May 14, 2011
College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80
One of the things you may have learned in DWC is that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is the predominant image in early Christian art. You find them in the catacombs of Rome and in frescoes all over the place. It is obviously an attractive and consoling image, especially in times of danger and persecution; Psalm 24 is recited at almost every funeral. It has a rich biblical pedigree. But eventually it almost disappeared and was replaced by other images of Christ: Ruler, Judge, Teacher, Priest. I have a friend who once wrote a scholarly article on the topic in which he speculates that the disappearance of the Good Shepherd was due to the Christological development and complex sociological forces as Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.
With all due respect to the scholarship, however, I want to advance a different reason for the decline of the Good Shepherd image: it is not because of what it says about Christ, but what it says about us. We do not want to think of ourselves as sheep! Sheep seem not to have any flattering qualities that make us want to emulate them. I do not know of a single sports team that has a sheep as a mascot--do you? Sheep conjure an image of vulnerability, docility, and even dumbness. We do not want to be followers, we want to be leaders. We spend a lot of time here on leadership development, not followship development. We do not want to be a part of a flock or herd being told where to go and what to do. When Nietzsche mocks conventional morality, he does so by calling it herd morality. Modernity has taught us to value autonomy, self-determination, independence.
But are sheep really dumb or is that just our prejudice?
Now I know very little about sheep. But I do know something about them that is on display in the gospel today: They know how to follow the voice of their shepherd. I once read that when shepherds in Jesus' day would lead their sheep to water, they would pay no attention to the presence of other herds and shepherds when the sheep mingled by the waters. When it came time to move on, the shepherd would call out and his sheep would follow. They knew his call. And they followed him because he led them to water and food and kept them from harm.
How dumb is that? To follow behind someone who is ahead of you, watching out for you, protecting you, and leading you to the satisfaction of all your deepest needs? I would argue that sheep aren't dumb at all--they recognize and follow the voice of their shepherd who keeps them safe and provides for them.
The pertinent question today is not whether we are dumb enough to be sheep but smart enough to know that we need to follow the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd in our own lives. I hope that in your four years here, that you have learned to follow the call of Christ to lead you to rich pasture and to keep you from harm. We are sending you out to a world where there is a cacophony of voices trying to lead you astray. And there are wolves out there in the world. But if you have learned to attune yourself to the voice of Christ, to follow his call, then you will be safe from harm come what may and you will find all that you need to satisfy your soul.
You may be asking yourself how do we tune into the voice of the Lord? Let's start with what we are doing today. Christ is shepherding you. You heard his voice in Scripture calling to you. You may be hearing him through me. You encounter him sacramentally when we celebrate the Eucharist. You find the food and drink that you need to satisfy your deepest hunger in the Eucharist. Keep going to church and listening to the Shepherd. You have heard the voice of Christ in your study of the teaching of the church. There is a reason Bishop Tobin carries a Shepherds crook: The bishops in union with the Pope have the responsibility to Shepherd God's flock. You have heard Christ's words in the needy people you have served. I hope you have learned how to pray, where you encounter the Lord who calls you by name. You have heard his voice through countless human encounters on this campus, from your professors to your friends, whom Christ spoke through to tell you something you needed to hear.
As you go forth from here, stay attuned to the voice of Christ calling you in your lives. Trust that voice. Learn to listen to it each day, so that when you reach a moment of apparent crisis you are already tuned in to the voice of the Lord. Christ wants to be your shepherd. My hope and my prayer for you is that you have learned how to lead others while yourself being led by God. If you listen and follow the voice of the Lord, you can be confident that when you walk through the shadows of the darkest valleys in your life, you will fear no evil because your Good Shepherd goes before you. If you stay attuned to his voice you will never be alone or lost. And one day we will all find ourselves together again in the rich pastures of heaven.