This Sunday morning our sermon text was taken from the 23rd Psalm, a passage of scripture familiar even to many who know very little of the Bible. Some have set it to memory, and perhaps, like me, have recited it quietly during times of great stress and worry. I remember years ago waiting for the bus on my first day at a new high school, filled with dread about all the adjustments I’d have to make to fit in at a new and unfamiliar place. As I mouthed the words of this Psalm under my breath I felt a sense of peace come over me, for I could hold onto the promise of this passage—that God would be with me; present with me, caring for me, even defending me. I was not alone.
As I listened this morning to the insights that Brian Kane brought to this Psalm in his sermon, I thought of one of the earliest works of Christian art, one that I featured in my forthcoming book. It was most likely inspired both by Psalm 23 and by Jesus’ statement in John 10:11-18: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Painted in Rome in the middle of the third century upon the walls of the catacombs, an underground network of burial sites commonly used by early Christians as a resting place for their dead, this simple image speaks volumes. While the birds perched in the nearby trees look on, the shepherd has raised his right hand, as though preparing to bestow a blessing upon one of the lambs, while the lamb on the other side of him looks up at him in expectancy. The third lamb pictured is draped around the shoulder of the shepherd. He is likely either injured and unable to walk on his own, or perhaps just too weary to make it on his own, so he is being carried about the head of the shepherd in the most intimate way.
We are, of course, the lambs, and Jesus is the Shepherd. We are so often like those wooly creatures: we are vulnerable to the many fearsome things we have to face in this life, we often stray into places that aren’t safe, we generally follow the herd—even when they are going in the wrong direction, and quite frankly, like sheep, we often just aren’t very smart. But as this ancient piece of art reminds us, the Shepherd cares for us, watches over us, and bestows his blessing upon us. And when danger and pain overtake us (as they sometimes will), or when we just feel so exhausted and confused that we feel we cannot go on, he lifts us up and carries us close to himself. Under the watchful eye of the Shepherd we may still experience hardships…but we are never alone.