The Shepherd on the Cross - Peter Steele
Feast of Christ the King
Outside the chapel at Newman College, Melbourne, by the main entrance and beyond the tall metal gate and a few trees, there is a more-than-life-size figure of Christ. He is done in mild steel, he is pinned high up on a wall of the chapel, and he is gazing out, past trees and gate, towards the city. He might have been put there just for the feast of Christ the Universal King.
In the first of today’s readings, we are reminded that King David, great ancestor of Jesus, was a crowned shepherd. Shepherds were not, in Israel, figures of glamour—in fact, in our Lord’s time, they were not allowed to give witness in court, since the assumption was that under pressure they would lie. They were, shall we say, earthy. But they were also vital figures in the economy, and there was no substitute for them in the work that needed doing. If the shepherd did not look after the sheep, that was the end of the sheep.
It was such a man who was made ‘the shepherd of Israel’. A people in need, turbulent within and beleaguered without, was given the custodian it needed—someone canny, someone earthy, but also someone visionary when it came to the people’s deepest needs. He knew, as we say, more than his prayers. He was, while king, among other things an adulterer and a murderer; but somehow he could himself be shepherded by God back from these black-sheep ways, and resume the care of a people on their way to that same God.
Now remember that Jesus had not read some expurgated version of the scriptures, the legitimating document of his community of faith. He knew far better than we are likely to do the flaws in David’s personality and the blots on his record. And yet, when he speaks of himself as ‘good shepherd’, he aligns himself with his ancestor. He says, in effect, that the truly regal, the truly authoritative thing about him is that, come what may, he will not give up on the sheep. In Jesus’ case, it is the sheep, not the shepherd, that show the flaws; but either way, and for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, he is theirs.
All of us, I suppose, have heard the expression, ‘come hell or high water’. It comes from the American cattle-drives, over so many hundreds of miles, with millions of cattle driven the way. The ‘hell’ refers to the hellish heat that cattle and custodians had to survive together: the ‘high water’ refers to all the rivers that had, at some peril, to be swum.
By the same token, Christ, our shepherd, is in it with us come hell or high water—through whatever personal or shared onerousness comes our way: through the shrivelling of the years, through the afflictive terrors. Most of us have heard ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, principally, I suppose, at funerals: but there he is, our shepherd , in the bright days as in the dark ones—food-giver, drink-provider, as indeed at every Eucharist.
But what has this to do with the figure on the wall? Remember what our gospel passage tells us. There, the one who is labelled, in mockery, ‘King of the Jews’—or, as we might say, ‘Regal Shepherd’—this one is appealed to by someone who is exposed to the hell of crucifixion and the dark, high-mounting waters of death. The bandit or terrorist or freedom-fighter or whoever he was pleads to be shepherded beyond the filth and shame and despair of his appalling situation—and is told by the Shepherd-King that, yes, this will be done. The dying shepherd takes the dying sheep with him, a keeper of faith to the last.
That Lord Jesus on the wall is not some idol, however handsome, pinned as metal to courses of stone: the Lord Jesus truly re-presents himself in the Eucharist to us men and women of flesh and blood. Our company, as we believe, is his company: our food is of his feeding: in the words we hear we catch the note of his voice. Spare another glance at Nickolaus Seffrin’s sculpture, there on the wall. There, the all-but-naked Jesus gazes, night and day, towards the secular bustle of the city and all the vista beyond. He watches, as shepherds must, and at cost to themselves, over a city’s needs and a world’s.
And secondly, he gazes east. He gazes, as both churches and their believing communities are meant to do, towards sunrise, towards resurrection. He is the shepherd on the cross: and he shepherds us to that country where, at last, we shall be able to see every cross as a crook of love.
My crucifix identifies itself with twentieth century man and in general is his image rather than the long-haired somewhat soft and relaxed Christ on the Cross of the holy picture type. The thought behind it is—Christ is still alive: he hangs from the cross and looks straight at us almost accusingly. This could be of all humanity hanging there asking, Was all this necessary? Could we not have done it in a less terrible way? I feel the whole drama of the crucifixion comes more clearly to us if it could be one of us hanging there in this day and age – Nickolaus Seffrin.