Sheep: a challenge for Advent

Photo by George Gastin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

How many of those reading this blog post have ever had a close encounter with a sheep? Here we are never far from the sight or sound of them, which makes the numerous references to them in scripture and the Rule of St Benedict both lively and topical. The straying sheep; the sheep on the wrong side of the hedge or fence; the wounded sheep, attacked by a dog its owner failed to control; the sheep that is ill or having difficulty lambing — these are all well-known to us and what I tend to think of when reading today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 40. 1–11 or Matthew 18. 12–14. Admittedly, the haunting tones of Consolamini, consolamini or even Handel’s Comfort, ye tend to provide the background sound-track, but it is the muckiness and smell of real sheep in real fields that I think of first. Which is just as well because we can’t dismiss the sheep image of today’s readings with sentimental visions of fluffy white lambs gathered around a spotless manger. We’re lost, wounded, in need of a Saviour.

One of the great challenges of Advent is to acknowledge that we really do need a Saviour. We all have a tendency to favour the DIY approach to salvation, seeing Advent more as a count-down to Christmas than as a season of waiting and joyful anticipation for something and someone that can only come to us as sheer gift. The late Thomas Merton, who died on this day in 1968, never tired of proclaiming our neediness and the graciousness of the God who stoops down to us. He knew that we are apt to become uncomfortable when confronted with the realities of the present and often seek refuge in a past of our own making. That is to be sheep-like in a bad sense. Instead, we must be bold and strike out in new directions, not lost, not wounded, but following the Shepherd of the flock. Time is not given to us to keep a faith we once had but to acquire a faith we need now. The faith we need now: that is what we must seek this Advent.

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7 thoughts on “Sheep: a challenge for Advent”

  1. Here too, we live surrounded by sheep. In the past I have heaved a heavy lamb over the dry stone wall to its worried mother; asked a farmer we know who the sheep lying on her side in trouble after lambing belonged to, so we could tell him of her plight; and reported a limping sheep to the owner. All of them were dependent on humans to notice them and help.

    We are also in need of help, forgiveness for our failings and sins, but so many others are in greater need – of food, money, a roof over their head, good health, education and friendship.

    Some of this we can do ourselves, by helping food banks (although if people were paid enough, or received sufficient to meet at least a basic standard of living, these food banks wouldn’t be needed), visiting the sick and housebound and so on. Health is very important but this is often down to luck as well as good care. It is such a pity that this has become a political football with some making hay with the situation. In this situation, as well as many others, the only thing we can do is pray, and listen when people tell us of their problems, something the poor sheep cannot do. (I always feel for the poor sheep in the fields and on the hillsides when it is a windy, wet or snowy day like today).

  2. Time is not given to us to keep a faith we once had but to acquire a faith we need now. This is a very provocative challenge, I find. It seems to complement the Newman one, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. As tho our faith changes its appearance as we move thro the different phases of our lives. I’m assuming the core fact of our faith does remain the same but we should not be afraid to view it thro different lenses? Examine it, test it, even stress test it. Maybe there are too many accretions we collect as we move along, some of which we should let go? I find I have simplified my personal faith a great deal nowadays, don‘t know if that is a good thing!

    • After moving through some very difficult times over the last decade, my faith has been honed down to the basics with a large dose of Love. I am so grateful!

  3. Here in central Manchester we are not too familiar with sheep…they usually arrive here on in frozen form. But we do have nursery age children, who serve quite well for understanding Jesus’ imagery.

  4. Many years ago, I and many others were in a wide trench on the Yorkshire Moors. We were on a military exercise waiting for a potential enemy to attack us. The trench was more than knee deep in very grotty water, but we stood fast, knowing that it was important to be ready for the attack.

    While we watched and waited a Dead Sheep, floated down the trench, very dead and well rotted, the stench was incredible. You have never seen a dozen of so “hardened warriors” leap out of the Trench, attack or no attack, we didn’t know what disease have killed the sheep and how it ended up in the trench, but we wanted nothing to do with it.

    A cause for hilarity and embarrassment at the time, but your post brought it to mind. I had clearly forgotten it but the “lost sheep” scenario just reminded me of the land owner who must have missed the sheep, and I have to presume that the “Good Shepherd” was absent on this occasion.

    I presume that one of our superiors informed the Land Owner, because shortly after we were attacked fought them off, than moved to another location to practice a
    different scenario.

    It reminds me on how easy it is to become the lost sheep and how we have the Good Shepherd to rely on, unlike the unfortunate sheep that day.

  5. ‘Time is not given to us to keep a faith we once had but to acquire a faith we need now.’

    In the beginning, we assented to the idea that there was a better path than everyday wisdom. We relied heavily on guidelines, a route map, exemplars. Even when it hurt, we felt happier when we had done our best to obey cheerfully. Those times we went our own sweet way, we felt dissatisfied, frustrated, depressed, remorseful. Though we still respected the blueprint that might appear flawed, we sensed, deep down, that something further was needed. Something beyond us. A ‘Deus ex machina’.

    But as the years passed, the crack in the door of Advent shed some illumination we were drawn to and blessed by. We nudged further and further, banishing the shadows, until at last we beheld the unspeakably humbling Truth, that the God of Creation was the little child born within our very injured and suffering selves and that when we honoured him with generous and thankful hearts, day in, day out, never mind the circumstances, His Kingdom was manifest, within and without, and the face of the earth was ever being renewed.

    Let us pray for, and long for, the hastening of that time when ‘the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’

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