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Scripture Reflection for Sunday, April 21

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter:

Acts 4:8-12
Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29
1 john 3:1-2
john 10:11-18

Throughout 2,000 years of Christian history, artistic expressions of faith can always be found.

From the rustic art of the early Roman catacombs to the monumental Byzantine Romanesque basilicas to the soaring Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, to the artistic torrent of the Renaissance and Baroque, the truths of Christian faith through the ages have taken the form of the beautiful in countless masterpieces of sacred art, sacred architecture and sacred music.

For the first Christians, the cross of Jesus was a stark reminder of a cruel, inhuman form of torture and death reserved for criminals and enemies of the Roman empire. So how did the early Church begin to visualize the meaning of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection?

The Gospel image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, described by Jesus himself in the Gospel reading on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, attracted the first Christians. In fact, one of the earliest artistic depictions of Jesus is a third-century fresco discovered in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla that portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

He is shown as a simple, yet robust shepherd who carries one lost sheep on his shoulders, while other sheep stand close to their master. For the first Christians, the Gospel image of Jesus the Good Shepherd summed up faith in Jesus as the Son of God who rescues from the power of sin and restores humanity to friendship with God.

This Sunday’s Gospel most likely inspired the early Christians who painted Jesus the Good Shepherd on the walls of the ancient catacombs. In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus invites his disciples – and us – to experience his loving mercy as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. As a shepherd, Jesus remains close to his sheep, sharing in their daily life with love and tenderness.

Jesus also warns his disciples against shepherds who are not to be trusted. Those who are hired hands, working for pay, and whose only interest is their own well-being and self-preservation are to be avoided. At the first signs of danger, such false shepherds abandon the flock to wolves, who eventually scatter or kill the helpless sheep.

Jesus desires to stay close to his flock, whom he longs to rescue from the grip of self-love, alienation and even despair. He was willing to carry out God’s saving plan with his very life. So Jesus says, “I will lay down my life for my sheep … they will hear my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

As the Easter season unfolds, may we encounter Jesus the Good Shepherd as the one sent by God to lead us to the loving mercy of God within the community of his body, the Church. In these Easter days, may we encounter in Jesus the Good Shepherd the divine care, providential protection and daily guidance we seek, as we pray in faith, “Speak to me, Lord.”

Question: How do you encounter Jesus as the Good Shepherd?

Jem Sullivan holds a doctorate in religious education and is an associate professor of Catechetics in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.