To our Christian eyes, this figure of the Good Shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders surely derives from the parable of the lost sheep which is found in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 15:4-5) and, perhaps, also from the token imagery used by Christ in today’s gospel reading. However, the symbolism of the Good Shepherd has many layers. Within the Old Testament it draws on the prophecy that God would send a leader who would shepherd his people. In addition there are passages which speak of God as the shepherd of his people. The image of the shepherd has a strong association also with the hope of an afterlife. From the third century the Good Shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders were placed in Christian burial sites, either painted on the walls, or carved in relief on grave slabs. Such depictions are very common in the catacombs of Rome. However, the appeal of this image is wider than Christianity. In the classical world the shepherd with his sheep symbolised the peace and tranquility of the afterlife and was common in Roman pagan burials. The athletic young man bearing a sheep on his shoulders was used as a votive offering to the god Hermes. No doubt it would have been very convenient for those who produced such images to supply the same image to both pagan and Christian clients!
In Christian burial sites what are obviously symbols of Christ are found. One example is the fish. As is well known this symbol derives from the first letters in Greek of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour” which spell the word for fish in Greek. This suggests that these images of the Good Shepherd were intended as symbols of Christ rather than as images of him. In the context of a Christian burial they speak of Christ’s rescue of the sinner, the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life and the joy of his company heaven.
After the Reformation, the image of the Good Shepherd became popular again but was used polemically by both Catholic and Protestant to distinguish between good and bad shepherds. However, the appeal of this image goes deeper than inter -denominational polemics. Think for example of the widespread use by all Christians of the 23rd Psalm at funerals. In fact, what these ancient burial sites, both Christian and non-Christian, tells us is that when faced with the loss of a loved one, this image of the Good Shepherd speaks to something very deep within us.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.