I’m not sure how much you know about sheep, but in case you haven’t studied this ovine species recently, I’ll fill you in. Sheep are gentle and docile by nature. They tend to have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and they tend to congregate in flocks for safety and protection. Because they hate being alone, sheep are not independent; they need a shepherd to guide them to good, clean water and places of pasture. Sheep have poor vision but exceptional hearing, allowing them to hear and recognize the voice of their shepherd, even when they have drifted far away or are surrounded by the sheep of another flock. Sheep are not very intelligent but they are extremely loyal to their shepherd. Sheep rely heavily on their shepherd for care and protection. For example, if a sheep falls over onto its back, it is unable to get back on its feet and will die unless the shepherd comes and rolls it over.
You are getting a crash course in sheep because the fourth Sunday of Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Church gives us this feast, with these wonderful readings to continue our meditation on Easter as we hear of Christ as a loving shepherd. But if we are going to appreciate the metaphor of sheep and shepherd, used by Christ himself, we first have to know a little something about sheep. Most of us are so far removed from the care of animals like cows, sheep, and pigs that this metaphor loses some of its power.
In the ancient world, sheep were crucial for everyday life. They were a source of wool for clothing, their milk was used for cheese and nourishment. They could be slaughtered for meat, and even used for temple sacrifice. However, most sheep were raised for their wool and would live 8-10 years in the same flock, with the same shepherd.
But sheep were helpless without a shepherd. The shepherd was an essential figure in the ancient world. He would protect the sheep from wild dogs and wolves and he would find them places of pasture for grazing. The shepherd did not drive the sheep; he would actually walk before them and lead them to the place they were going. Shepherds would name each of their sheep; this helped him to know if one of the flock was missing. Finally, each night, if possible, the shepherd would lead his sheep to a sheepfold. This was an enclosure with walls to help protect the sheep at night from predators and thieves. There was only one opening for the animals to enter and exit. At night, the shepherd would lay down across this opening to block any predators from coming in. The shepherd literally laid down his own body to protect the sheep from thieves and wild animals.
This was the relationship that existed in the ancient world between sheep and shepherd. The sheep were lost without the shepherd; they relied on him totally for food, water, and protection. If they became lost, he would find them and bring them back. In short, the sheep put their trust completely in the shepherd. The shepherd, for his part, sacrificed himself for the good of the flock. He put himself in danger to protect them when wild animals approached. He spent long hours each day making sure all his sheep were accounted for. And he would always lead them, making sure that they would find places for food, water, and safety.
With this deeper understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd, we can begin to appreciate the notion of Christ as ourshepherd and we as hissheep. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, independent, and intelligent; there are times for each of us, when we are confused, helpless, and lost in life. For some of us, our valley of darkness will be unhealthy personal relationships, for others it might be some sort of addiction or dependency. The shadow of death for us, for our spiritual lives might be experienced in the loss of a friend or family member, a personal struggle with greed or lust, or even some personal tragedy like a serious injury or grave illness.
Even though we live in the 21st century, even though we live in the United States with so many good things, we are often like sheep. We are still in need of a shepherd. We need someone who will guide us through the dangers and hazards of our everyday lives. We need a good shepherd, who will walk with us and lead us to fresh pastures. A good shepherd who will protect us from all spiritual dangers and will search us out and find us if we get lost.
Christ is that Good Shepherd. He leads us to the fresh waters of grace, especially in the sacraments. He takes us to green pastures, in a particular way here in the Eucharist. Christ knows each one of us by name. Like a good shepherd, he knows us and calls us ever closer to him. If we fall, and we all do, he lifts us up and puts us back on our feet through the sacrament of reconciliation. Finally, Jesus protects us. By giving us the Church, he makes sure that we have a sheepfold for rest and protection from the attacks of the world, the fleshand the devil. Here in the Eucharist he lays down his own life; he sacrifices his very own body, so we might have life and have it more abundantly. In him our souls find contentment and peace.