I wouldn’t be a Norbertine were I not able to connect seemingly separate devotions, and since we are in the last days of Lent, I thought it would be apt to write a little on the imagery of the Good Shepherd.
At Lauds in Passiontide, we sing the hymn Lustris sex qui jam peractis, which is a very long hymn. In the penultimate verse, we sing (in Latin):
Thou alone wast counted worthy / this world’s ransom to sustain / that a shipwrecked race forever / might a port of refuge gain / with the sacred blood anointed / of the Lamb for sinners slain.
The nautical imagery makes me think – unusually – of the psalm Dominus regit me, which is often translated, The Lord is my Shepherd, but in older Catholic bibles, it is translated The Lord rules me, which is how it is translated from Latin. The word Shepherd comes from the Hebrew original, since that word (not that I’m a Hebrew scholar) can mean Shepherd. Given the pastoral imagery in the rest of the psalm, it seems a harmless way of translating it into English. It reminds me of the quoted verse from Lustris sex qui jam peractis, because, in Hebrew, as well as Shepherd, it also refers to a ship’s pilot, which is Greek is cybernetes (or cyberman), which is where the Latins get their word gubernato, or to govern, or rule, which is how the sense reads in Latin (Dominus regit me, the Lord rules me). Romans had lots of different words for ruling, because they liked ruling people. When in the Church we talk about Pastors or the Pastoral Office of the Church, or being Pastoral, the word actually refers, as it does in this psalm, to Christ the King, a shepherd-king, like King David. Christ is being pastoral when he rules from his wooden throne on Calvary.
This conjures up that paschal image of the Good Shepherd, which was a very popular image of Christ in the ancient Church. We are familiar with images of Christ carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, but I quite like images of the Baby Jesus amongst lambs (as above), as this enables me to think on the Incarnation, as well as Easter, since the two are inseparable.
When God created the universe (however that might have come about physically), he did so, as we say, ex nihilo, or from nothing. Unlike the beliefs of pagans, God did not create from pre-existing matter, or mould the universe from primordial clay. If we think like that, then we just make out God to be a really big and powerful man. But God is not like that: there was nothing before creation, not even time (which is part of creation).
When man sinned, all of creation with implicated in its consequences. We tend to see sin as an infringement of a law: God made a law not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and Adam and Eve broke that law. But sin is not merely breaking law, since to get to the position of disobedience, you need to decide first to be disobedient. Primordially, sin is not something than man does externally, but an internal violation of the order of creation. By that, I mean that Adam and Eve placed themselves in the place of God, and because they are dependent on God, not themselves gods, their very being began to decay: what made them glorious vanished, and they became subject to death. God did not do these things to them: they condemned themselves. Death is not an external punishment of an external sin, but a necessary consequence of an interior decay, since the universe that God created is logical and rational. Sin is so completely all-encompassing, that even man’s very being spirals downward. There are no mitigating circumstances to be considered in a law court: man can do nothing, now, without the help of that which knits together his very being, God, the unifying principle of being itself.
When creation decays, it does not revert back to its pre-created state, back to a primaeval nothing. That implies that pagan clay imagery we mentioned above. But the created being sinks into an even deeper nothingness, since man has lost his internal coherence completely. The consequence of sin is not non-being, but a privation of being, or minus-nothing.
“He fell away from God – in the terrible, literal sense of the word. He fell from genuine being towards nothingness.” (Guardini)
Because man has found himself in this place of minus-nothing, he cannot get himself out, in the same way that man could not have created himself from nothing. How can he now expect to be able to re-create himself from something even less than nothing? Only God can create, and man is in a place of nothing even more deprived than the primaeval nothing from which God created the universe in the first place. How can man expect to be able to climb out of this situation without any help?
Is the help external? Can God throw a rope, by saying from on high: you are forgiven? He could have done that, and saved man by fiat, by word alone. But that would not seem appropriate, since that would be an external cure of an interior malady: it would not be reasonable nor logical to cure in such an absent-minded way. God was going to have to get into this place where man had found himself, and bring him out, on his own shoulders, so to speak.
But there is a problem: God doesn’t have shoulders.
To solve this problem, he himself takes on human nature, that stuff which has been damaged by sin, and he becomes man. An interior cure is needed, and an interior cure is brought about by a man. But this particular man is also God, who has the power to create, that is, to cure the interior sickness interiorly.
“I myself will search for my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34: 11)
This is what is meant by the image of the Good Shepherd. God perceives that his sheep has been lost, so he himself enters the valley of death to look for the sheep, and takes him upon his own shoulders, and brings him back out again.
“God not only glanced down at him an summoned him lovingly to return, he personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him, as St John so powerfully expresses it in his opening Gospel.” (Guardini)
He enters the valley of death by himself dying on the Cross, and he picks up the sheep and brings him out again in his Resurrection and Ascension. What he is doing in the valley of death is bringing about a new creation, but an even greater creation than before: the old creation was created ex nihilo, but the new creation is created by God from within the valley itself, from minus-nothing.
The old creation is a creation by fiat. The new creation is a decisive victory. On Easter Eve next week, we will hear the words, “O happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam that wrought for us so great a redeemer.” What seemed such a loss turned out to be a victory, since, we are subjected to the victory and thus the rule of Christ, redeemed by him and created anew on the Cross: “Behold!” he said from his throne, “I make all things new!” (Rev. 21: 5)
“The same God that formed us in the beginning, in these latter days sought us when we were lost in death, gaining His lost sheep, and laying it on His shoulders and bringing it back with joy to the flock of life.” (St Irenaeus)