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On Faith: The good shepherd of comfort and discomfort

May 04, 2012|By Msgr. Wilbur Davis

A framed image of Jesus, presented as the Good Shepherd, hung from the wall of my childhood bedroom. He stood in a verdant pasture, staff in hand, lovingly providing for and sheltering the sheep of his flock gathered around him.

That picture shaped my sense of who Jesus is, of who God is.

For me, a long-time parish priest, that biblical image continues to be my tutor, providing form and direction to what, I believe, should be the role and character of a Christian pastor. It is, as well, an instructive image for all Christians.

For religious Jews and Muslims, God exceeds all possibility of definition or imaging. As a result, they do not permit images of the divine.

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For them, squeezing infinity into the human person who is Jesus is positing the impossible. Many Christians who visit a synagogue, temple or mosque, experience the space as being somewhat empty for its contrasting absence of images, unlike traditional Christian churches replete with statues and paintings.

But that design decision is totally consistent and understandable.

We Christians choose an image-filled path for our spiritual nourishment, though it is not without difficulties. In our imagination we tend to limit God to several images of our choosing, thus imposing our limited definition on God who is beyond definition.

My preferred image of God as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is fully legitimate, but by itself incomplete. I must give hospitality to all the other biblical images, including those I might not particularly welcome.

Even with a full portfolio of images I cannot fully describe and contain God. We come back to the immensity of God and the consequent impossibility of confining God within our chosen assemblage of images.

The Jewish Scriptures provide so many rich images of God that are not easily reconciled, thus inclining the unthoughtful person to rapid dismissal. The serious reader, however, is called to attentive study and prayerful reflection on those sacred texts.

Surely at funerals and many other occasions, people inside and outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been consoled by the delicate beauty of the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose."

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