Late third or early fourth century marble sculpture. Housed in the Vatican City Museums.
Probably NOT a depiction of the person of Jesus but a metaphor for the shepherding
ministry of Christ.
Carried and Held
During the present time when social life has been seriously truncated, I have been reflecting upon my childhood memories, spanning periods in Northern Ireland, Wales, Sussex and Kent. One thing I have learned from this exercise is that otherwise ‘hidden’ memories can surface, feed into our present and illuminate something of our emergence as a person. Paradoxically, we may not ‘grow up’ as much as we think, but just get older! The child we were never truly leaves us.
Boyhood in Rye offered many happy hours exploring the expansive, often bleak and windy , marshes of Walland and Romney.
On one trek, after a couple of days of heavy snowfall, my friends and I encountered a lone shepherd trudging wearily through the snow, carrying a young sheep across his shoulders, its legs clamped firmly in the rescuer’s hands, exactly like in the above picture. The small distressed animal could have been at least half-buried and very cold, if not frozen, when found. From time to time it struggled but the
shepherd’s grasp was as tight as a vice. About four years later I was to encounter the idea of a God who HOLDS and CARRIES, a concept that predates Christianity and is a key Old Testament theme :-
“ He tends his flock, like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
And carries them close to his heart.” Isaiah 40 v11
Christ, of course, personifies this concept of “The Good Shepherd”. Interestingly, there seem to be no images in ancient art of the person of Jesus until around the mid-third century, and then rarely. There was a reluctance to portray Jesus/Christ artistically.
This is probably due to the Jewish origins of the Faith, and reflects a concern not to risk producing a ‘graven image’. However, early Christian art did portray the spiritual ministries of the Lord, and Divine Shepherding was a favourite depiction. There are examples originating from the Catacombs in ancient Rome. It must have been of great comfort to Roman Christians, living in difficult times, to
believe that God holds and carries us, even across that great
boundary that separates earthly life from the beyond. It was a
particular comfort for parents whose children died young, a very common occurrence in those times. The image of a shepherd carrying a young lamb was therefore a frequent choice of image on memorial stones of children. To trust that Jesus carries a beloved child safely into the presence of God is a great comfort.
But it is much easier to routinely speak of an ever-present God, as one who both holds us and carries us in all seasons of life, than it is to fully incorporate it into our perception of living. Yet, without it, our understanding of a loving God is reduced to either a mere product of the mind or, at best, a fickle deity who is sometimes absent and appears not to see or care. In short, a God who can be very close at times can also appear to be very distant. For all of us, this thing we call ‘faith’, and its sister ‘trust’, has to sometimes operate in the context of apparent silence, invisibility and puzzlement.
In many ways, to truly believe that God holds and carries us throughout this life, and beyond, is the ultimate act of faith.
Sometimes, people do abandon their Faith in God when, in very difficult times, God appears to be absent. Frequently they later rediscover that Faith, but not always. It has to be said that, for all of us, there are times when it is hard to feel that God is really present in particular situations. In such times, only sheer belief in the existence of what we cannot see or feel, is the delicate but golden cord that links us to God. But it is not blind faith – it is reasoned faith. Put simply, because of what God has been to us in past times, we can exercise trust when our journey takes us into a tunnel that obscures
the normal reference points that we have come to know and treasure. Despite the assertions of most atheists, belief in the existence of a loving God is objective as well as subjective, and does have a personal evidence base. It cannot be ‘scientific’ in the normal sense of the word, but it carries its own valid internal evidences, both personal and emotional. Simone Weil, the young French philosopher/theologian, who lived her short life in tumultuous times, dying in Ashford in 1943, has offered two paradoxes to tease our minds :-
“ God is never closer than when he seems to be absent”
“ God could create only by hiding himself.
Otherwise there would be nothing but himself”
Frequent walks along Tankerton seafront gift me a living parable. Usually I can clearly see the windmill generators on the horizon, but occasionally the mist descends and they cannot be seen at all. If I was a first-time visitor I would have absolutely no knowledge of their existence. It is the memory of previous sighting of the windmills that assures me of their hidden presence. Likewise, the memory of Divine presence and grace enables us to trust in God’s closeness when he seems to be hidden, especially in difficult times.
SO, perhaps a fruitful spiritual exercise in these strange days would be to reflect upon, and give thanks for, our past times when God seemed close and easy to discern.
We might also usefully bring to mind those times when God appeared to be hidden, but our backward glance suggests that there was indeed a gracious carrying and holding. God has to be for all of life’s seasons, or is not God at all.
Terry Rees , January 2021.