Opening the Word: The common sheepfold


In the Roman catacombs, there remain images of a young man as a shepherd, carrying a sheep on his shoulders. In this burial space, Christians placed their hope in Jesus Christ, who would shepherd them from death into new life.

The Good Shepherd likely resonates with us as much as it did with early Christians. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God who cares so much for the human family that he puts his own life at risk for us. Not only does Our Lord save the human family, but he saved me in all my particularity. I, a single and imperiled sheep, am loved by the creator of the cosmos.

God’s love is a gift, an excessive offering, beyond measure what mere mortals would determine prudently. Who leaves the many sheep for one? Only the God who loved unto the end, offering a gift of his life upon the cross.

The attractiveness of the personal love of God may overshadow another theme of the Good Shepherd. Namely, the Good Shepherd cares for a sheepfold. The whole community of sheep is cared for by the Good Shepherd.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and the gate by which we enter the sheepfold. Baptized into Christ, we learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. He speaks in the sacred Scriptures, he calls out to us in those who suffer from sickness and poverty, he is present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus, however, is also the gate by which we enter the protected space of the sheepfold. Through baptism, we belong to Christ’s body, becoming members of the Church. Our continued salvation, our liberation from evil, unfolds through a common life with one another.

The sheep belong to one another, they are saved together.

And when we belong to one another, when we love our fellow sheep, we should expect to suffer. 1 Peter makes this clear. Christ’s life was the totality of gift, of communion, of relationship with men and women. When he was maltreated by the human family, he did not return violence for violence.

Perhaps this is the hardest thing for us Christians to learn. When we’re attacked, we want to respond with violence. This desire to inflict punishment on those who harm us is the root of sin. It is also the stem of a social life governed by the logic of the world in which might defeats right, prestige overpowers poverty, and there’s always someone to blame if you look hard enough. Scroll through Twitter and see this logic on display.

This is not how the Good Shepherd governs the sheepfold. He empties himself, preferring not power but humility, poverty over self-importance and forgiveness over blame.

During COVID-19, it’s this belonging to the sheepfold, this common life of impoverished love, that we miss the most. Christ did not come to save individuals alone but to create a people, a Mystical Body, a temple of the Spirit that renews the human family.

Going without the Eucharist, without common worship among the People of God, is so painful because we were meant to be together. We are common sheep (bishop, priest and the baptized alike), governed by a common shepherd, who forms us in a common way of life.

And yet in our absence, the voice of the shepherd calls us home.

Soon, the Good Shepherd will gather us in his arms, feed us, pour lavish oil, tend to us once more.

What a feast that will be, among our community of beloved sheep.

May 3 — Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14, 36-41
Ps 23:1-3, 4, 5, 6
1 Pt 2:20-25
Jn 10:1-10

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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