In July 2011, our brother Tom and I spent a few days in Rome. In many ways, the highlight of our visit was the pilgrimage we made, deep underground, into the Christian catacombs. I remember it was a very hot day, but as we walked down and down, through the intricate labyrinth of tunnels, the temperature plummeted. I remember shivering with cold, but also with awe. We were on holy ground, for on each side of the tunnels were recesses for burial chambers. Here, in the very first centuries after Christ, Christians buried their dead. As my eyes slowly got used to the dim light I began to see that the walls were covered with a plethora of beautiful colored frescoes.In this place of the dead, these frescoes depicted hope – the hope of the resurrection. Rome was still a pagan city and those first Christians had to be careful. So the iconography was not too overt. There are no crosses. The most popular image of all, the one which conveyed most comfort and hope, is the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
We were in the Catacomb of Priscilla, and there is a particularly beautiful and famous image there, and I remember it took my breath away when I first saw it. There is Jesus, as a young shepherd, carrying his lost sheep on his shoulders – and there are two other sheep looking on in rapt attention. Here is Jesus, who has come looking for the lost, rescues them, and brings them safely home. So, those early Christians buried in the catacombs believed that when they died, Jesus would gently carry them on his shoulders, safely home to heaven.
The parable of the lost sheep we’ve just read is full of tenderness. We sense just how much the shepherd loves and cherishes each one of his sheep – so much so, that when one of his sheep gets lost, he goes looking for it, and never gives up until he finds it. And the joy he feels when he finds it. He brings it home gently carrying it on his shoulders and says to all his friends, “I’ve found my sheep! Come rejoice with me!”
I think probably, of all the things that I have learned about God in my life, the most life-changing is the realization that throughout my life God has been looking for me – and he’s never given up! I haven’t always known that. I’ve often felt that it was me seeking God, longing for God. But I now believe that my seeking after God is actually a response to the God who has been seeking me, from the day I was born. St. John, in his first letter (Ch 4:19) puts it like this: “We love because God first loved us.” Theologians call that “prevenient grace.” I think I prefer “amazing grace.”
God is the shepherd who comes looking for his beloved until he finds them. God is the father who saw his son, while he was still far off, and filled with compassion, ran up to him, put his arms around him, and kissed him. “My son was dead, and has come to life: he was lost and has been found. Come and rejoice with me!” There is something wonderful – but also frankly sometimes scary – that God comes down to find us. And God doesn’t wait to be found! He comes looking for us.
There is a beautiful Christmas antiphon from the Wisdom of Solomon that says, “While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, your almighty Word leapt down from heaven from your royal throne.” Because God loves us, delights in us, and longs to find us and bring us home. As Psalm 18 puts it lyrically, “I love you O Lord my strength, my rock, in whom I put my trust. You brought me out into an open place, you rescued me, because you delighted in me.” However much we may try to run away from God’s love, escape God’s quick-eyed love, God never gives up. “I stood there, saved, surprised to be loved,” wrote C. S. Lewis.
To know that God is always drawing near to us, longing to catch our attention, that God is always seeking us, that our movement toward God is always a response to the God who calls first, can transform our prayers. For a long time, my prayer was about me trying to get God’s attention – saying the right words, getting in the right position, and hoping to get some kind of response from God. But what if prayer is not our trying to get a conversation going with God, but actually continuing a conversation which God has already begun! That can be transformative.
In the corner of my cell I have a prayer corner, with an icon, candle and chair. At one stage in my life I would wonder – how am I going to pray today? Now, I pause at the threshold, knowing that God is already there, waiting for me, inviting me in – because he delights in me.
The image of Jesus the good shepherd, found all over the catacombs, is one you may like to have in the place where you pray. As you pray with it, perhaps reflect on your own life. Have you experienced God coming looking for you? Or, have you had a time in your life where you were running away from God? “Leave me alone, God. What I hear you calling me to do or be, is just too hard, too frightening. I’m OK just as I am.”
Or maybe at one time in your life you’ve been lost. You’ve made bad choices, been in a far country like the prodigal son. Do you know what it is to have been found, rescued? “I stood there, saved, surprised to be loved.” If you are feeling rather lost right now, come to Jesus, receive him in bread and wine and ask him to rescue you, and carry you home.
Wherever you are in your life of faith, give thanks. Give thanks for that love divine which came down to seek us and find us. Give thanks for that amazing grace, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has rescued us, and brought us home, where we shall rest secure with God forever.
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