The life of a good shepherd

By Barb Ernster –

A 13th-century mosaic of the Good Shepherd is seen in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

One of the oldest of callings in ancient Israel was the life of a sheep or cattle herder. Before the Chosen People had settled as farmers, they wandered from place to place, living in tents and driving their animals. At the time of Christ, this was still an important occupation, and not one to take lightly. The shepherds were highly skilled and looked to for their ability to manage the large herds – some numbering tens of thousands.  When a herd numbered just a few – say a dozen – it might be entrusted to a child so that the trade could be passed on.

Little Lucia dos Santos, the seer of Fatima, was entrusted with the family’s herd of sheep at the age of seven.  Like the shepherds of Jesus’ time, she had to know where to graze the sheep, depending on the time of year. Accordingly, Lucia would take the sheep to various grazing grounds in the surrounding countryside and would often join with other shepherds in certain areas for the day. When Jacinta and Francisco began to join her, they stayed on the pasturelands owned by Lucia’s family.

Shepherds in Jesus’ time grazed their sheep on the western heights of Judea, coming down in the autumn toward the valleys where the land remained green. Or they would descend to the midbar region east of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, to the Jordan valley, or further south toward Idumaea, where young David tended his flocks.

The sheep pen behind Lucia’s house in Aljustrel, near Fatima.

Many in the Jewish culture did not hold this occupation in high esteem, but others praised the excellence of the shepherd, standing alone in the vast open spaces under the blazing sun and cold night skies. They spent the greater part of the year in the open air, from early spring to mid-November, and then passed the winters under cover on farms, where they fed their herds a mixture of chaff and barley. For this reason, the traditional idea that Christ was born in December is not likely, since the shepherds to whom the angel appeared would not have been in the fields, “keeping night watch over their flock,” as St. Luke’s Gospel reports (Lk 2:8).

On the bitter cold nights in March, April, October and November, in the high plateaus, the shepherds would bundle up in thick woolen cloaks.  It was difficult to get sleep, given the need to watch over the flocks and battle jackals, wolves and other wild beasts that were common. The shepherd always carried a solid iron-bound cudgel and a large knife on him.

Often the shepherds would band together, bringing their different flocks to the same place in the evening so they might take turns watching through the night. This also gave them respite from the cold in the tents. To make it easier to watch over the enormous flocks, they would make dry-stone walls that were high enough to keep the sheep contained. Some lands had watchtowers that allowed them to scan for robbers as well.

In the morning, the shepherds would issue huge piercing cries to call their sheep to the watering holes. The sheep knew the sound of their shepherd’s cry and would follow him.  Some shepherds would play a pipe or a flute as they walked along with the sheep. The shepherd often named his sheep and they would come when their name was called. The shepherd and the sheep lived together continuously and developed real affection for each other. When a sheep was lost, it caused great anxiety in the shepherd until it could be found.

Christ drew upon the life of the shepherd to illustrate His love for each person individually and the care in which He, as the Good Shepherd, would seek out the lost. The sheep know His voice and follow Him.

Statues of Jacinta and Francisco at the Shrine of Fatima.

Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco followed a similar model in shepherding their sheep. They would bring the sheep to the best grazing grounds, changing places depending on the time of year and the weather.  Lucia named each one of the sheep and they would come when she called their name. Francisco played the flute as they walked along and while the sheep grazed. Jacinta won her little flock over by sharing her lunches and sweetmeats with them. They knew her voice and followed her out of the pen each morning. Out in the fields, the children learned about God and the Good Shepherd, Jesus, drawing parallels to the world around them and the life of the shepherd.

Just as the angel appeared to the lowly shepherds in the field back in the time of Christ, the angel appeared to the lowly shepherds of Fatima to bring great tidings. And the light of the Lord shone around them and filled them with awe.

“Now there were shepherds in that region, living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear” (Lk 2:8-9).

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