The Fourth Sunday of Easter has been known as Good Shepherd Sunday as long as I can remember, even before the Second Vatican Council. The Gospel for this Sunday always comes from the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus identifies himself as the good or noble shepherd. When the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council presented us with a three cycle lectionary for Sunday Mass, the tenth chapter of the Gospel was split into three parts. Because we are currently in the C Cycle of the Lectionary, we hear the third and last part of chapter ten. Jesus tells us once again that his sheep know his voice and that nothing will ever separate him from his sheep. He goes on to say that because the Father and he are one, the sheep will never be separated from the Father either.
The second reading for this particular Sunday comes from the Book of Revelation. Throughout the Easter Season we have been hearing of various visions seen by the sacred writer as he gazes into the sky. The various constellations of stars come alive for the sacred writer and act out certain scenes from the heavenly court of God. Interestingly enough, today’s reading is about the lamb who is seated on the throne. Commentators tell us that the lamb is the one who was slain and who now is the one who is regaled with honor and glory. So while the Gospel identifies Jesus as the shepherd, this reading identifies Jesus as the lamb. Why the seeming contradiction?
It might be helpful to remember that the Book of Revelation, like all apocalyptic literature, is not about the future so much as it is recalling the experience of the people at the time the book was written. We know that the Christian community of this time was undergoing the trial of the Roman persecutions. Many Christians were martyred in the Great Circus of Rome. The first persecution was at the hand of the Emperor Nero who was responsible for the martyrdom of Peter and Paul as well as hundreds of other members of the Christian community of Rome. Imagine the terror and fright under which these people lived as they became playthings of the emperor to be used to entertain the Roman mob. The seer who writes the Book of Revelation is living in exile as a result of a later persecution. He has been exiled because of his faith.
By placing these two readings side by side, we are reminded that while emperors may kill and maim, no one can destroy the eternal life won for us by Jesus who, like the Paschal lamb of the Book of Exodus, protects us by shedding his own blood for our sake. The shepherd becomes the lamb so that we can be washed and preserved by his blood. Because of his sacrifice, the lamb has been placed on the throne of heaven. The martyrs are gathered round that throne and sing the praises of the lamb who was slain.
In certain parts of our world, Christians are once again being slain because of their faith. Just as our ancestors found their salvation in Jesus, we too look forward to the day when we will gather around the throne of the lamb to sing the praises of the one who has saved us by his blood. He is, indeed, a noble shepherd.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator