Christ our Shepherd, all souls calling

* The music of this hymn is an arrangement of Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’, sung first at a gloomy low pitch, then a bright fourth higher.


Christ our shepherd.midi


‘Shepherd’ is a notoriously redundant image for modern urban people. But in John’s Gospel Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd[1], and in the First Letter of Peter Christian believers are said to have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls[2]. How to speak today of shepherds so that the gospel may be heard? This hymn offers a contribution to the answer.

First, I chose the well-known music of J.S.Bach’s aria ‘Sheep may safely graze’[3] as the vehicle to carry a lyric addressing this issue. I hope that potential singers will be attracted by the chance to sing this well-loved tune, and that the lyric’s central image will make its way to singers’ hearts as a true expression of the music.

The first stanza is informed by a story I heard of one who had worked as a shepherd. While lecturing about leadership, this man told of an time when, in order to bring his sheep to good pasture, he had manually to haul each one across a tiny brook which they were all too frightened to cross. The lyric has ‘Christ our shepherd’ calling ‘all souls … from the dead world to the live’, thereby intimating that the impact of the resurrection reaches beyond mortal life, and that Christ’s work extends beyond the present into all times and places[4]. It recalls both the medieval legend, and the Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection, in which Christ enters hell to set Adam and Eve free from bondage there.

The image of midwife is also at work in this first stanza. In the past, at least, it was not unknown for a midwife literally to pull the new-born forth into the world; and the same still frequently happens when cattle or sheep or born. The idea behind this stanza is that of course people want the abundant life that Jesus promises in John 10.10, but fears and other difficulties of incredible force can prevent a person from reaching that goal.

The public profile of the world-wide campaign against the use of landmines was greatly boosted from the mid-1990s by film of Princess Diana befriending victims of these weapons; and her intervention provides the thought behind verse two. As in the first verse, it is a classical picture of Christ that is presented here: ‘you advanced and sin uprooted’ to ‘clear the road for safe footfall’. Christ as hero deals with every difficulty in life’s way; the cross is his chosen battleground, from which he forges a future of flourishing with justice for all.

For these first two stanzas the music, sung in unison, has been low in the vocal register, evoking murkiness and following only diffidently the resolute saviour who brings us on our way. But at the end of verse two the music modulates up a perfect fourth, and singers plunge into harmony: ‘Now the way through death lies open! Now abundant life is free!’ The sun has burst from behind the clouds, and, like primary school children rushing into the playground, worshippers celebrate all that – as the classical expressions of believing have it – Christ has won for us.

The third stanza contains what might be felt to be an extraneous, or at least unexpected, image: ‘earth’s commonwealth-in-hoping’ that ‘life’s believers cause to be’. This image alludes to Acts 2.42-47, where all who believed were together and had all things in common: they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Perhaps ‘life’s believers’ in the hymn is thought to be a coy euphemism for ‘Christian believers’. The phrase is chosen, partly to indicate that abundant life breaks out whenever and wherever people share their wealth, and partly to proclaim that this is the destiny that summons all human beings. For Christ our shepherd calls, beside those who acknowledge him, other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.[5]

[1] John 10.11

[2] 1 Peter 2.25

[3] Schafe können sicher weiden from Cantata 208 ‘The Hunt’ (1713) by J.S.Bach.

[4] This is clearly asserted in 1 Peter 3.18-19 and 4.6

[5] John 10. 16