From “Penance in Him and by Him,” Lent, 48-49 (1944)

By Conrad Pepler

He came as the Good Shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep, that he might call each sheep by its own name and lead out the whole flock to eternal pastures. Now at length, as he concludes his three years’ ministry, on the eve of his passion, our Lord puts the final touches to his doctrine of the kingdom and his appropriation of the Old Testament simile. The Jews certainly expected their Messiah to be a good Shepherd who would lead his people to victory. The Pharisees regarded themselves as the sheep since they kept the precepts of the law and were confident that the Messiah would bring revenge on all their enemies.

But our Lord makes a claim that is at once more divine and more human. The Good Shepherd is not only the king but the judge, and for the Jews that was essentially a divine prerogative which they had not looked for in their human Messiah. God alone can judge. The Shepherd is God, and he will come at the last to separate the blessed from the accursed, and to call the blessed into his completed fold, his kingdom.

There is only one fold and one Shepherd… The blessed are astonished to hear that the Shepherd King had from the first been identified with every individual member of his flock, so that every action done to them was done to him. Each member of Christ’s kingdom is bound to the whole, because he is bound to the head and shares in the same life, the life of grace. So that in Christ and by Christ he is made one with the whole body in every individual part, just as the human soul is in the whole body and every individual member of the body. Our Lord in this Gospel enunciates as clearly as any saying of St. Paul’s the doctrine that the Church is his mystical body, upon which the whole of Christianity is built.

Our Lord refers to the good deeds done to him in the person of his brethren in terms of mercy and almsgiving, but these are only the most striking examples of an intercommunication in which no single member can make the smallest human act without influencing the whole of Christ’s mystical body. The actions of a true member are in one sense the actions of the whole body, so that every virtuous act as well as every vicious act is done unto the least of the brethren as well as to the Lord himself.

Thus, our solitary combat is clothed in an entirely new light, for it is solitary only in the sense that it is I who fight, as it is the finger that points. But the finger does not point alone; the arm points, the whole body points. So, too, in my temptations, in my penances, I am not alone. I represent the whole mystical body in this conflict, and I receive the strength, the support of Christ in his Church… I am responsible to our Lord and the whole Church for my conduct in the struggle, so it is only by him and in him that I can receive the strength to conquer, the strength of the whole body, the life-giving blood of grace.

Conrad Pepler, OP (1908-1993) was an English Dominican priest and author, the author of several books on the liturgy and sacramental theology, and the warden of Spode House, England’s first Roman Catholic conference center.