If you were to visit the city of Rome, one of the special places you would probably visit is the catacombs – those underground rooms and corridors cut out of the rock where the early Christians buried their dead. The catacombs are fascinating. Not only because they are the final resting place for so many heroic witnesses to our faith, but also because of the ancient inscriptions and colorful frescoes which are still intact dating first century Christians.
One of the oldest frescoes is a representation of Jesus as the “good shepherd”. When the artist picked-up his brush to begin his work, it was a very unsettled time for Christians in Rome, with dark threats of persecution and daily reports of imprisonments and martyrdom.
The artist had to ask himself: “How can I depict Jesus in a way which will reflect the faith of our Christian community?” The image of the “Good Shepherd” came to his mind – God 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 week – even ready to lay-down his life for his sheep.
Against this background, we can appreciate the depth and meaning of the “good shepherd fresco” in the catacombs. We can also understand what Jesus had in mind when he says “I am the Good Shepherd. My sheep hear my voice.” Jesus is with us to lead us, and guide us, and protect us, and feed us in this holy sacrifice of the Eucharist.
Although most of us have never seen a shepherd, on this “Good Shepherd Sunday”, the image of the shepherd cuts across the limits of time and place and culture and speaks to us as it did to those early followers of Christ buried in the catacombs after their martyrdom, on the crosses of the circus maximus, or in the jaws of lions on the arena floor of the coliseum, or in the vats of boiling oil in stinking roman prisons, or frozen on the roman mountain lakes.
Our anxieties and sufferings are not be the same as theirs – our dangers are different; but for us as for them, we too have our share of worries, both for ourselves and our families for the church and for our country. We realize how insufficient and weak we are, how difficult the present time is, and how uncertain the future may be.
The reassurance our lord gave to his anxious disciples, he continues to give to us: “my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
On this “Good Shepherd Sunday”, the liturgy is reminding us that Jesus is the shepherd who knows us in a deep personal way – as a shepherd knows his sheep. He knows our motives. He knows who has weak faith. He knows who is apt to become discouraged. He knows who is prone to stray from the flock. He will never abandon us – even in those moments when we think that we have been abandoned and that he is very far away!
In our second reading today from the book of revelation, Saint John describes the great multitude of martyrs in heaven who have been washed in the blood of the lamb during the persecutions of the early Church by the roman emperors Nero and Diocletian. They stand before the throne and before the lamb.
Saint john says: “these are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
The gospel of St. John assures us that no one can snatch us from the Good Shepherd. They may be able to kill the body, but he will save us and bring us to eternal life. This was the message for the persecuted church of apostolic times, and this is the message for the church today.
This is the message for the martyrs of Latin America like arch-bishop Romero and over 300,000 Catholics who were murdered by government soldiers in the 1980’s. This is the message for the martyrs of the Philippine Islands who only twenty-five years ago, were executed by government soldiers for defending the rights of the poor who were living in the mountains in the Island of Mindanow.
This is the message for the persecutes Catholics in China where bishops, priests and faithful lay people are being arrested and tortured every day because of their loyalty to the church of Rome. This is also the message for the church in the Syria and in the Arabian Peninsula where sheiks declare that all churches must be destroyed. This is the message for the western world where faith – especially the catholic faith is portrayed as ridiculous, irrelevant and outmoded.
We are not and never will be abandoned by Christ! We need to recognize the voice of Christ the good shepherd as he calls out to us leading and guiding us. We need Christ the good shepherd to open our minds to the fullness of truth as given to us by Jesus and proclaimed for 2000 years by his church. We need the strength of Christ the good shepherd so that we can stand up for the absolute principles of truth and morality and hold all people in the church accountable – standing for truth and for life.
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said “seek the voice of the true shepherd from among the many voices who try to outshout him and let him lead you to true life and peace.”