And he compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.
The London 2012 Olympic Games are about to start. The torch is making the final part of its long journey from Greece. The stadium is ready and the flags are up. All the nations of the world are converging on London to take part or to watch. There is much talk of the ‘Olympic spirit’ and certainly in modern times the Olympic Games have become one of the most powerful symbols of hope we have for the peaceful interaction and unity of all of humanity. A symbol of hope that we still very much need as communities and nations around the world continue to descend into war and strife, where the disunity of humanity is felt in the extreme as different groups compete not in friendly games for token prizes, but in hate filled contests of violence for dominance and death.
Now, the idea that humanity can and should be unified is not something exclusive to the Olympic Games. It is also something that is at the very heart of our Christian faith about what we are as created human beings and what our final goals are. Indeed our faith teaches us about a unity that is far more fundamental and important than that of the Games. However, at the same time, our faith reveals to us the scandal of division as being both something contrary to what God wishes for humanity and as having its origins in human sinfulness, in need of God’s redeeming work to be rectified.
The unity of humanity is taught in Scripture and has been re-affirmed in the theology and spirituality of the Church from the time of the Fathers, through the Medieval period and into the present. Humanity is one because all men and women have one origin in God and share in the one and same image and likeness of God. And as such they reflect what the Son is, who is the eternal image of the Father, in the threefold unity of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As the 14th century Flemish mystic, Blessed John Ruysbroeck puts it in the Mirror of Eternal Salvation:
The heavenly Father created all men in his own image. His image is his Son, his eternal Wisdom…who was before all creation. It is in reference to his eternal image that we have all been created. It is to be found essentially and personally in all men; each one possesses it whole and entire and undivided, and all together have no more than one. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our eternal image, which is the image of God and in all of us the source of our life and creation.
The natural unity of all humanity means that the disunity so much present in human history must be seen as a sign of sin, of the breaking down of what God intended in the creation, a mark of the pitiful state to which the Fall has reduced us. And the image of a flock of sheep without the leadership of a shepherd, so prominent in the readings for this Sunday, is a vivid and powerful image for this, one that expresses both the need for unity and for the effective leadership and teaching that brings this about, as well as the distress that its lack causes. In the first reading from Jeremiah the ‘flock’ is Israel and God, through the prophet, condemns the leaders of Israel, ‘who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,’ because they fail to be good shepherds for the people.
Yet Jeremiah also holds out the promise that the flock of Israel will be re-united once again when God himself intervenes to ‘gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to the fold and they shall be fruitful and multiply.’ And it is this promise that is realised in the person of Our Lord, who is the Good Shepherd, the one who has compassion on the people and who gathers together the scattered sheep not just of Israel, but of the whole of humanity.
Our Lord is the incarnate Son, the image of the Father, the one who re-unifies humanity by re-establishing the proper unity of all people made in the one image of God. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11). For the Fathers of the Church, of all the wonders that occurred at the time of Christ’s Passion one of the greatest was the re-unification of humanity. As Gregory Nazianzen puts it:
But none can be compared with the miracle of my salvation: minute drops of blood making the whole world new, working the salvation of all men, as the drops of fig-juice one by one curdle the milk, re-uniting mankind, knitting them together as one.
It is this aspect of the saving work of the Cross that the reading from Ephesians expresses so powerfully. Christ re-unites all of humanity in his death by overcoming the sinful divisions of Jew and Gentile:
Who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility….that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.
The peaceful unity of humanity, then, which the Olympic Games promotes, is something which we Christians affirm as well, but which we also know only to be possible in the reception of the saving work of Christ, in the putting on the new man which he offers (Ephesians 4:24). And to proclaim and realise this remains the fundamental mission of the Church, which is the ‘sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all people’ as the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church in the Second Vatican Council teaches (LG 1,9).