The Good Shepherd
As I am learning more and more how to be present in our current unusual time of quarantine, I have found it comforting to reach back into the past and think about ancient Christian traditions and images. There is much about Christian actions and interpretations from the past that should be critically examined, interrogated, and even discarded, but there is also much that I believe can be claimed today and that can help connect us to life-giving pillars of our faith.
Perhaps some of you know that some of the earliest Christian visual art known to exist is at the Yale University Art Gallery, just down the road. The images were painted on the walls at the earliest identified Christian house church that was excavated at a site called Dura Europos, in present-day Syria. The paintings are dated to around 230 CE. In the course of their excavation and removal the images were not as well-preserved as they could be, but we are able to see paintings representing several Biblical stories like Adam and Eve, Jesus healing a paralytic, Peter walking on water to meet Jesus, the three Marys visiting Jesus’s empty tomb, and a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. You can see here both an image showing the wall painting as it exists now and a detail image showing Jesus carrying a sheep or a lamb around his shoulders.
What feelings and thoughts come up for you when you think of shepherding? Perhaps you think of those family members, friends, mentors, and ministers who have shepherded you through the years, and maybe you think about who you might be currently shepherding. The Biblical images depicting Jesus as a shepherd willing to leave the group of ninety-nine sheep to find the one that has wandered away is a precious image for me, and it helps ground me even more to learn that my early Christian ancestors (living through their own times of turmoil and change) also connected to this image of Jesus.
(If you would like to learn more about Dura Europos, follow this link, and if you would like a quarantine reading project to learn more about Christian art and how it connects to theology, check out Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker).
The Good Shepherd