Early Christians faced persecutions from the Roman Empire according to the whims of the political situation. But even with the persecution, Christianity did not diminish. Rather, it grew and spread over the Roman Empire more rapidly. The oppressions could not stop early Christians and their faith. As the oppression got more severe, they had to hide themselves. They could not publically meet, so they should find some hidden places of worship. Sometimes they gathered in the underground cemeteries near Rome, which they called catacombs.
Catacombs are quite famous now. They are the massive subterranean burial places. People dug in and tunneled through the soft volcanic rock underground and made pathways, carved burial spaces on the wall with small chambers.
Christians also buried their dead members here in secret. And pilgrims and Christian visitors left graffiti, paintings, and wrote down prayers there. When I visited Rome, I had a chance to visit one of the catacombs. It was truly impressive.
There, one thing captured my eyes and touched my heart. And it was neither the size of the catacombs nor their well-designed ventilation system. But it was a very simple image on a burial site: the small fresco of the good shepherd. Here, Christ is represented as a humble shepherd with a lamb on his shoulder as he watches over his little flock. I bought this tile as a souvenir for myself. Anyway, when I saw this, I asked to myself: how would early Christians feel and what would they think when they were drawing or carving the good shepherd on catacombs in the middle of suffering? How could they keep their faith in Christ, the good shepherd, his guidance and his presence, confronting the death of martyrs and the unchallengeable power of the Roman Empire?
In the dark and humid underground, in the vulnerable place where they sheltered themselves, in the massive tombs filled with the smell of decaying dead bodies, in the dark shadow and fear of death, they would definitely remember Psalm 23 engraving the image of the good shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). And for sure, they would remember what Jesus said about himself as a shepherd. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:9-10).
When they remembered all these well-known words about the good shepherd in the catacombs, would they feel consoled? Were they just fine in those massive underground cemeteries that look farthest away from the green pasture, and under persecutions that look farthest away from abundance? To be honest with you, I would feel miserable and frustrated. Where can I find green pasture and abundant life?
After a while, I could find an answer to these questions. For followers of Christ, abundant life sometimes, or many times, doesn’t mean an ideal life without worries and with everything we need. The Psalmist tells us that there is a time we walk through the valley of the shadow of the death in life. Jesus also tells us that there will be thieves and bandits who come to kill and destroy us. Yet, life is abundant because the good shepherd is with us. Conditions and circumstances in life can’t make a life abundant, but only the good shepherd can.
Life is hard. Yet, life is abundant with the good shepherd because this shepherd trudges through the rocky hills with us in search of a patch of grass. There are no green pastures and still waters right outside. In order to get there, the good shepherd has to lead the flock sometimes through the wilderness.
The quest is not always happy and smooth. Yet, life is abundant with the good shepherd, because this shepherd becomes “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:9). In the wilderness, a shepherd uses a temporary sheepfold to keep the sheep at night. But this enclosure provides only walls, and there is no gate. The door is just a bare entrance. Then, how can the sheep stay protected without a door? The shepherd lies down at night in the doorway and becomes the gate.
The good shepherd is the one who carefully watches all hidden dangers and challenges at the closest distance at night.
Out beyond the village, there are roaming predators, wolves, and bandits. Yet, life is abundant with the good shepherd, because this shepherd lays down his life for us. Jesus gave up his life on the cross for salvation, for our new life. With this good shepherd, with his steadfast love, with his faithfulness to us, life can be abundant no matter what.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, the life lived with the good shepherd is abundant. He is on our side and on our arduous journey, always guiding us though every fluctuation and phase of our life—either good or bad, joyful or painful. Like early Christians in catacombs, when we faithfully draw or carve the image of the good shepherd deep inside our hearts, let us remember the abundant life with the good shepherd who laid down one’s life for us. Let us stay with him always by hearing his voice more in our prayer and in our gathering, and by following him only—not many thieves in the world. And let us believe that the good shepherd always anoints our hearts with his love and grace. Then, we shall see our cup overflows always. Thanks be to God. Amen.