Speaking of the revelation of Jesus in the Holy Spirit …
6. The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life’s meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying.
Perhaps we are speaking of a wisdom figure, though that term is also a bit outdated and misunderstood today. Maybe a godparent, or at least the intention behind that office: serving as a guide and mentor for the young.
To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after.
A lesson in the history of sacred art:
Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who (a person) truly is and what a (person) must do in order to be truly human.
The aspiration to human fulfillment is certainly a matter of hope. For the Christian, the guidance of someone more than a godmother or godfather, a mentor, is certainly the person of Jesus.
He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.
Christ is revered as Teacher in Christianity, but significantly more often, we refer to him as the Good Shepherd. Of course, it is a title he adopted for himself. Urban believers of the present still find a resonance with that image, and the Bible stories behind it.
The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing.
Perhaps this, but also a sense of care and intimacy. Fewer human beings may have that “simple life,” but they do have pets in urban homes. Caring for vulnerable animals and sharing affection is a part of many lives.
More than this, the 23rd Psalm introduces us to a shepherd, a savior who has made a journey of peril and worry, and knows well when we trod a difficult path.
Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me …” (Psalm 23:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Psalm 23:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.
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