Are you ready for life to go back to normal? Whoever would have guessed that rush hour, or a line at the DMV or a restaurant might come as a relief? And as we return to the hustle and bustle of real life, what do we bring with us? What has God taught us?
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday, we would normally focus on the Gospel reading. This year, somewhat surprisingly, the passage with the clearest description of Jesus as a shepherd is…the second reading, from the first letter of Peter. Lest we over-romanticize the life of shepherds in the ancient world, it is worth noting that these individuals were hardly the “Downton Abbey” crowd; on the contrary, they were rough, uneducated men living on the outskirts of town, accustomed to harsh living conditions and deprivation. Their mostly solitary life (read: boring) could be punctuated by moments of sheer terror. (As we read in 1Sam. 17:34, young David had to fight a lion to protect his flock.) All this: simply to protect a herd of foul-smelling, defenseless, witless creatures. And yet, the shepherd is the typical job description of the people’s Champion, whether human or divine.
There is also a beautiful, intimate quality to the relationship between sheep and shepherd. The sheep recognize his voice and do not follow others, and the shepherd does virtually everything for them: lead, protect, feed, and heal. In short, they utterly depend upon him. Little wonder that the Good Shepherd is, for Pope Benedict XVI, the great image of Jesus in the New Testament, one that subsumes all the others: preacher, wonder-worker, healer, law-giver, rabbi, etc. Human beings, powerless to extricate ourselves from the “thicket” of sin that ensnares us, follow the Word made flesh, who carries us “home” to God. The Holy Father writes that for the Christian “sacrifice takes the form of the Cross of Christ, of the love that in dying makes a gift of itself… [It] has nothing to do with destruction. It is an act of new creation, the restoration of creation to its true identity…a participation in this ‘Pasch’ of Christ…”
This is the connection between the Shepherd and the second reading from 1 Peter. Word for word, this short letter, which calls Jesus the “Shepherd and Guardian of (our) souls,” refers more to “suffering” (or “endurance”—pascho [πᾰ́σχω in Greek])—than any other book of the New Testament. In early Christianity, suffering results from persecution of the faith or from doing what is good. In the current pandemic, likewise, the Church suffers along with the rest of the world. While we admit that suffering brings us to our knees, it nevertheless has its place. To use another metaphor from 1 Peter, the trials we endure purify our “faith, which is more precious than fire-tried gold.” Ask yourself: have my love for God and gratitude for his blessings grown over the past six weeks? Have I discovered sources of strength and endurance that I never knew existed? Have I become more patient, loving, and attentive to my family and friends? The Christian recognizes all things—even those that appear to be setbacks—as opportunities for greater holiness and wisdom in the Lord. Let us follow in the footsteps of the Shepherd, by whose stripes we are healed.