Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

“The Lord is my shepherd” – is there any phrase in the Bible so well-known? So cherished? Is there any biblical metaphor for the Lord so familiar as that of the Shepherd? How many paintings, icons, logos, sculptures, how many songs and hymns, how many fridge or dashboard magnets show the Lord as shepherd? Long before our Lord was portrayed on the Cross, the early Christians painted him as a shepherd, often with a sheep draped on his shoulders.

This Sunday, mid-Eastertide Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, belongs to this Shepherd. We feast on the reality of his risen, conquering, shepherding presence among us. He is the “brave shepherd”, says the Collect, “the shepherd and guardian of your souls”, says St Peter (2nd Reading). He is the “good shepherd” according to the Alleluia verse, who knows his own sheep. He “ has risen [having] laid down his life for his sheep and willingly died for his flock”, says the Communion Antiphon. In Years A, B and C, the Gospel is taken from Ch. 10 of the Gospel of St John, with its famous assertion “I am the good shepherd”.  The phrase “kind shepherd” appears as well (Post-Communion, directed to God the Father). “Pasture us like sheep, Lord”, prayed a Christian centuries ago. “Fill us with your own food, the food of righteousness. As our guide, lead us, we pray, to your holy mountain, the Church on high, touching the heavens” (Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue, 9, 83).

This is the Shepherd who has gone with us into the dark places of the Passion, who went down into the world of the dead “and brought to his sheep confined there the good news of their release…[and] a pledge of their resurrection” (St Basil of Seleucia, Homily 26). This is “the great shepherd of the sheep” who was “brought back from the dead” (Heb 13:20), and accompanies us our whole life.

I wonder how many of us have actually had to look after sheep. Very few, I imagine. And if we have, it won’t have been in the way the shepherds of Christ’s time looked after their sheep. Nowadays, if a shepherd moves his sheep he does so from behind, on a vehicle perhaps, or with a dog harrying the sheep. Nowadays, sheep are simply fenced in and left to look after themselves. Not so in the past, though. Then, the well-being of the sheep depended entirely on the shepherd. He led them to pasture and led from the front. He was their protection from predators. He knew them individually, and they knew and responded to the tone of his voice. He lived in symbiosis with them. There’s a lovely story of King Baudouin of the Belgians visiting Morocco and pausing to chat with an old-style shepherd. “What do you think of all day?” the King asked him. “God and my sheep” was the answer. What does Jesus think of? His Father and us. “The Lord is my shepherd”; it is an analogy revealed by God, and so it speaks, heart to heart, in every place and time.

“The Lord is my shepherd” begins the Hebrew Psalm. “Lord” we sometimes render “Yahweh”, the sacred Name revealed to Moses when he was shepherding in the wilderness, the Name we parse as “I AM”. “I AM is my shepherd”. Not me, not any mere human being, but He Who Is, the Real One – the Creator who is greater than all his creation and yet cares for every particle of it. And, as the Psalm unfolds, “I AM” feeds, refreshes, guides, protects. (cf. The Psalms in Christian Worship, Waltke and Houston). “If I should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would I fear.” And as the Psalm’s imagery grows, there is mention of water and a banquet, of anointing oil and an overflowing cup. No wonder St Athanasius sees “holy baptism” in the still waters, “the mystic chrism” of Confirmation in the anointing oil, and the “mystic table” of the Eucharist in the banquet and cup (Letter to Marcellinus). No wonder this Psalm belongs to the heart of Eastertide. Aren’t the sacraments a privileged way the Shepherd shepherds us, from baptism to viaticum? “Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.” We hear this Psalm in funeral homes and at gravesides too. “In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.”  Jesus never takes early retirement; he sees us through to the end. “When the vision of God never fails, the soul is filled with the food of life”, said Gregory the Great.

We are shepherded. The word “sheep” is the same in the singular and plural, something a little exceptional. So, we are shepherded singly, individually. “One by one he calls his own sheep.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” The phrase is a lens to read our whole lives. Strange, isn’t it, how the right person can be beside us at the right time? And, then too, we are shepherded all together, one in Christ, the plural sheep. He “carries the whole flock on his shoulders”, says St Gregory of Nyssa, the sheep of humanity, the sheep of his body the Church. There can be pressures and perplexities from the world, or silences and confusions in the Church, but as Catholics we believe the Good Shepherd has risen from dead and is “with us all days even to the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). “For he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand” (Ps 94). There is always the pasture of his face, and of his name, and of his heart. And the Church is never bereft of shepherds to show us the way.

And here’s a last thing. Our Lord never hugs his titles to himself. He shares his shepherding with us. The first human was put in the garden – that is, creation – to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2). I remember a young man whose job was to fix computers; he saw even that as a kind of shepherding. The things around us, and the things we make, houses and cars, the plant and animal creation, can and should all evoke a sense of responsibility; how much more do people if we’re parents, older siblings, doctors, nurses, teachers, carers. God’s wisdom tends and shepherds everything, and everything good we do can be a shepherding shared with him.

And how not think of priests as well? We have some 30 actively serving in the diocese, and three seminarians. Let us pray they be more and holy. Let us cherish the vocation among our young men – for those who are called to it, it is the best possible thing they can do with their lives.

The Lord is our shepherd. Glory be to him!

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 30 April 2023


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