For a goodly number of centuries the historians of art had very few examples of Christian art during the first three centuries of the Church’s existence. Some suggested that the early Christians had retained the Jewish prohibition against making images of people and animals—others just assumed that it was too risky to make and display distinctively Christian art during those centuries of persecution. Indeed, we do know that as soon as Christianity became legal, and the Emperor Constantine became Its patron, all sorts of Christian art came to be produced—not only paintings, but sculpture and mosaic works as well. It was only in the year 1578, on the last day of May, a day traditionally set aside in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that one of the catacombs (in the Via Salaria) of Rome was accidentally opened, and the ancient burial grounds of the persecuted Romans became known to modern man and to modern archeology.
The catacombs, as you may know, were long, underground, tunnels in which the Romans buried their dead. By Roman law, all burial grounds were places of sanctuary, where soldiers would not go to arrest anyone, even at the height of the persecutions. What the archeologists found in them was a huge collection of early Christian art—paintings on the walls, carvings on the stone coffins or sarcophagi, and even statuary where the tightly packed corridors would allow it. The Christian burial sites were not very different from their Pagan counterparts, except that the images were reflections of the Catholic Faith. There were scenes from the Old testament and even a few from Pagan mythology, when these could be interpreted as being forerunners of the kingdom of Christ. There were, of course, scenes from the New Testament, featuring our Lord in the company of the Apostles or the others of the saints—scenes depicting the multiplication of loaves, or the wedding feast at Cana, and, certainly, the resurrection of Lazarus.
But, by far, the most common image of these early Christian burial grounds was the image of the Good Shepherd. It was the image of Christ as we read about Him in this morning’s Gospel: perhaps working to free a lost sheep from the brambles in which it had gotten caught; perhaps with a lamb on the back of his neck, holding all four legs with one hand as he climbed up the side of a ravine with the other hand; perhaps it was an image of our Lord returning triumphantly with the lost sheep to the place where the other ninety-nine waited.
There was no more comforting image than that of the Christ, who proclaimed Himself “the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep.” There is nothing more reassuring than the knowledge that the Good Shepherd will do His best to protect us from that “roaring lion,” which Saint Peter tells us, “goes about seeking someone to devour.”
But the image of the Good Shepherd is more than just one of earthly protection. When we Christians bury our dead—either in the catacombs of two thousand years ago, or in the cemeteries and mausoleums of the twenty-first century—we are always concerned with state of our loved one’s soul at the time his death. Did he go to meet his Maker in the state of grace, or did that “roaring lion” have an opportunity to “devour” yet another soul? It is, therefore, a very comforting thing to recognize that the Good Shepherd does far more than what we might expect in strict mercy and justice. He makes a special effort on behalf of those in danger of being lost in eternity, even if they have done nothing to deserve it, and even if, in some sense, it means paying less attention to those not in danger.
Our Lord was anxious that we understand this concept. To be sure that we understood what He was saying, He repeated the parable in a completely different setting. Lest we be mislead into thinking that He was concerned with barnyard animals, rather than human souls, He gave us the second parable of the woman searching for the lost coin. And He goes on to conclude with the clear meaning of all this: “There will be joy among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
That joy is comforting to those of us who have lost loved ones—particularly loved ones who were not always all that enthusiastic in the practice of the Faith. But that joy of God and His angels should also speak to us personally about the way in which we live our own lives. It ought to prompt us to set aside our sinful habits and inclinations, replacing them with practices of holiness. Nothing could make the Good Shepherd happier than to see us give up the unnecessary inclinations of the world for a deeper spiritual life—spending more time in prayer, in spiritual reading, in doing good works, and in more frequent attendance at Mass and the reception of the Sacraments.
Frequent Confession and Holy Communion are obvious ways in which we “lost and straying sheep” can return to the fold. One does not have to be a grave and serious sinner to benefit from Sacramental Confession. It is certainly better that we make a number of small trips to return to the fullness of God’s grace, instead of always expecting Him to find and return us from deep inside the desert of sin—that would be tempting God, presuming on His mercy, and gambling with our eternal salvation. And, it goes without saying that once we are in the state of grace, we ought to strengthen it with frequent Holy Communion—“there is joy among the angels of heaven” each time we make the effort to get out of bed early and begin our day by assisting at Holy Mass.
Finally, this parable of the lost sheep must remind us to pray for the conversion of sinners—not just ourselves and our loved ones, but for all those who refuse God and the ministrations of the Good Shepherd through His Church. That must include those who can be expected to know our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those who have never heard His name. The relativism of the past few decades, about which Cardinal Ratzinger lamented just before his election as Pope, has done terrible damage to the Church’s effort to bring the Faith to non-believers near and far. Perhaps none of us will be missionaries in the formal sense, but our prayers will go a long way toward that end—and our example may even make a few converts closer to home.
There is great joy in heaven over those who repent. We can pray for the departed souls, that the Good Shepherd was able to make whatever effort was necessary to preserve them from the “roaring lion,” the devil. We can pray for those who reject Jesus Christ, or who do not even know Him at all; giving them the benefit of our good example. But the easiest thing to do—the one over which we have the most control—is to look to the state of our own soul; the frequency of our Confessions and Communions, and our prayers, and our good works, and all the things necessary for our salvation.
Why not make the angels in heaven happy today?!