April 22, 2018



SUNDAY, APRIL 22, 2018

When I was a child, maybe 3 or 4, I remember being drawn to a piece of art that hung on a wall
in a hall of our little Episcopal church in Paterson, NJ. It depicted Jesus holding a lamb,
surrounded by sheep and a group of children sitting at his feet.

I remember looking at that image and wishing I could be one of those children…

There was something about that image – it exuded love…

That was my first encounter with The Parable of the Good Shepherd, today’s Gospel reading.

It was the early 1960’s. During Sunday School time, my church had Nursery for its preschoolers. I remember hearing stories like Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale, singing songs like “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” playing with blocks, coloring, and eating pretzel sticks that were served in little Dixie cups. I felt safe, loved and cared for, but…

I also remember feeling a deep desire for something more…to be more a part of what was going on in this place called “church”… to know this person called “Jesus”…to understand the meaning of the big and amazing words from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer that I heard recited over and over again in Sunday worship…words like “ALMIGHTY”… ”ALLELUIA”… ”MANIFOLD AND GREAT MERCIES”…

But I didn’t have the language to ask the questions and I had the distinct sense that these were matters for the grown-ups, not for me. Yet I spent a lot of time wondering and gazing at that picture…

Today, here at St. John’s, when children turn 3 they are invited to experience Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the Level 1 Atrium – a room that has been lovingly prepared just for them as a holy place where they can discover God’s love for them, and in response, fall in love with God.

Atrium is nothing like the church nursery that I remember. The materials are all created and placed with intention. There is an area with map work to learn about the land of Israel – the real place that Jesus lived when He was on earth. There is an area with dioramas and figures to explore all the Infancy Narratives about Jesus’ incarnation, birth, and presentation in the temple. There is an area with a miniature altar and miniature vessels for setting that altar to explore Eucharist and a corner for learning about Baptism. And there is an area with materials to delve into some of the parables that Jesus told. My three-year-old self would have LOVED the Atrium…

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd follows the theories of Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, who said that children learn best through their senses in a carefully prepared environment. It is a method of Christian Formation for children that began to be developed in Rome in 1954 by Sofia Cavalletti, a Hebrew and scripture scholar, and Gianna Gobbi, an educator and assistant to Maria Montessori.

In Sofia’s words,

“I think the principal point to emphasize is the experimental character of our work…
What we have sought to discover during these thirty years is: What aspect of God corresponds most to the vital needs of the child throughout the diverse stages of development?

… which appeases and satisfies that religious hunger in children?

When we manage to focus on that aspect of God which is actually in harmony with the special need of that age, then we see that the child takes possession of the message with what I would call a special avidity…a joy that resounds very deeply and places the child in a state of profound peace. It is really like seeing someone who is thirsty running to water…”

Through much experimentation and observation, Sofia and Gianna found that, for young children, it is the Parable of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd calls His sheep by name, He knows each one of them individually, and they know His voice. He watches over them, leads them to fresh pastures and clean water, cares for them when they are sick or injured, protects them from predators. The Good Shepherd gives the sheep unconditional love and security. While we all need this kind of care, children aged 6 and under absolutely require it.

A special table covered in a pure white cloth stands in the Level 1 Atrium and it is the first thing you notice when you enter. Sitting on the table is this green circle – the sheepfold. When we present this work to a child for the first time, we light a candle and read the parable from the Bible. Then we introduce the material – the sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, the sheep who are His flock. A second reading from the Scripture booklet that always stays with this work is an opportunity to tell the parable using the figures. Once a child has been presented this work, they are free to return to it at any time.

And return, they do. As I was drawn to the painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, our children in Level 1 are drawn to this work, again and again. As they grow older, the Parable grows with them. We introduce the Found Sheep, and later in Level 2, the Hired Hand and the Wolf.

As Catechists, we do not tell the young child that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. We give the child time and space to discover this mystery on their own.

After the children recognize that they are the sheep, we present a work called the Eucharistic Presence of the Good Shepherd. I would like to show you this precious work. It is my favorite.
Here we have the Good Shepherd with His sheep. He loves and cares for them, knows them by name, and is always with them.

The sheep are so fortunate to have the Good Shepherd. They recognize His voice and they follow Him.

