May 7, 2017
Why is this Sunday known as Good Shepherd Sunday?
As noted during the instructed Eucharist last week, most Sunday's of the year have a theological theme. That themed can be influenced seasonally, like The Feast of the Resurrection which begins Easter, or Episodically, like the Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. Some like the Sundays in Advent, or, the Sundays in Easter are a bit of both.
The Easter season of the church is lived in the shade of the Jewish festival of Passover, associated with the ritually slaughtered sheep, whose blood is used to cleanse the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The concept of the God of Israel, the creator God, was a long-standing tradition by the time of Jesus. David, the ideal King of Israel and God's favorite King, started out as a shepherd boy, tending his father Jesse's sheep. This image is reinforced in Isaiah 40:11 and Ezekiel 34.
Jesus picks up this image in his ministry as recorded in Luke 15:3-7 and again in John 10:7-18. Other New Testament imagery to this effect is found in Hebrews 13:20, I Peter 2:25 and 5:4, and in the Revelation to John 21:22-22:7.
Traditionally, in the Roman Catholic Church, the readings for the second Sunday after Easter because the Gospel for that day came from John, chapter 10. This now only happens once every three years in the catholic Church, but reading focusing on this theme are used in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary whose Gospel readings are: Year A-John 10:1-10; Year B-John 10:11-18 (thus completing the original Johannine story read in each year of the old lectionary); and Year C-John 10:22-30. To emphasize the theme even more, the collect appointed for this Sunday in the BCP 1979 was composed for that Prayer Book's publication.
In the Gospel of John and in the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is portrayed as both the shepherd of the sheep and the sacrificial lamb. It is a complicated role that makes more sense once the Trinitarian formula is worked out, but shows the deep nature of the idea that God chose to suffer through Christ and that Jesus was faithful to God's will, making him the unique victim and priest of this sacrifice.
These images from both the Old and New Testaments take form in early Christian art, with some of most easily identifiable paintings from the catacombs, house churches, and baptistery's being of Jesus with a lamb slung over his shoulder.
Sheep need Shepherds, and the best shepherds are the ones who have a true investment in the well-being of the sheep. The same is true for us, often, it seems no more aware or cognizant of our image bearing status than are the sheep aware of where they are and what is after them.
The Rev. David Lucey