Sheep, for the most part, are an abstraction to me. I see them in photos and videos from time to time, but as a city dweller, my up-close encounters with them have been limited. (Thanks to some thoughts shared by a friend today, the notion of a Sheep Gate has now taken on an intriguing new depth — see his comments, added to my original blog post, below.)
“Sheep” became a bit less abstract for me last summer though, on a vacation trip to Scotland and Ireland. When you get away from the cities in either country, you find sheep practically everywhere.
You also discover pretty quickly that they’re not the brightest animals God put on the planet.
Heck, the sheep I met last summer tended to make cattle seem like rocket scientists in comparison. Take, for instance, the cows we encountered while rounding the bend on one treacherous hillside road. Under the watchful eye of a bicycle-cowboy, the cattle didn’t need much more than a flexible rod to keep them marching single-file, along the narrow shoulder.
When we encountered THEM in the road, they tended to wander in flocks, all over the place –completely oblivious to the danger of passing vehicles.
Or maybe ‘trusting’ is a better word. Like the recently-shorn animals we visited in a sheepfold near Killybegs: As soon as we strangers wandered into their turf, much of the flock hustled on over towards us…looking to be fed.
All of which makes me scratch my head a bit when I hear what Jesus has to say about sheep in this Sunday’s Gospel passage.
But [sheep] will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.
Perhaps the sheep in 1st century Palestine were better trained—or more skittish—than those you find in Ireland today.
In any event, I find it instructive that the Lord compares the faithful to sheep.
Having met a few sheep last summer, I don’t find the image altogether flattering. Still, there’s a large measure of truth in it, especially when I consider just how easily I can be led astray.
And I find I can take comfort in the image, too.
Like the Pharisees that Jesus was trying teach that day, I may not always ‘realize what he was trying to tell them.’ But I can certainly appreciate the promise the Good Shepherd makes, to everyone in his flock:
I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.
* * *
It turns out there’s quite a bit more to Jesus’ self-description as “Gate” than I realized. Here’s what I learned from a friend, Fr. Mark Dean, O.M.I., in response to my original post:
[I am intrigued, lately] with some reading I’ve been doing about sheep gates.
One of the principle uses of sheep in ancient Israel was that they were the preferred and primary animal of Temple sacrifices. And in the Temple, next to the Sheep Pool, was a gate (the Sheep Gate) through which the lambs to be sacrificed were led into a holding pen, until their time was up. (There must have been a lot of sheep-sacrificing going on, as most people bought their animal at the Temple, being assured that way that their sheep would be found by the Temple priests to be good enough to offer to the Lord.)
For the sheep, this was strictly a one-way gate. Like the Hotel California, they checked in, but never checked out. The Sheep Gate was their entry to death. No sheep ever came out the other way from that gate.
The shepherds themselves did not go through this gate, only the sacrificial animals. They would come around by another way and from above pluck out the lamb to be slaughtered.
John’s Gospel early on, through John the Baptist, identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” This is a description of the lamb used in the Atonement ritual by which Israel was to be cleansed of her sins.
Now in [Sunday’s] gospel we see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who will enter in through the Sheep Gate, for he is also the Lamb to be slaughtered. But this Shepherd will also lead his flock back through the gate, literally from death to life again. Many shepherds have led their lambs to the Sheep Gate to be sacrificed… but none have led through back through the other way.
* * *
Not long after reading Fr. Mark’s comments this morning, I noticed that we — as Church — pray in gratitude for this very grace, this gift, of Christ as “Gate”. It’s right there, in the Collect prayer at the beginning of Mass on Good Shepherd Sunday:
…lead us to a share in the joys of heaven,
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.