Many of us are very familiar with the image of the Good Shepherd. The Gospel for this Sunday, however, includes an image that may not be as familiar. Jesus says,
I am the gate for the sheep.
The gate? How can he be both gate and shepherd??
Some scripture scholars—people who study the Holy Bible—suggest that this is a mini-parable inserted into the bigger parable of the Good Shepherd. We can look at the parables separately or together. They also tell us that shepherds in the time of Jesus had an interesting way of building a sheepfold. In the wilderness, a shepherd would build the wall of an enclosure, leaving a space for the sheep to pass in and out. When the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie down in the opening of the wall. Anything wishing to harm the sheep would have to pass by the shepherd first. The shepherd would be the gate.
We can imagine being one of those sheep. At night when it gets cold, the shepherd herds us into the enclosure. We can see the breath of the other sheep as they snort and snuffle and settle down to sleep, their warm bodies packed snuggly together with ours. As the light begins to fade, the shepherd sits down in the entrance to the enclosure, his back against one wall and his legs stretched across the opening. Soon it is dark and we can no longer see him.
But we can smell him. Amidst the rather stuffy odour of damp wool around us, is something distinctly human. We inhale deeply and let the familiar scent of skin and hair and sweat fill our nostrils. Memories swim into our mind of munching happily in fields of green grass and drinking deeply from fresh cool waters. The memories calm our mind and slow our breathing. We drift off to sleep reassured, knowing in every part of our being that we are safe. He is near.
The image of the Good Shepherd as the Gate is a comfort. The Gate protects the sheep from thieves and bandits. The Gate allows the sheep to,
come in and go out and find pasture
It is not our work to decide who gets to go in and out. That is the work of the Gate and the Gatekeeper. One less thing for us to do.
What is our work then?
We know that when we are baptized we are anointed with the Oil of Chrism—the Christ Oil—and are given the mission to
remain as a member of Christ, Priest, Prophet and King, unto eternal life
(excerpt from the Rite of Baptism)
The oil that anoints us has a beautiful fragrance. "Fragrance" means smell, but we attach a particularly positive understanding to this word. ("Odour" is another word for smell, too, but it has a rather negative understanding.)
We are anointed with the Oil of Chrism at Baptism, and slathered with it at Confirmation, so that we might have the fragrance of Christ. Remember the reassuring smell of the Good Shepherd guarding the sheep? If we have the fragrance of Christ, what might that do for the people around us?
We go out into the world following the Good Shepherd, living by the maxims of Jesus, building the kingdom of God—and as we do, the fragrance of Christ wafts in the air around us. It attracts people. Some of these people, it is true, will be like the thief who,
comes only to steal and kill and destroy
Some people are set on causing division, on breaking down the Kingdom of God. But still, they will be attracted by that fragrance. It might remind them of something they once knew, something long buried, almost forgotten. We remember that Jesus also says,
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16)
As we spread that fragrance of Christ into the world, we help the Good Shepherd in his mission to call all the sheep into one flock.
And each night as we settle into sleep, safe once again in the sheepfold, we breathe in deeply. We find that familiar scent in the air, and we are reassured by the distinctive smell of the Good Shepherd at the Gate.