I love this reading from the Gospel of John. It is the image of Jesus, God, the good shepherd. I used to think I could get through life on my own strength, but not now. I welcome having a shepherd in control.
And we need to understand the image in context of the time in which this was written. Shepherds were rough and ready – not necessarily son-in-law material. They spent a lot of time out of doors, of course. But they were the unlikely heroes of the community.
The poor people relied on their sheep for survival and so the shepherd who would look after them was essential. It was dangerous work. Thieves, lions, accidents could all end up with the shepherd dead.
But there was an ethos. Never leave the sheep. Even if you get in mortal danger never leave them. Rather as a doctor these days could not leave an operating theatre mid-way through an operation. The real shepherd gave everything for these dumb animals.
But those animals knew his voice, and he knew every one as an individual even if they looked the same. He cared equally for the placid ones, the naughty ones and the grumpy ones. The shepherd led the sheep from the front and would pick up a lost of wounded sheep front on.
What an image for God.
I like it because it has a connection with the natural world. But it is also the real world of work. Not nature as a theme park but as co-inhabitors with us of the planet. A very modern message,
Today is the Saints day of our patronal saint and this reading has so many connections with our Celtic forebears. Their poetry and prayers are full of references to domestic and farm animals. Animals that they relied on.
Here are a few of the poems collected by anthropologists in the 19th Century.
So excellence of corn,
Excellence of drinks,
Excellence of music,
Excellence of guiding,
Excellence of sea and land be thine.
Excellence of sitting,
Excellence of journeying,
Excellence of cattle,
Excellence of churning,
Excellence of curds and butter be thine.
They had prayers for milking cows and the daily chores.
Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless, O God, my desire;
Bless Thou my partnership
And the milking of my hands, O God.
I love this one.
I will kindle my fire this morning,
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven,
the presence of Ariel of the loveliest form.
In the presence of Uriel of the myriad of charms,
Without malice, without jealousy, without envy.
Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun,
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.
It is more than just lovely words. It is an acknowledgement that we share the planet with creatures and that God loves them as he does us. Also that if we believe that one day the earth will be restored – not a distanct heaven. The animals will be joining us there too.
Which brings me finally to our dear Saint. Her story is amazing. She set up education centres and monasteries where men and women studied side-by-side. And like all of the Celtic saints she had an affinity with nature – with creatures (especially cows).
Hundreds of years ago, a saint named Brigid built a small hut under a huge oak tree in a place that came to be known as Kildare. When she first moved into her home under that oak, it was a quiet, rural place, with a forest and a dandelion meadow and many wild creatures, whom Brigid loved dearly. However, word of Saint Brigid’s kindness, generosity and talent for healing spread, and soon many pilgrims were making the journey to Kildare to see her. Eventually a village grew up around Brigid’s home. Even the King made a pilgrimage to see her, and soon after had a hunting lodge constructed in the forest nearby.
In those days, wolves still roamed the woodlands of Ireland and they were often seen around Kildare. Brigid loved the wolves, but the villagers were afraid of them. They were quick to blame wolves when a lamb or deer went missing—and they were often right to do so.
After a while, the King noticed that the deer were becoming scarce. He offered to pay anyone who brought him a dead wolf, one gold coin.
Despite the price he had put on the heads of the wild wolves, the King kept a tame one as his pet. He had been given the wolf as a cub by a hunter who had killed his mother, but couldn’t bring himself to kill the pup.
The King often brought this tame wolf with him when he came to Kildare. Unfortunately, one day the King’s wolf got loose. He was an amiable beast, used to living with people, so the first thing he did was seek out the village. A woodcutter spotted him heading towards the houses. Not knowing this was a tame wolf and fearing for the lives of the village children, he shot the poor creature between its shoulder blades. Then, looking forward to his reward, he dragged the dead wolf all the way through the woods to the King’s lodge.
By his markings, the King recognised immediately that the wolf was his own beloved pet. The King’s grief quickly turned to anger and he decided to execute the woodcutter.
The villagers went to Brigid to beg for her help.
Brigid was very sorry to hear of the poor wolf’s death and of the imminent death of the woodcutter, who had only been trying to do what he thought best. She borrowed a horse and cart from one of the villagers and set off to see the King. As she steered the cart onto the dark road that led through the woods she came a cross a huge beautiful white wolf with deep, dark, brown eyes and a long pink tongue, which he used to lick Brigid across her cheek, making her laugh.
They made a strange pair as they approached the King’s lodge sitting side-by-side in the wagon, the tall white wolf towering over the fair-haired, blue-eyed young woman. The King received the pair in his chambers, staring at the strange wolf greedily. White wolves were as rare back then as they are now, and the King rather fancied owning one.
Brigid asked if the King would pardon the woodcutter. In exchange, the white wolf had offered to take the place of the King’s lost pet.
Brigid whispered in the wolf’s ear that he was to be a good servant to the King and he would find himself richly rewarded with the best cuts of meat on offer all his long life. The wolf loped willingly to the King’s side and laid his head in his lap. The King stroked the great beast’s ear, a look of wonder suffusing his face.
Brigid took the woodcutter back to the village. As they journeyed along in the cart she told him:
‘It is better that two wicked beasts go free than one innocent one gets punished’.
No wolf was ever killed in that part of Ireland again while Saint Brigid was still alive.
You might see the stories about the interactions with animals as fanciful but I don’t. I think they are prophetic a picture of what is to come. A reminder that God notices how we treat his creation. That the faith can encompass wonder, deep magic, joy, feasting, family.