A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
St. Stephen’s, Cheltenham. Good Shepherd Sunday 2011
“Jesus used this figure of speech with them but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Verse 6.
I wonder what image , picture, statue of Jesus you would choose as your favourite representation of him? Christ on the cross probably comes first to mind; Christ rising from the tomb, or if you are of deep evangelical persuasion, the scene of Christ at the Last Supper which appears as the reredos in most Evangelical churches. Perhaps even, the Holman Hunt Depiction of Christ as light of the world that we see to my right might just scrape in amongst the top ten. Images of Christ – some of you may have seen the wonderful exhibition by that name in the first quarter of 2000 at the National Gallery. If so you would have seen one of my favourite images of Christ.
But we must be careful talking about images – because there are of course, visual images – paintings, carvings etc, and verbal images – as we have heard in this morning’s Gospel.
Images. The second commandment warns us not to make any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. And that commandment was rigorously adhered to by God’s chosen people, the Jews – at least most of the time- in the centuries before Christ’s coming into the world. With the coming of our Lord, many Jews converted to what today we know as Christianity and gradually the prohibition against images was relaxed although fear of idolatry and subsequent punishment remained . But these new Christians wanted to be identified to other Christians, after their death. Their relatives and fellow Christians wanted to be able to recognise the burial places of their Christian ancestors and so, between 200 and 600 AD codes or symbols began to appear on tomb stones and in early Christian meeting places. Sometimes a fish represented Christ as Fisher of men; the Greek initials for Christ, the XP, or the Latin initials for Jesus IHS all were used as signs of Christian identity and allegiance- not used because of fear of persecution, but used because of the threat of the second commandment-THOU SHALT NOT……..
As people of different nationalities were baptised into the Church, more artistic metaphoric images appeared representing Christ – the vine; a candle; the anchor representing the cross; the lily representing Christ’s purity and so on.
But one image that is familiar to us all, one image totally relevant to today’s Gospel, that of the shepherd, was a late arrival on the artistic scene and contrary to previous prohibition, this image included a human figure , a figure of the Shepherd. Now the reasoning behind the belief that it did not break the second commandment was that it represented not the actual likeness of Christ but was a metaphor that he himself used to describe his nature and his mission- that of the good, caring, reliable and sacrificial shepherd whose mission was to bring everyone safely into the fold of the Church.
These early images – one of the earliest is a statue dating from the third or fourth century
now in the Vatican Museum – but there are also several carved inscriptions on tomb slabs in the Roman Catacombs with shepherd and lamb representations on them, – these images therefore indicate that the role of the Good Shepherd was one of the most easily recognisable and significant depictions of Christ that we have – not a picture of Christ remember, but a depiction of the role he adopted to fulfil his mission – to draw all men and women unto himself.
Now how the Pharisees could not understand what Jesus was talking about in this morning’s Gospel is laughable. The Jewish scriptures – Ezekiel in particular – put great emphasis on the role of the Good ( as well as the bad) shepherd and the Pharisees would be undeniably familiar with Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would raise up a King Shepherd like King David had been, who would lead his people to rich pastures. And didn’t they know by heart the 23rd psalm– The Lord is my shepherd, one of their great pilgrimage hymns.
But still they were blind to the invitation Jesus was offering them. I come that you may have life and have it abundantly – that is the promise of the Good Shepherd-because it is only through him that the gateway into the kingdom of heaven can be opened.
We might do well to remember a very early mediaeval prayer said at the point of death:
‘May we be borne to heaven on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd who will carry into his kingdom all who freely come unto him.’
I’ve spoken about one of my favourite images of Christ – but I hope too, that I have spoken about a promise that we all share and that the image of the Good Shepherd will comfort and reassure you in your moments of challenge.