Deep beneath the Eternal City of Rome is a vast maze of underground tunnels used by the first Christians who inhabited the ancient city. Known as the catacombs of Rome, these ancient spaces are visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists, even today.
These subterranean rooms and passageways extend for hundreds of miles below the earth’s surface. There, the first Christians would gather for worship and would bury their martyrs, popes and family members, since burial within the city walls of Rome was outlawed.
The early Christians not only found in the catacombs safe refuge from severe Roman persecution, they also found a sanctuary where their faith could be expressed in community, in worship and in art. For on the walls of the catacombs, the first Christians expressed in simple, pictorial images what they had come to believe about Jesus, the Scriptures, the sacraments and the church.
So along the walls of the catacombs, the early Christians painted images of Old Testament stories. One can see depictions of Noah and the flood, Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the wondrous events of God’s saving presence as Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt. But how did the early Christians depict Jesus, the center of their faith, particularly since the Gospels did not offer any details on Jesus’ physical appearance?
One of the earliest images of Jesus is a remarkable third century fresco in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla. It depicts Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one praised by the psalmist in today’s responsorial psalm. In this most familiar and beloved of Christian prayers, Psalm 23 evokes the image of the Good Shepherd who remains close to his flock, feeding and caring for them tenderly in fresh and green pastures, and leading them safely through every trial and danger to a place of peace, evoked by restful waters.
God is a good shepherd and this biblical image invites us to trust in God who, like a loving, caring shepherd, accompanies us with tender care and devoted guidance for every step on the path of life.
David, whose dramatic anointing by Samuel as king of Israel is described in our first reading, was chosen for this exalted role because of his deep and strong faith in God. God was not an abstract concept to David. Rather, God was a close personal guide. God was David’s rock, his fortress, his strength and deliverer, the source of his salvation, as David sings in many of his psalms. David trusted God completely for he experienced God as light in the darkness.
As Jesus heals the blind man in today’s Gospel he shows himself as a good shepherd, caring for those who wander in the isolating darkness of blindness. Let us take time today to pray, slowly and meaningfully, the words of Psalm 23, as we say, “speak to me, Lord.”