The Shepherd’s Sacrifice
The Shepherd's Sacrifice

The Shepherd’s Sacrifice

Fourth Sunday of Easter. Fr Richard Conrad preaches on a more shocking aspect of the image of the Good Shepherd.

In Eastertide, at Mass, we say that we laud God more gloriously at this time ‘when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.’ This season celebrates Jesus’s Resurrection, and his Paschal Sacrifice – celebrates it as his Victory over Satan, sin and death. Hence, for centuries, the Church has read today’s Gospel during Eastertide, listening to Jesus tell us he’s the Good Shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep.’ Nowadays, over a three-year cycle, we hear on this Sunday of Eastertide three passages in which Jesus calls himself the Shepherd.

In Jesus’s time, shepherds related intimately to their flocks. Last year, we heard how a shepherd calls his sheep by name; they respond to his voice, he leads them to pasture. Jesus guides us by his teaching – and goes before us through death to higher life. At the Easter Vigil, before hearing of Moses leading God’s People through the Sea, we lit the Paschal Candle. It stands for the fiery pillar that symbolised God accompanying his People, and stands for Jesus. He’s not just a new Moses; he fulfils Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would shepherd his People. In the flesh, God has gone through death as our Leader.

What we heard last year about the behaviour of shepherds was true to life. Jesus sometimes shocks us by parables that aren’t true to life. Any conscientious shepherd would defend his flock bravely. But he tends a flock because it contributes to human livelihood; it would be odd for him to accept certain death to save sheep. In any case, if a huge pack of wolves killed him, they’d still kill the sheep, and his shepherding skills would be lost. But, in an extravagant, apparently foolish gesture, the Good Shepherd ‘lays down his life for the sheep.’ No wonder John goes on to record some of the crowd saying, ‘He is mad; why listen to him?’ Others do listen to him, and reply, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon.’ Jesus invites us, with them, to be struck by the powerful gesture that he, God’s Wisdom, performed – namely, his voluntary Martyrdom.

Today, Jesus tells us something of the power of his Sacrifice: ‘I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must lead them also.’ His Sacrifice will gather Samaritans as well as Jews into his flock. In a later passage – which we heard on the 5th Sunday of Lent – he goes further: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself.’ His Sacrifice works a cosmic reconciliation.

Today, we glimpse how Jesus’s Sacrifice works: ‘I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ In eternity, the Father ‘speaks’ himself fully in his Son who is his Word and ‘self-expression’ – ‘speaks’ both himself, and his creative plan. Each of us is creatively known, before all ages, by the Father, in his Word; each of us is creatively loved, before all ages, by the Father and his Word, in the Holy Spirit, the Personal Love who flows from them. To complete his creative work, the Father sent his Son to take flesh, to be, as man, what he is as God: the Father’s ‘self-expression.’ The Father creatively knows, and creatively loves, his Son’s human nature, so that Jesus’s exemplary holiness may overflow to us, and his journey through death to the life of glory may be our Way. Above all, Jesus’s Martyrdom is God’s ultimate gesture of loyalty and mercy, with power to shock us, power to attract us.

In the heights of his human mind, Jesus knew his Father; gazing into his Father he knew each sheep by name. He saw, and out of the love his Father poured into his human heart, he loved, each of the sheep his Father gave him. That love reached out from the Cross to embrace all those for whom he laid down his life; through that love, God’s power made contact with each human being. It’s because Jesus has lovingly known us, that we are able lovingly to know him.

Jesus could see who resisted his love; he made his Sacrifice a prayer for their forgiveness – after all, the Divine Shepherd, with compassion, seeks out the lost sheep. We may hope, hence we must pray, that his Sacrifice draw everyone to respond, even if it’s in the final second of the eleventh hour. We cannot now comprehend the full scope of the cosmic redemption Jesus won; we can look forward to sharing his delight in all those he has gathered into his fold.

Readings: Acts 4:8-12 | 1 John 3:1-2 | John 10:11-18

Image: 5th-century mosaic of Christ, the Good Shepherd, from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

fr. Richard Conrad teaches dogmatic and sacramental theology at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Comments (1)

  • Frances Flatman

    Good as ever hope you are well frances


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