the flock. Readers know that my household is high risk, but my parish took special care to limit the number of people inside the church to 10, per state rules on public gatherings. We have a very large worship space, usually room for around a thousand people, so social distancing was easy to accomplish, and the rest was left to hand sanitizer and personal wisdom.
It was the first time I’d physically been in church in two months. And my primary feeling was one of gratitude for having the opportunity to be there and to serve, followed closely by profound regret that my fellow parishioners could not be there along with me. However, without telling tales too far out of school, among the strongest impressions I had was of my priest — also a friend of mine — feeling so lost without the flock he loves and for which he feels such strong responsibility. The irony of celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday under these circumstances was not lost on him, nor do I suspect that it will be lost on many of our shepherds across Christendom today and every day.
However, there is also something beautiful in the yearning and mourning of the pandemic shutdown. They demonstrate the love that creates the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit, and our own fully willing participation in that shepherd-flock relationship. We yearn for kind, self-sacrificing guidance and leadership, as well as community amongst us, even in normal times. In a crisis, we feel the need for those even more.
Christ understood this movement of our hearts. His imagery of the Good Shepherd reminds us that this world is full of dangers and snares, but that His gentle and meek leadership will get us past it together to reach the Father’s gate. On that path, we are called to find ways to call out to our fellow flock members and to reassure the shepherds working on His behalf that we still love and follow their call.
For Good Shepherd Sunday, perhaps the best celebration will be to reach out to your priests or ministers to remind them that you can still hear their voices. That would be the best gift possible for any shepherd, even in a time of pandemic.
Image from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.