When I was a kid I learnt an extremely important thing: that chasing sheep through paddocks on the back of a Yamaha 4-wheeler with nothing holding me except my hands was some of the most fun you can ever have. Once a year our family would go and stay with friends of ours on a farm. We chased sheep on the farm not because it was fun itself, but because we would help our friend and his very clever dogs round up his big flocks of sheep: because our friend was in a particular way like Jesus, and also like all Catholic priests – he was a shepherd.
It’s a strange image when we think about it: of all the majestic images he could use, why does God decide to settle for a sheep farmer? It’s because of something Jesus says of the Good Shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep: And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. This is part of what makes the Christian life far more marvellous than any other lifestyle. Now those of us who have suffered, which is all of us, can be a bit surprised by that: where was God in our loneliness and suffering? This image offers us answer: when things were good, we could see him in front – and when things were bad, we couldn’t see him – because he carried us on his shoulders.
There is a second thing this carrying on the shoulders tells us about God: that he lays down his life for us. That’s what Jesus says. Whereas those obsessed with ideology and power are not interested in the life of the flock, but only come to take for themselves, Jesus comes to carry us with all his strength. That’s what he says: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full. He loves us so much that he carries us so that the wolves and thieves are mainly only able to attack him, not us . That’s what we saw in Holy Week. Those lashes on his back, that crown of thorns, that humiliation and crucifixion and dark abandonment is meant for us: but he bore most of that for us.
There is a third thing this image tells us: carrying us tells us he knows us intimately – only people who know us intimately can carry us, like the wife who is carried over the threshold by her husband, or the baby by their parents. As Jesus tells us, I know my sheep. And Jesus truly knows us in a way which is almost scary: he is the author of every heart and every muscle and every element of our atomic structure. We cannot hide from Jesus – there is nothing we have done or thought that he has not seen. When he sees us after death, he knows who is his sheep, and who is not.
This brings us to the last point about this image: I know my sheep and my own know me… they do not recognise the voice of strangers. Jesus can only carry us on his shoulders if we let him, and we can only recognise his voice if we listen to it. This is the importance of unity with the Church and of daily prayer. Unity with the Church is crucial because, as Jesus teaches us again and again and again in the bible, the Church is his own body. Nothing we do or think can save us: it is only our membership of the Church, the body of Christ which saves us because only Jesus can save us. And prayer is important because without prayer we do not know the voice of Jesus. When we think about prayer, we think of it talking to God. Prayer is mainly not this. True prayer is mainly spending time in silence with Jesus: listening to what he tells us about right and wrong and the meaning of life, and being formed by him.