Having recently traveled to places in which sheep are more populous than people, it is no wonder that it led to reflection upon images of sheep in the Scriptures. This progressed to thoughts of Jesus as the Lamb of God, an oft-made reference to Him in our worship, and what that title means both in terms of His identity and in understanding our relationship with Him. The term ‘Lamb of God’ can be said to derive from a description of Jesus by John, the author of the Book of Revelation. (Rev 5) It was meant as a symbolic way to describe the Risen Christ: He is the Paschal Lamb, the One slain to save us from sin and death. But the term actually originates with a different John, namely St. John the Baptist. When the Baptist pointed to Jesus, referring to Him as the Lamb of God, one who “takes away the sin of the world,” he was inaugurating the ministry for which Jesus came, (John 1:29-34), whereas in Revelation, the author is recognizing its fulfillment. In both cases it is abundantly clear that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that there is no other. It is interesting to note, however, that during His life Jesus never referred to Himself as a lamb, but rather, referred to His people as such; we are the sheep He came to tend and Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads the people of His flock lovingly and with great care. (John 10) Therefore, as I viewed so many sheep in the fields during our travels, it became clearer that as His followers (according to Jesus’ own description), all of us are lambs of God. We are not lambs in the same way Jesus is The Lamb, but nonetheless we are lambs of God, a realization which is actually rather comforting.
The thought that we are lambs of God is natural considering that the Scriptures are full of passages likening the people to sheep lovingly shepherded by God. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Psalm 23 which begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” There are also numerous examples in the writings of the prophets. Most notable is this one from Isaiah: “Like a shepherd He feeds his flock; in His arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 41:11) And also a familiar, though long, passage is found in Ezekiel 34 in which the prophet warns the people to be careful not to fall into the clutches of false shepherds, but that in remaining close to God they will find safety: “I myself will pasture my sheep …” and then, “You, my sheep, you are the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.” (Ez. 34:15; 31). The sheer number of references such as these indicates that being our Shepherd is a role God delights in.
It makes sense, then, that Jesus would continue to use this image, expressing the concept clearly and at length when He says that He is the Good Shepherd. (John 10) While this particular passage describes His relationship with us beautifully, in John's Gospel Jesus also reveals that He is both One with the Father and the Spirit, and that He shares our human nature, like us in all things except sin. This is the mystery contained in His role as Lamb of God. As if to drive it home, at the end of John’s Gospel our relationship with Jesus as Good Shepherd is emphasized in His last encounter with Peter before His ascension. As He entrusted leadership of the Church to Peter, He made sure Peter understood that he was to act as shepherd in Jesus’ stead by tending His sheep. Jesus said this to Peter three times until Peter truly got the message that he needed to love the way Jesus does in order to step into His shoes, so to speak. Thus, our leaders are meant to be shepherds, acting as Christ would act and that is how we ought to pray for them.
We often characterize sheep as stupid animals, and while there is some truth to this, it would be a mistake to simply stay with that one description, and worse still, to attempt to apply it to ourselves. Rather, the image of God’s people as sheep refers more to passivity and trust. If one observes sheep even for a little while, it becomes obvious that they submit to the instructions of the shepherd because they trust His care. Sheep also do a lot of eating, and while that might sound like a silly comment, it does suggest that we are wise to apply the concept of eating to reflection upon the teachings offered by God as given through the promptings of the Holy Spirit; chewing on the Word, particularly the Gospels, is how we grow in holiness. And it almost goes without saying that we consume the very Body and Blood of Jesus, a type of eating which we should do regularly and to which we have access daily. Yes, God intends for us to do a lot of eating!
Perhaps this year as we celebrate the Feasts of the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost we can reflect upon these events by pondering how the Holy Spirit – (described by Jesus as our Advocate) – acts as a Shepherd, and how we are the sheep of His flock. As lambs of God, we must not forget to call upon the Holy Spirit regularly. Therefore, it is a good idea to ‘chew on’ what it means to live as lambs of God in light of the action of the Spirit. First we might consider that as His people we are one flock, not many, though the flock is diverse. This diversity should be regarded as a gift; our flock consists of many different peoples, cultures, nationalities, generational groups, economic systems and the like. In this regard, we are really no different than the group gathered on the day of Pentecost as described in the Acts of the Apostles. They were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs….” (AA 1:9-11) and yet each one heard the message of the apostles clearly in their own language. This conveys the same meaning today: the message of God is not meant to be obscure nor is it meant for only a few, but is meant for everyone to hear clearly and openly. God wants us to know that all of His lambs are loved, that all have been offered salvation, and that the same Holy Spirit will guide us as one people, one flock, if we will listen and accept the guidance.
