Sofia Cavalletti, the great Catholic catechist, describes the role of the shepherd in the imagination of the young child. In the parable of the Good Shepherd, the child discovers a God who “knows the needs of his sheep … [who] guides them to good pastures, walking ahead of them to show the way and to be the first to confront any danger should it arise.”
The parable of the Good Shepherd immerses the child in a love that is not limited by space or time. Divine love will go to the very ends of the world to protect and care for the beloved.
Despite the fact that many of us are no longer young children, we need to hear of the Good Shepherd’s total love during Easter.
Our Lord in the Gospel of John has prepared a rich banquet for us to feast upon. Addressing his disciples and the Pharisees alike, he gives what seems like a parable.
As evening descends, sheep are rounded up in the field, taken into the security of the sheepfold for the evening. They are guarded by a gatekeeper, who cares for the sheep through the night.
As light dawns, the shepherd comes to gather up the sheep, to call them by their very name: “as [the shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn 10:3).
Yet unlike other parables, Jesus speaks rather directly about how to interpret it: “‘Amen, Amen I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep” (Jn 10:7).
The reader may stop for a moment, wondering, “Jesus, you’re a gate? I would have expected you to have been the shepherd, the one whose voice is to be trusted.”
But in John 10, Jesus reveals himself both as the gate of salvation and the shepherd:
“I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. ... I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11, 14-15).
Jesus is the gate of salvation because through him we enter into the very divine love of God. By believing that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, the way of salvation is opened up for us.
We come to know the Father’s infinite love through the Son.
But the Son is no mere stationary gate, passively waiting for his sheep to enter. In the Gospel of John, we come to see that the shepherd seeks out his sheep upon the wood of the cross: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (12:32).
The gate to our sheepfold is the very love of God made manifest upon the cross. We sheep are drawn by God, wooed by the sweetness of the shepherd’s voice.
This sheepfold is nothing less than the Church herself. The Church is not simply an institution of fallible human beings. The Church is rich in food for us to eat, to chew upon the richness of the Scriptures, to feast upon the body and blood of our Lord.
The Lord is indeed our gate and our shepherd. Let us, like sheep, enter the gate. There, we will discover the very love of God in the Church that protects us from the darkness of sin and death.
And it’s good to be one of Jesus’ sheep. Because he feeds us the choicest of grain: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:54).
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.