A couple of weeks ago, as you know, I was with 45 friends and parishioners travelling through Ireland. Much of that island is open land and rolling hills, and the peat – ahh, the peat! As we bussed through the countryside, we saw many fields of cows and not a few sheep. In fact, in the west, no matter where we went, there were sheep: sheep on the hillsides, sheep on top of mountains, sheep next to streams, and sheep on the roads. Sheep everywhere. What I never saw was a shepherd – nowhere.
We were told that the sheep were left out to graze wherever for a few days at a time, and every few days the shepherd would come and round up his flock to water them and check on them. However, this went in the face of my long-held notion of the sheep with their shepherd nearby, sleeping together, and trapesing hither and yon o’er the green fields that echoed with the cheerful bleating.
Instead, the regular life of a sheep is one that needs wandering. It’s part of their nature. When it is time to gather them, the shepherd knows his sheep by the colored marks that he puts on his own.
We hear a lot about sheep this weekend. Our First Reading that God Himself will “gather the remnant of [His] flock,” and that He Himself “will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing.” God is reminding Israel that He is their true and only Shepherd, and that no matter how far they wander, He can and will gather them again.
The psalm is the familiar Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd.” Again, we must remember that no matter where we the sheep find ourselves, God will always be that loving shepherd who seeks us out, brings us home, and keeps us safe. Here, we have a home where we are nourished and nurtured, after we have wandered the hills of our world – of our daily lives. God gathers us again, here.
Finally, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise through Jeremiah in the coming of Jesus. Like God the Father, Jesus sees His people as sheep in need of the Shepherd they have so long been without. “He was moved with pity for them,” and He took care of them all, like a shepherd feeding his flock.
God’s message to us this weekend is one that is meant to remind us of our relationship with Him. We are His sheep, the flock of the Lord. Like the sheep I saw in Ireland, we wander – in fact, we need to wander – it’s part of our job as sheep. It is what Jesus did when He sent His disciples out. Our role as Christians, as Catholics, is to be “out there,” where we live, work, study, and play. As baptized faithful, we graze in the fields of the world and share our mark with others. It is called an “apostolate.”
Good shepherds recognize this. Good shepherds cannot sit here in the pen and wait for the sheep to wander back. They must seek out the sheep and guide them home; but they must also nourish and nurture them so that they can go back out. Like the many sheep I saw, we too are marked – with the mark of Christ. We cannot hide that mark, and we should always seek to share that identity with others – to have them be part of that flock as well.
Often, we worry about those who “stray” – and we should. However, we are the ones who are out there where they are straying. It is up to us, as Jesus sends each one of us – to wander with them in order to guide them toward the Good Shepherd. In Him, they can see that He has everything they seek, everything they need.
Most of the time, the shepherd is not visible to the world. However, the sheep are. We are the ones who bear that mark and heed the voice of the true Shepherd. Together, as we wander, we can gather the flock together in Christ, who came and “preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”