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.