Holden Voices

HALLIE PARKINS: Symbols

April 30, 2015 at 10:11 AM

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep” John 10:14–15

In the campground west of Holden, there is a weathered picnic table. I have walked past in longer ambitions of the Beaver Ponds and Hart Lake, but this was the first time I sat down. You wouldn’t be surprised that there are diverse marks on this table. There is a “third eye,” both spelled and drawn. The image is carved into the top using a wood knot as the iris and pupil, with long eyelashes like sun rays. Opposite the third eye is written “Jägermeister” in perfect font. Peace signs coexist with the scarlet letter, where the crack in the wood becomes one of the lines in the letter A. Dates, initials, and other creative symbols are marked on this table with variations of depth and fervor. 

Even a small cross sits in the middle of someone’s capital M and capital D initials. 

Symbols are quite complex images. Paul Tillich, a German-American 20th century existentialist philosopher and theologian, says our “ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.” When we talk about Jesus, we often talk in terms of symbols to represent the many dimensions of his life and teachings. 

We are familiar with the cross as a symbol that points beyond itself to Jesus and Christianity. This symbol also participates in the story of Jesus, both as the wooden frame that he bore through the streets and the frame that held his body into death. Some might say the cross also reveals an element of reality, and an element of our own beings that corresponds to this dimension of reality. With me so far? 

The interesting thing, Tillich says, is that “symbols cannot be produced intentionally.” He says that they “grow out of the individual or collective unconscious and cannot function without being accepted by the unconscious dimension of our being.” The cross, a symbol that was used centuries before Jesus’ crucifixion, was widely accepted into the religious Christian conscious most recently around the time of Constantine. 

Finally, symbols are living things that grow and die depending on the context. They cannot be yearned into existence, or die because of criticism. “They die,” Tillich says, “because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.” In our Christian-Western culture, the cross still holds strong as a symbol that evokes response and emotion. (This brief summary, of course, is not totally encompassing of the symbol of the cross.) 

In the text from John 10:11–18 (some of which is above), we have a complex system of images and metaphors. We talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd. We talk about his relationship to God the Father. And we talk about his relationship to us, to the sheep. 

Let’s pair this text with Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me besides still waters, he refreshes my soul.”

I wonder, do you notice a response to this Psalm within yourself? Are there certain emotions that stir? What do you understand in your body from these words?

I feel my stomach drop, and back relax. I think even the muscles in my eye sockets soften. I can imagine my body being led into peaceful alpine meadows, warm sunshine on my skin, and a pastoral scene unfolding. (By pastoral, I mean both a place to graze and nourish bodies, and a way of spiritual direction).

Now, reading John, our scene changes. We now contemplate the good Shepherd, Jesus, who lays down his life for the sheep. However, we are placed in this metaphor of Jesus with a bodily reality of what it is like to be pastured, refreshed, and cared for ultimately.

I think now the metaphor of Good Shepherd turns symbolic. We can intuitively understand what a Good Shepherd provides for us—this metaphor now has psychological value. The good shepherd has great imaginative resonance because we can picture the flock, the hired hand, the wolf. And now, there is a complexity to the Good Shepherd’s life, death, and resurrection.

I think it is even more telling that this metaphor has turned symbolic by inspiring collective action. Remember back to the pastoral scene? Etymologically, the ordained leader of a Christian congregation, or “pastor,” is related to the “shepherd”— “the spiritual guide,” “the shepherd of souls.” Pastoral care is often modeled on this shepherding image.

All peaceful, right?

Let’s go back to the image of shepherd from Psalm 23. I’d like you to place yourself back in relation to the shepherd. Take a moment to visualize the scene.

So when you picture this shepherd, do you imagine certain qualities to this person? Perhaps a specific gender? Or a certain race? What feels comfortable and safe about this image? And what if Jesus, the Good Shepherd, were radically different than what our imaginations led us to picture? 

Here’s the thing: we are socially constructed human beings, meaning we are shaped by gender, race, ability, and culture in a particular time, place, and perspective. This means the images that we picture with power and authority are specific to our own differences. We are both the people with agency, voice, and awareness, and we are sheep. We might imagine ourselves as the white fluffy flock faraway on the idyllic hillside. Up close, in person, we are scruffy sheep.

What if this Good Shepherd, the one who feels so comforting and caring, was so radically other and challenging? The Good Shepherd, who is so unexpected and surprising, is also the wobbly, comic Lamb. This person has the power to lay down his or her life and the vulnerability to take it up again. The person knows us intimately—as Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” This Shepherd is like someone whispering in your ear, “I have known you since before you were you. You are my beloved. You are my masterpiece.”