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Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday, an extended riff on the pastoral metaphor we see so often in the Church. We thrill to the idea that Christ is the Good Shepherd who dies for his sheep.
But we shouldn’t forget that he didn’t just die for his sheep. He became one of them.
That is what makes him so much more than the great martyr bishops, and so much better than the great shepherds we saw recently at a Mass where two popes canonized two popes.
That we are the sheep in the Gospel is high praise and devastating realism. The value of sheep was immense. They were the lifeblood of the economy. Nearly everyone’s job had something to do with them. They provided milk and wool — and also meat, skins and horns. They were also an important part of the religion.
But sheep were clueless. They were easily led and easily lost. Like us, they were highly valuable losers.
Shepherds were also simultaneously vitally important and easily overlooked. They ate simple food, worked outside in harsh weather with bad lodging, and had to be on the lookout for dangerous predators — lions, bears and wolves. They also had to take care to count their sheep often, and look out for the weak ones: Expectant ewes, newborn lambs, and the sick.
So to call bishops and popes pastors is also high praise and significant realism. They are very important menial laborers of the spirit.
Christ is that, too – by his own choice to be the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he is so much more.
We are used to the paradoxes of Christ: He is creator of the universe — and the babe in the manger; he is the priest — and victim at the sacrifice; he is the Alpha and Omega; he is Our Lord and our brother. Add to that: He is the Good Shepherd — and he is the Lamb who was slain.
It is amazing that a shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep. But Christ went even further: He is the shepherd who became the lamb. He lived as a lamb, showed the sheep how to be lambs, and then died as a lamb.
Shepherds know that lambs are not sweet and smart. They are obstinate, hard to train and often unpleasant to deal with. For a shepherd to become a lamb is an extraordinary act of love. For a shepherd to die as the lamb is even greater.
In Shepherd Sunday’s second reading, St. Peter makes the connection to the Crucifixion explicit: “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
We can take great confidence in the Lord who appears in heaven as a Lamb who was slain and on earth as a Good Shepherd, standing at our side to guard us.