One of the effects of the lockdown for some of us here in the UK is that we have been deprived this spring of walking in the countryside. A highlight for many walkers and ramblers these past few weeks would have been the sight of little lambs gambolling and grazing close to their mother ewes.
In the Church today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The Gospel on this Sunday each year features Jesus comparing his care of us with how a devoted shepherd cares for the sheep of his flock.
In the farming communities in Galilee where Jesus grew up, he would be familiar with how their large extended families kept their individual flocks together, for security, in a common enclosure or pen. One member of the extended family would be the designated gate-keeper. He would control who had access to the various flocks and he’d know the genuine shepherds who came to collect their sheep from the robbers who tried to steal them.
Jesus uses three related analogies in our Gospel today to speak about himself as the Shepherd of God’s people.
First, he says that God, the ‘gate-keeper’, has given him the authority to enter this sheep-fold and lead the sheep out to new, fresh pasture; second, he, Jesus, will shepherd the sheep better than the lazy and self-serving leaders of Israel; and, third, he is the ‘gate’ through which one must enter to be part of God’s flock – ‘No one can come to the Father except through me …’
Of these three, the one that strikes me the most at this time is the one of leading the sheep in and out of the pen/enclosure.
In the Middle East then – and still to this day in some places – shepherds would walk ahead of their sheep and call them to follow him. Each shepherd would have a peculiar cry or voice which his sheep would recognise and follow. Hence Jesus, speaking of himself, saying: “the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out … he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice … they do not recognise the voice of strangers.”
Sheep are not very powerful animals, unlike the hefty cattle currently grazing on the Town Moor. Sheep are unable to defend themselves effectively when attacked. Neither, I am told, are they very good at recognizing localities, which explains why they can so easily go astray. If they get lost, they panic, fall to the ground and bleat loudly in the hope that the shepherd will hear and come to their rescue.
In this time of pandemic, which has lasted longer than Lent, it’s understandable if we feel like one of those lost and panicking sheep – losing our familiar bearings, separated from other members of our flock, not quite sure where we are now in life and what the future holds, feeling alone and helpless, and even experiencing panic and fear.
Here is a modern-day shepherd – a mother – recounting a terrifying experience for her little ‘lamb’, her first-born child:
My husband and I waited a long time for our first-born. When she eventually arrived, I loved her with a passion so intense that an hour or a day without her was an hour or day wasted. I told her I loved her a hundred times a day. I still do.
When she was about three or four, she and I went shopping one day. She wriggled free of my hand to go and look at something that had caught her attention. She drifted seven or eight yards away from me. There were people and rails of clothing in between and lots of noise and bustle. I never took my eyes off her – not even for a second – but she lost sight of me. Suddenly, she realised she could not see me. In an instant, she had whipped herself into such a frenzy that she spun around like a cartwheel, shrieking and screaming. Te word mammy wailed across the store. By the time I got to her, she was beyond consolation. If she had stayed calm, if she had just stopped panicking for a couple of seconds, she would have seen me standing there close by and watching. She would have realised she was safe. But she was thrashing about too blindly to really see. Mammy had gone out of her world, and everything around her was one big, strange, frightening mess. I picked her up, cuddled her, and took her to the car. All the way home, she sobbed and sobbed. “Why did you leave me, mammy?2 My heart was broken as I tried to convince her that I had not left her, that I had watched her every single moment. But still the little voice reproached me, “But where were you? Why did you go away?” “But Emma, it was you who left me,” I said. It did not matter. That is not how it felt to her.
So often, that is how we are with God. We panic, spin around in desperation, looking for him; but our vision never focuses. It moves wildly and madly, settling nowhere, unable to see him, unaware that it is we who have slipped away from him.(‘Love in Chaos’, Mary McAleese, p.84)
Perhaps in this Mass the Good Shepherd is reminding us that when we feel like that lost little child, or a panicking lost sheep, he, the Good Shepherd, has not taken his eyes off us – it’s we who have taken our eyes off him. It’s all too easy to forget that he walks ahead of us. Today’s Psalm proclaims it beautifully:
He guides me along the right path,
he is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness,
no evil would I fear,
You are there with your crook and your staff,
with these you give me comfort.
May we all know something of that comfort this day … that whatever the future holds, the Good Shepherd is there ahead of us.
Holy Name, Jesmond
3 May 2020