An age-old devotion in the Church, Christ the Good Shepherd is one of the most loving depictions of Jesus. This identity was easily understood by those living in biblical times, so by using this analogy, Christ demonstrated His loving care to His followers. What are the qualities of Christ the Good Shepherd, and how can they encourage us to trust in His care and rest in His love?
Shepherd of Souls
In the time of Christ, people were much more likely to understand a shepherd's responsibilities, but we can make some general observations today. I'll admit I've never met a shepherd, but the role figures prominently in the Scriptures, so it's not hard to go in search of information there about the role of a shepherd and what it entailed.
Shepherds generally led their sheep out to pasture for food and water and protected them from the elements and wild predators day and night. They kept track of the sheep, counting and leading them so none were lost. The role of a shepherd was a dirty job, not a glamorous one, but it was important to the livelihood and sustenance of the community.
Jesus referred to Himself as a shepherd in the New Testament:
My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27).
Shepherds guided their flocks to food and water and kept them on the right path. The shepherd of biblical times is often depicted with a long staff featuring a hook on the end. This tool is more than just a walking stick. With it, a shepherd guides his sheep, pulls back the strays, and keeps them all together, on the right path.
Jesus came to lead us to heaven. We are the helpless sheep in need of His guidance on the path to eternal life. He modeled the life of holiness for us, taught us how to live it, and invited us to follow Him by listening to His voice.
He guides us in many different ways. The methods He uses correspond to what each of us need in the moment and how each of us will best hear His voice in a given circumstance.
Some of the more common ways He speaks to us are His Word in Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium of the Church, other trustworthy followers He places on our path, and the inspirations we receive from Him through prayer.
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
He tells us that a hired hand will flee the wolf, but the shepherd, whose sheep are His life's work and responsibility, will protect them. Shepherds guard their sheep day and night to ensure their safety and security.
The rod used for guiding the flock also fends off wild animals that would harm the sheep. It is a source of protection for the shepherd and the sheep.
Is it any wonder that Catholic bishops, our spiritual fathers and shepherds, carry a similar staff? The staff is called a crosier and symbolizes Christ the Good Shepherd, the authority of bishops to care for their flocks, and their spiritual fatherhood over the faithful whose souls have been entrusted to their pastoral care.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).
Jesus gave His life for us and wants us to entrust everything to Him. Through His Sacrifice on the Cross, He revealed His infinite love for each of us and His desire to protect us and lead us to our heavenly home.
I am the good shepherd, I know mine, and mine know me (John 10:14).
The shepherd spends every moment with his flock. He pastures, tends, and nurtures them. If a sheep wanders away, the shepherd goes in search of it. Once he finds the lost sheep, he carries it back to the flock on his shoulders. If it is injured, he binds its wounds, caring for the helpless creature until it heals.
Christ is the loving Shepherd Who cares for His sheep at every moment. We are ever beneath His gaze. He nurtures us through His Body and Blood in the Holy Mass, through His Word in Sacred Scripture, through the other sacraments, and through prayer and the myriad graces He gives us every day.
He goes to great lengths to find us when we have wandered far from Him. He binds our wounds with His mercy in the Sacrament of Penance. He consoles and nurses us back to health by giving us the graces we need to continue following Him as He protects and guides us.
Because Jesus knows us, He also knows what we need, even before we ask it of Him. Psalm 23 is a Christian favorite—a pastoral scene reminding us that Christ wants to provide us with everything we need. His deepest desire is for us to rest in Him, to be at peace, and to feel His comforting and protective love.
In Psalm 23, we are the sheep, and Christ is the Good Shepherd:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for thou art with me;
thy rod and staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Shepherd Us, Lord
The very earliest Christian art represented Christ as the Good Shepherd, not the wounded God of the Passion. The comforting image of Christ the Good Shepherd is still beloved today as one of the most honored devotions in the Church.
Experts in early childhood learning tell us that children find this identity of Jesus charming, enchanting, and easy to understand. When they see Christ lovingly cradle His precious lambs, children recognize the tenderness and sweetness of Jesus, and they readily believe in His love for them.
A Fitting Analogy
In ancient Israel, shepherds were not widely respected or regarded with dignity. In daily contact with smelly animals, manure, blood, and the dirt of the land, they performed a necessary and important job. Their labor was manual, their working conditions difficult, and their station looked down upon by those more affluent in the community.
In much the same way, Christ the Good Shepherd humbly went about His work, without the honor and reverence befitting His station. Disrespected and maligned by those in authority, He guided, protected, and guarded His flock in quiet obedience to the Father.
With infinite love for His helpless creatures, He gave His own life to protect us from the wolves. He continues to lead, nurture, and care for His vulnerable sheep, having promised He would never leave us.
And as for the Sheep...
The many references to sheep in Sacred Scripture allow us to make inferences about these animals with which we have so much in common. They seem to have little sense of direction and need constant guidance. Vulnerable to attacks from more sinister creatures, they need watchful and protective care. With a tendency to blindly follow one another, they can be easily misled.
They don't seem strong, and aren't meant to carry heavy burdens alone. In fact, they are often the ones being carried on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. Likewise, they cannot care for themselves when they are wounded.
They are often depicted as stupid creatures, though this is a source of debate. In all of these ways and more, we humans resemble them remarkably.
Thankfully, Christ the Good Shepherd is the strong, attentive, sacrificial, patient, and nurturing God who cares for us with tender love and leads us to our heavenly home.
Let us listen to His voice and follow Him there.