Carried in His Bosom

Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Matthew 18:12-14.

Today’s gospel presents the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and Christ as the Good Shepherd is one of the oldest artistic representations we have from the early Christian Church. Clearly, this image resonates with us. But is it more than a nice metaphor? For the Father, certainly, it seems that we need metaphor and analogy to understand aspects of his unknowable divine person. As Jesus says today, “In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” He explicitly points to the analogy aspect of the parable (“in just the same way…”). But Jesus, as both God and man, was able to literally tend humans like precious creatures waiting for the harvest – it’s no mere coincidence that he invites Simon and Andrew to “fish for men,” and that he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). This last passage, in particular, is important for us to understand in a more literal way rather than just as a nice metaphor.

3rd century paintings of Christ the Good Shepherd in the Roman Catacombs (Catacomb of Priscilla on left, Catacomb of St Callixtus on right) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

I’d like to quote a passage from the Trappist monk, Fr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, PhD’s master work of reflections on the Gospel of St. Matthew:

Every scene in the Gospel represents a new step in the Son’s search for his lost sheep. Golgotha is the moment when he fully finds us, because it is then that he gives all he has to give—the very substance of divinity. He finds us by entering into our locus of despairing darkness and filling us there with his love and life. “I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak”: But how? Our resurrection and healing gush forth from his suffering. In the words of Isaiah:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . . He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:4-6).

Jesus, in whom “all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell,” could not make peace between us and the Father, could not restore us lost sheep to the heavenly flock, without the spilling of “the blood of his Cross” (Col 1:19-20). It was by this outpouring of the human blood of the incarnate God that the Father “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13).
(Fire of Mercy: Heart of the Word, Vol III, 627)

We might be so familiar with the words of St. John’s gospel “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” that we forget how very real that act was accomplished by Jesus Christ. God is the best of all good shepherds – so much so that we can use Him as the basis of comparison in the metaphor, “you are as good of a shepherd as Jesus Christ with how selflessly you lay down your life…” 

I don’t want to detour too far on John’s gospel; today’s gospel reading from Matthew is about searching for and not forgetting the lost sheep. This is the promise given to us that God wants each and every one of us to be with Him, no matter how lowly or sinful. And, of course, sin is the main way we lose our way from the flock bound for heaven. Consider this – the person so lost in sin that he can’t be recognized is actively sought out to the ends of the earth by our diligent Good Shepherd. If that’s not good news for those in despair, I don’t know what is.

As we turn our eyes to gaze lovingly on this Good Shepherd, let us return to Isaiah’s words from the first reading. He describes a strong, powerful God whose Word lasts forever – long after humanity is gone. He describes a God for whom we flatten mountains and fill in valleys to make way for his majesty and might. As we turn our eyes to gaze on Him, what do we see?

Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;

Isaiah uses the language we hear throughout the Old Testament: God who smites the enemies of Israel with his “strong arm”

Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.

Something is different here. God appears on the wide way we have prepared with His reward. What is this reward, this recompense, but the very flock He has been shepherding!

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.

And what is he doing with this harvest of sheep? He is feeding them, gathering them in his arms and carrying them in his bosom! What tenderness! What a seeming paradox that the mightiest of all, whose breath can level mountains, is to be found in heaven doing that which he loves the most: tending his flock of souls.

Historiated “A” depicting Christ the Good Shepherd from French manuscript (1525) | public domain, image from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Let’s consider the foretaste of heaven we have on earth in the liturgy. As we approach the Mass and the Holy Eucharist, let us remember that Christ’s great sacrifice was one where he carried us in his bosom all the way to the Cross and beyond. He came to earth to physically enact the work of the Good Shepherd, giving us our redemption, salvation, and a peek at the very heart of God.

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