Image: Reindeer Crossing near Inuvik (photographer; Eric from Inuvik)
In today’s readings we see the imagery of sheep and shepherds; Jesus is the gatekeeper who keeps the thieves away from the flock, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who watches over the flock and, in the letter of Peter, we are compared to sheep that have gone astray. The images are about a protector coming to the aid of the vulnerable in order to provide comfort, care and security.
There are not any flocks of sheep that I am aware of in our diocese but we do have reindeer. Back in the 1900’s, when the caribou population was declining the government began a program by which Reindeer from Norway were introduced into the area around Inuvik. The Sami people of Norway taught the Inuvialuit people of Canada how to care for the herd in order to make it flourish.
The role of the herder whether it be reindeer or sheep is the same. First of all, it is not a job, it is a vocation, usually passed down through families, that takes up one’s whole life. It involves rough conditions and total dedication to the animals. It is protecting the flock from predators, finding good ground for feeding and providing care when it comes time for giving birth so that the flock or herd might grow and be healthy.
The letter of Peter reminds us that Christ offered himself for us like a Good Shepherd in all these things. He suffered for us even to the point of giving his life so that we might be saved from our own sinfulness. Jesus offers us his own body and blood to nourish us with spiritual food and in baptism we are reborn in the Spirit so that we will not be lost from the flock.
We are used to this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and it is one which is comforting. That is why the picture of the Good Shepherd can be found in so many Christian homes and why Psalm 23 is most often requested at Masses for the dead. But there is more to the image of the Good Shepherd than just our comfort.
If we take the metaphor to its natural conclusion, we have to ask ourselves why there is a flock in the first place. The reindeer were introduced into the Arctic because people were starving. The herder protected the herd and made sure they increased in number so that people could be fed. As a member of Christ’s flock, we are nurtured so that we might be life for others.
We are called to follow the example of the Shepherd who gives everything so that we might live. We are to open the gates and welcome people in, we are called to go after those who are lost and to welcome them in to the fold and ultimately we must offer our lives in service so that those who are hungry will be nourished by the Good News.