A message from Father Nick 7 

“Good Shepherd Sunday”

Among the monuments and relics of Ancient Rome the catacombs have a special place in our affection. Hollowed from the area’s tufa rock, these were the burial places of Rome’s early Christians. There are Jewish catacombs too, but visiting such sites was not a Jewish practice. For followers of Christ they quite simply held messages for life.

This was partly in the understanding of those long, high corridors, which kept on growing as generations of believers were laid to rest in expectation of the glory to come. The faith of such people still seems to suffuse the air where they were buried, giving to the catacombs a precious and surprising quality. They never feel like places of death and there is nothing at all depressing about them. On the contrary, they were always regarded as places of waiting.

But they hold another kind of message for us too. In a sense our long tradition of art begins here. We find all kinds of early Christian symbols: palm branches and anchors and fish. We find Old Testament scenes depicting trust in God: the three young men in the fiery furnace, Susannah and the elders, the prophet Jonah… We see early pictures of the mother and child, three wise men hurrying to worship the child, a believer standing with arms up-raised to pray, the Eucharistic banquet.

We never see the crucifixion, though anchor symbols do contain the outline of a cross. Instead, a beardless Christ heals the woman with a haemorrhage, blesses the loaves and fishes, raises the dead, seems to use a staff like Moses to call out Lazarus and work other miracles.  One image recurs in both painting and sculpture. A strong young man (beardless again) stands with his rescued sheep across his shoulder: the “Good Shepherd” is a recurrent motif of early Christian art.

These are all images of life, reflecting Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.” Our first art, like the belief of those first Christians, is utterly positive and joyful. In this particular Easter season, when we are more than ever aware of our mortality, may we draw new inspiration from them, and may it bring us real and lasting hope.