In the liturgy for the fourth Sunday of Eastertide the Church presents us with the powerful and appealing image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. A common and very ancient way in which Christ as the Good Shepherd is depicted in Christian art is that of Christ carrying a sheep on His shoulders, holding its legs firmly with His hands. It is an image full of reassurance; one that promises safety and security; one that tells us to rely totally on Christ, just the sheep is totally supported by Him. As Christ promises His hearers in the Gospel, ‘I shall give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.’ (John 10:27) ‘No one shall snatch them out of my hand.’ Christ the Good Shepherd holds on to His sheep very tightly indeed!
Christ, as the Good Shepherd, identifies the sheep of His flock as those who hear his voice and follow him. There is a definite order in these two ideas. It is only if we learn to listen to and hear His voice that we can recognise Jesus of Nazareth as the Good Shepherd, who offers us the surety of eternal life. We need to listen to the voice of Christ as we find it in the word of the Bible and the liturgies, as we find it speaking to us in the daily business of our working and domestic lives. Only by such listening and by reflecting on the significance of what we hear will our minds be raised to see the truth of what Christ tells us and our hearts be moved to follow Him and to shape our lives in conformity with His will. In like manner, in Christ’s resurrection appearances the disciples only come to recognise that Christ is truly risen and present with them when they become able to listen and hear His voice, as Mary Magdalene hears the voice of Christ calling her name and as the disciples on the way to Emmaus hear His voice explaining the scriptures to them.
We live today in a culture of mass information, in which there are so many different voices wanting us to listen to them and to respond to them. We live in an ‘online’ age, in which we are bombarded by invitations to explore websites, by demands to respond to emails, requests to enter chat rooms, and by enticing adverts flashing up on our screens. In a recent book by Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012), the author draws our attention to a telling and challenging comment made some time ago by the economist and cognitive scientist Herbert Simon:
In such an information rich age the wealth of information means a dearth of something else, a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What it consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (‘Designing Organizations for an Information Rich World’, 1971).
The sheer mass of information with which we are confronted on a daily basis competes for our attention, distracts us from focussing on anything for very long or very well and quickly uses up our reserves of attention completely.
So, in our contemporary culture the danger is that the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd can easily become submerged and excluded by the many other voices that compete with each and for our attention. Such a melee of voices makes it difficult for us to listen to Christ at all. So, if Christ’s word is to have any chance of sinking into our minds and hearts to the extent that we do recognise His voice and are motivated to follow Him by committing our lives to Him, then we have to discipline our minds in the art of attentiveness to His voice.
Such attentiveness can only be cultivated if we create a space in our lives for Christ’s voice to become audible above the hubbub of all the other voices. In effect, the art of such attentiveness is nothing other than the art of prayerful meditation as recommended and practised by the Church throughout the centuries, whereby we make a conscious effort to focus our thoughts, imaginations and emotions on Christ, His person, His life and His teaching, so that reasons and desires to follow Him are awoken in our minds and hearts. We certainly need to set some special time aside this, if we are to make progress. But we can also make the effort to relate our faith to the life of our homes and workplaces, to meditate on what Christ might be asking us to do and how Christ might be made more present in the ordinary events and amid all the other distractions.
And one good reminder for us to practice the art of attentiveness to the voice of Christ is indeed to have a picture of Christ the Good Shepherd somewhere nearby, holding on his sheep so very tight!