Deep below the Eternal City, Rome, lie several early Christian images of Jesus. One remarkable third-century fresco discovered in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And we are led to ask, Why did the early Christians opt to depict this Gospel image of Jesus?
For the early Christians, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd was a visual summary of their faith in Jesus for it expressed in visual form what the first Christians understood as the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The first Christians, our brothers and sisters in faith, believed that Jesus was divine, the one sent to reconcile the world to God. So, they painted the Son of God as a simple yet strong shepherd carrying one lost sheep on his shoulders while other sheep remain close to their master.
Their faith in the Incarnation of God led them to believe that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, their Good Shepherd had drawn close to his sheep, rescuing them from sin and restoring them to friendship with God.
In today’s Gospel, we read the Scripture passage that must have inspired the early Christians as they chose to depict Jesus the Good Shepherd on the walls of those ancient catacombs.
In this familiar passage from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus invites his disciples, and us, to encounter him as the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus is the shepherd who desires to live close to his sheep, sharing in their existence with love and tender care.
Jesus goes on to warn his disciples against a certain kind of shepherd who is not to be trusted. These are shepherds who are hired hands, working for pay, whose only interest is their own well-being and self-preservation. At the first signs of danger, this kind of shepherd simply abandons the flock to the attack of the wolves, who eventually scatter or kill the frightened sheep.
As our good shepherd, Jesus desires to stay close to us, his spiritual sheep. He longs to rescue us from the power of alienation and sin. And he is willing to do that with his life.
This is the power of the love of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. For he says, “I will lay down my life for my sheep. ... They will hear my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:15-16).
During this Easter season, may we encounter Jesus the Good Shepherd, who leads each one of us to the loving mercy of God, both personally and as members of the body of Christ. As we draw close to Jesus the Good Shepherd, may we find the care, protection and guidance we desire, as we say in faith, “Speak to me, Lord.”