The Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.
John 10: 24-30
Reflection – It is one of the great mysteries of my life that I seem to end up involved with certain ‘categories’ of people coming to me for spiritual direction, all of whom come to me independently of each other, but who share some basic commonalities. For example, I have three hermits among my directees. That at least makes sense—I am a rather solitary fellow (when I can get away with it, which isn’t often) and love to go to poustinia. There are also certain very specific kinds of psychological disorders whose sufferers seem to sniff me out, of which I will spare you the details.
I also have four iconographers among my directees. Now, this makes no sense to me, as I am the most inartistic, non-visual, ‘wordy’ person you could look for, and nothing will ever change that. But these four people who write the most beautiful icons are among the wee flock God has entrusted to me, and through them I have learned quite a bit about what it means to express the beauty of the Gospel in pigment and form, to preach the Gospel with a paint brush.
All of which is to explain why I currently have on my desk, staring at me as I write this, the most beautiful icon of Christ the Good Shepherd, the same pattern of icon as is on the left sidebar of this blog.
It is a gift from one of these four artists, and I rejoice to have it entrusted to me, at least until it finds a more suitable and public home within Madonna House. But meanwhile, this particular rendition of the icon always brings home to me powerfully the words of Christ in this Gospel passage: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” As you can see from the image here, Christ is holding a lamb over his shoulders, gripping the feet of the animal with his strong hands.
What I love in the icon my directee wrote for me is that he is gripping the lamb so tightly that the whites of his knuckles are showing, that his hands are taut with the intensity of his grip. And the lamb rests on the shoulders of Christ, totally relaxed, totally limp, and has (at least to my eyes) the littlest of smiles on his ovine face.
Of course all this is not about icons or lambs, but about Christ and you, Christ and me. Nobody catch snatch a sheep of God out of the hands of Jesus—this is the crucial thing. There is nothing stronger than Jesus in this world, and if Jesus is holding onto us and we do not consciously reject that holding, nothing can snatch us away from him.
This means that, so long as we stay as close in to Jesus as we can, we are safe. Utterly, sublimely, supremely safe in this world. This is the fundamental message of all the Good Shepherd imagery in the Bible, in the preaching of Jesus in particular. We have a Shepherd, and he’s a Good one. There is a fundamental state of being OK, even in the midst of the chaos and confusion, physical danger and moral turmoil of life in the world as it is. It is Jesus who guards us, Jesus who guides us, Jesus who helps us, Jesus who feeds us, Jesus who fights off the enemies who assail us, Jesus who holds us close to his own being at all times.
This is why at the heart of all prayer, of all spiritual life, is the name of Jesus and the constant calling upon that name. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ It may not always exactly bear that precise form, but the Jesus prayer is at the heart of all Christian prayer, because our living and constant communion with Jesus is the heart of all Christianity, all Christian life.
There is, in a sense, nothing else. Or rather, everything else: life in the Church, the moral life, the apostolic life each of us is called to, our vocations, and all the variations on all those themes, all of it flows from, flows towards, and ultimately comes to rest in and is held secure by this reality that we are mere little lambs lying across the shoulders of Christ who bears us through this world and holds us fast in his grip. Nothing can snatch us from his hands, so we will never, can never, shall never perish, but live in the Father’s heart forever.