From you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, January 5, 2014 - 9:30am

 

 

 

I was very fortunate just a few days ago to find myself standing in the Catacombs of St Callixtus, on the outskirts of Rome. Unlike the many vast and imposing basilicas to be found within the walls of the city, there were no great vaulted ceilings here, or towering columns. What little decoration existed was on a very human scale- small images etched into the clay walls, and hasty frescos painted on drying plaster. And yet the place possessed a power that was not found in any of the other more prominent shrines.

 

For here, to these deep and narrow tunnels outside the city walls, hundreds of feet down, in the earliest centuries of the Christian church, the faithful were brought for burial, and here their bodies lay sealed in the clay walls awaiting the day of resurrection. Parents and children, popes and martyrs lay together in their thousands. Generations of Christians came here to be close to those who had gone before them in faith. To pray surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. In times of persecution they would gather here for worship. Here Pope Sixtus (after whom the Sistine Chapel is named) was martyred by roman soldiers as he celebrated the eucharist, and here the relics of St Cecilia were laid to rest. It is awesome to stand there, in the dark obscurity of the earth, and feel connected to the courage and sacrifice of those who have gone before us in faith.

 

And there on the walls, we find some of the earliest representations of Christ. But not, as we have come to expect, of Christ Crucified. Here we find a youthful beardless Jesus, bearing on his shoulders a sheep. Here he is Christ the Good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. Who goes ahead of his sheep, leading them to green pastures. He is the one who will shepherd his people Israel.

 

Today as we gather to celebrate Epiphany, and remember the Magi visiting the infant Christ, this image of the shepherd is a useful one to bear in mind. The shepherd was the ancient model of Kingship for Israel, and it was clearly in that sense that both Herod and the Magi responded to the star that led them to Bethlehem. Herod with violent terror at a challenge to his authority; the Magi with costly regal gifts.

 

How, I wonder, did they feel when they came face to face with this child in its humble surroundings, and paid him homage? Did they shrug and say to themselves that future kings have been found in stranger places? Did they shuffle awkwardly to their knees as they presented their gifts? Did they feel as they did so that there was something indefinably special about this little child, oblivious to the gold, frankincense and myrrh that sat around him.

 

Perhaps they never grasped the full significance of what they had done. Because only afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, do we recognise them as the first of many signs that this child was the bringer of a salvation that extended far beyond his own place and people. These foreign strangers were the first outsiders to be drawn into the loving worship of Christ.

At Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as a saviour For All. A shepherd to all who hear, and recognise, and follow his voice. A shepherd to his people Israel, most certainly, but his is a new and unexpected Israel whose borders have been extended to all who by faith receive him, and are gathered by baptism into his flock.

 

Because of this there is a beautiful unity, a mystical oneness, among the Holy People of God. We are one not only with one another, but with every Christian the world over, with every saint who ever was or ever will be. Just as the early Christians gathered for communion in the catacombs, likewise we gather here to receive the body and blood of Christ surrounded by those who have gone before us, and we do so because we know that whatever distinctions we make amongst ourselves of race or language, background or gender, they are meaningless in the face of a Love which scorns our divisions and overthrows our boundaries.

 

When you go home today, I would like to invite you to take with you a piece of chalk that we will bless at the end of the service, and write a short inscription C M B above the door to your home. This is an ancient Christian ritual, and the purpose is twofold. First of all it is a symbol of Epiphany itself- a reminder of the Wise men Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and a sign that the love of Christ is extended to all and for all. Secondly it is an invitation for Christ to bless our home: Christus Mansionem Benedicat , recalling the fact that as we welcome others into our home, so we have all been welcomed into the household of faith.