As lambs of God, we are wise to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, to learn to hear His shepherd’s voice in the Scriptures, through our prayer, and through the events of our lives. This requires that we listen intently, and most especially, that we also learn to listen to one another with respect and love, always regarding what leads us closer to God and avoiding that which moves us away. The Shepherd desires that we lead others to Him, too, and so our example as the lambs in His flock is imperative in order to help others come to know His love also. Our example and our words are how we evangelize, thus acting as the apostles did on that first Pentecost, something we can do with the same enthusiasm and joy given by the same Spirit. Our loving response, our works of mercy, our attempts at working for justice, our desire to live courageously in a world increasingly contemptuous toward Christian living, and our desire to grow in holiness, are all dependent on the aid of the Holy Spirit who continues to guide us until the day when Jesus, the Lamb of God, returns to bring all of His people into the Kingdom eternally.
Therefore, let us reflect upon our role as lambs of God, accepting that we are not perfect, that the world can be dangerous, and as a result we are always in need of the Shepherd to guide us. Our prayer aided by His grace can empower us to embrace one another as fellow members of one flock, working together as the Shepherd intends. We do not want to be like the lambs that wander off and get lost, meandering without finding the comfort, guidance, and love only He can offer. But if we do embrace our place as lambs of God, we will find great freedom and the security of knowing that no matter what happens, no matter what the challenges or how greatly we might suffer along the way, we are never far from the Shepherd who is at our side and who will lead us home.
May we embrace our status as lambs of God, rejoicing that we belong to so loving a Shepherd! May we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives anew! May we learn to discern by listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd and then following His prompting! May we trust that God, our true Shepherd, always has our best interests in mind! May our example lead others to identify themselves as lambs of God, offering their lives to the care of the Shepherd! And at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, may the Lamb of God bring us home with Him in the joy and peace which only He can give! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post June 17.
1. I took this photo of the original painting, Saint John the Baptist, by the Dutch painter Hendrick Bloemaert (1624), while traveling to Scotland recently. The painting hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, a marvelous place in which one can spend a lot of time. This work served as the inspiration for this entry, so it was fitting to begin with it. Not only do I love the youthful portrayal of John, but it shows him pointing to the Lamb of God, who is shown to be Jesus by the rough stick cross he is holding with the Lamb.
2. One of my photos: Hebradean lambs with their mothers. If you look closely at the top right corner, you will notice one of the lambs is drinking from its mother's milk. The lambing season had just ended when we were in Scotland and so lambs were abounding everywhere, (and literally a-bounding, as they are quite playful). Seeing lambs, ewes, and rams everywhere was the secondary inspiration for this entry.
3. The icon El Buen Pastor, written by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I have prayed often with a small copy of this icon, so it is a favorite. It seemed perfect for this spot in the entry because it shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd accompanied by one of His sheep, knocking on the door as an invitation to whoever is within to become one of His flock. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/el-buen-pastor-188-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Farmhouse at Nuenen, by Vincent van Gogh (1885). This work is from an earlier period in the development of the distinctive style we identify with the last few years of van Gogh's life. You will notice that there are no sheep in the painting. In fact, the woman seems to be petting her cow, and there is a chicken nearby, but nothing even resembling a sheep. But this painting actually connects to the one which follows: it shows the trust of the cow for its caretaker and it points out that not all are the same in the flock. Our flock is made up of a diverse group, all dependent upon the Shepherd with whom we have a relationship of love. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/6-farmhouse-in-nuenen-vincent-van-gogh.html
5. Day of Pentecost, by Rebecca Brogan. First of all, I loved this painting the moment I stumbled upon it while searching for a Pentecost image. But what truly sold me was that in trying to track down the painter, the link which I found was jtbarts.com. I came to discover that it was an acronym for "John The Baptist Artworks." If that did not give me a sense of confirmation, nothing will! I do love how the Holy Spirit works. Check out Brogan's works at https://jtbarts.com/
6. Another of my photos: Gorse bush with its bright flowers. Gorse are all over Scotland and seem to blanket the hillsides, creating a blaze of yellow. It is just fantastic to see this color everywhere; it speaks to me of joy....perhaps the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
7. This is one of my photos: a couple of wee lambs, as the Scots might say. These little guys were alternating between eating and running, playful as they could be. They seemed appropriate to finish out this entry, as they are a reminder that we grow into spiritual adulthood, but we should remain child-like in our trust in the Shepherd and never lose sight of the joy of being a member of the flock of the Lord.
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Heart Speaks to Heart