As we approach Easter, millions of Christians across the world will be celebrating the saving work of the Good Shepherd.
Indeed there is much reason to celebrate and praise the God who does not abandon His Creation in its sorry condition. Rather He leaps to his feet, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue them, all the way to the Cross.
For those who try to follow in Christ’s steps, a fundamental characteristic of a modern-day good shepherd must be to love the flock entrusted to them.
Yet who is in our flock? Traditionally Christians have considered their “brothers” and “sisters” to be fellow humans. Yet is the flock such an exclusive club?
If He whom “through all things were made” (John 1:1) died in order “to reconcile to Himself all things” (Colossians 1:15), then the flock which the Good Shepherd pursues is beyond our traditionally human-centric vision.
St. Francis had a clearer perception of the flock for he understood the divine origin of all creatures and so witnessed to a kinship so often unrealised within Christian culture:
“My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”
St. Francis preached to the animals for he believed, that he as a human, was responsible for caring for them; a shepherd entrusted to feed Christ’s sheep. Yet how can a species as destructive as humanity feed and love Christ’s flock?
Christ suffered the full force of humanity’s cruelty on the Cross and yet was victorious over it. His victory shows us that violence does not have the final say. There is in fact another way to live; the way of love, service and compassion.
As we make a conscious choice to live the way of Christ, we are set free from violence, indifference and brutality. A human community, redeemed in such a way, is set free to re-evaluate its interactions with non-humans. For should not we, who are set free by God’s grace, reflect this grace within our encounters with other species?
For it is within this dynamic of freedom and love that the Hebrews were able to foresee the peaceable Kingdom where the “wolf will lie with the lamb,” where “the lion will eat straw,” where no one anywhere will “hurt or destroy … for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
This hope is not simply a wistful longing but a call to action. Action to say an emphatic “no” to our dominant tradition of indifference and collaboration with violence towards animals.
This vision also reminds us that humanity, responding in grace and freed from bondage to violence, can make a difference. We are free to respond with a “yes” to God’s call to show mercy and compassion to the sheep. For in acting as shepherds to creation, we discover our freedom in the wielding of a crook not a whip.