The Good Shepherd is always with His sheep. But there is a special place, and a special moment in which He is with them in a most particular way, giving Himself completely. It is in the Eucharist.

When we celebrate Holy Eucharist, we know there is an altar table.

Place altar table on second green circle.

And on the table is an altar cloth called the fair linen.

Place fair linen on altar table.

Place Good Shepherd figure on the altar table.

The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name to come close to him in this special place and at this special moment.

Bring sheep out of sheepfold – place around the altar table.

The sheep have recognized the voice of their Good Shepherd, and they have responded. They have gathered around Him. He has called, they have listened, and they are here.

The Good Shepherd is not really present in this wood figure.

On the altar table, the Good Shepherd is present in the bread…

Place paten with bread on altar table.

and He is present in the wine…

Place chalice on altar table.

We can have the wood figure on the altar or we can take it away; the Good Shepherd is still present.

The Good Shepherd gives Himself completely to His sheep in the bread and in the wine. This is what happens when we celebrate the Eucharist. He calls the sheep to him in order to give Himself completely – His love and protection, His body and blood.
We would then spend some time wondering with the child, inviting them to pray or sing.

Sometime in the future, after the child has had the opportunity to return to this work many times and absorb it fully, we would present the work again, taking it a step further by exchanging the sheep for people and introducing the priest as one who has the particular function of repeating Jesus’s words: “Take and eat. This is my Body. Take and drink. This is my Blood.”

Jesus used Parables frequently when he was trying to share truths about who He is and what the Kingdom of God is like.

The beauty of parables is that they are like jewels with many facets. They all have a practical reality and then so many transcendent concepts for us to discover.

Jesus modeled for us that a good teacher doesn’t just lecture, explain everything and give answers to all the questions. He wants us to come to our own understandings and to continue to go deeper through all the phases of our spiritual lives. His parables are gifts that allow us to do just that.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter – we tell the children that Easter is such a big feast that we need seven Sundays to celebrate it. Every third year - Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary - on this Sunday we hear the Gospel reading of the Parable of the Good Shepherd.

I have no idea how many times I have heard or read this parable. But I have distinct recollections of times when it opened for me in new ways and some of those transcendent concepts were revealed.

I remember wondering why Jesus chose to make us sheep. I had the stereotypical view that sheep were…not very smart, followers rather than leaders, easily frightened…fragile creatures. I did some research. It turns out that sheep are very gregarious creatures – they love other sheep and they flock together because they are social beings, smart enough to know that they need each other and their shepherd not only to survive but to thrive!

When I married my husband, I left my family, friends and career in NYC to be an Air Force wife in Wichita Falls, TX. I was seriously out of my element. Because of my upbringing, I knew where to find community. I looked up Sunday service times at the closest Episcopal church – Church of the Good Shepherd. At the end of the service when I turned to walk down the aisle to the exit, I looked up and there was the most beautiful stained glass window – of Jesus as The Good Shepherd surrounded by His sheep. This time I wanted to be one of the sheep – I needed and wanted connection and Christian community.

In Atrium, the catechists and children are a community, a smaller community of this larger community of St. John’s. In Atrium we honor Jesus and his respectful way of helping us to know and understand and always go deeper.
One of the 32 Points of Reflection for The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is this:

“The Atrium is a place in which the only Teacher is Christ; both children and adults place themselves in a listening stance before His Word and seek to penetrate the mystery of liturgical celebration.”

In each of our Atria we have this statue of the Good Shepherd. The children can place it on the prayer table when they wish to meditate or pray.

It is based on some of the earliest Christian art found in the catacombs of Rome before Christian imagery could be shared openly.

From a Forward Day by Day reading inspired by today’s Gospel:

There is an ancient catacomb under the busy streets of Rome. Centuries ago Christians were buried there. Captured on the rugged walls of this dark burial place are some of the earliest images of Christian art. If you look carefully, as cars and trucks rattle insanely just over your head, you can make out a picture of a shepherd. He carries a crook in one hand, and slung over his shoulder, is a sheep whom he carries homeward.

Earlier Roman pagan art depicted a similar figure with a much different purpose and role. A bow or spear in one hand, the animal he carries slung across his shoulders is lifeless. This is the figure of the hunter.

From the hunter to the good shepherd; from the image of one who takes life, to the image of one who would lay down his life for his sheep.

This is who we are. We are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand.