Finding the Lost Sheep at Christmas

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June 6, 2019. Not that this day was particularly ominous, but it was threatening to be a challenging walk already that morning. I am not sure if that was meant to imply a foreboding of an impending storm1 — probably it was; I would only know that later! Nevertheless, on that fourth day of my camino from Porto to Santiago de Compostela,2 there was way more motivation as I had in fact planned to walk two stages together.3 Leaving behind the quaint Portuguese medieval town of Ponte de Lima — as also saying goodbye to Mauro, my Italian pilgrim companion for the last three days — I doggedly made the steep climb to the peak of Portela Grande de Labruja before gradually descending into Rubiães. This forested stretch with no amenities — not even water — had put us through some form of privation, but this adversity had a strange way of connecting us as pilgrims. Together, we were not lost; left to our own devices, we might well have meandered away. Adversity bonded us together, as we forged paths and found our way through the forest.
Via Romana XIX
Via Romana XIX
Later that afternoon the meandering sylvan path had given way to the well-ordered ancient Via Romana XIX.4 As I walked along the river Coura within the Cossourado, I imagined how these network of Roman roads had in fact enabled the Roman Empire to order, control and maintain its empire, while also enabling cross-cultural contact and exchange. This Roman route was so different from the forested paths of the morning. It was at about this point that I suddenly found myself amidst a flock of sheep that had appeared from nowhere, crisscrossing between its adjacent pastures and this Roman route. This was probably an everyday practice of the sheep — much like the pilgrims who though plan to follow a fixed route, often crisscross paths and recreate their own routes along the camino. But then I realised, this was also akin to commoners or the socially weak within the Roman Empire who — to borrow from a de Certeauean dialectic of strategies and tactics5 — in their acts of everyday walking employed creative tactics of resistance that tried to circumvent the strategies of power circumscribed by the Roman Empire on their lives. More on this, later.   December 10, 2019. Six months later, as I prepared to celebrate an Advent6 Eucharist for my Jesuit community in Leuven, the sheep I had encountered on my camino were back. One couldn’t escape them in the text of the day’s Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples: “What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.” (Mt 18:12-14)

Sheep were common to the Judean countryside (modern-day Palestine) and were vital to its economy. The Judaic (and later, Christian) scriptures make ample references to sheep who while being prescribed for sacrifices (Dt 18:4) were later metaphorized to represent the confessional community of believers; its leaders acquired the status of shepherds (Nm 27:17; Ps 23:1; Is 53:7; Jr 11:19). Later on, this metaphor was not infrequently adopted by Jesus (Mt 9:36; 10:6) or even ascribed to him (Mt 26:31). Biblical commentaries on the day’s text (Mt 18:12-14) have normally situated this passage within Jesus’ discourse on Christology and ecclesiology. The passage has usually been applied to reflect on the straying sinner, or the institutional attitudes of the church towards its straying or lost members.7 But could there be a way of (un)reading the text so that it provides us an added nuance to our usual interpretation of this text? And more so, what insight could it provide to the historical method that also investigates texts? 20191210FindingLostSheepChristmas_04 If one were to reread the passage (Mt 18:12-14) — and plausibly consider the shepherd in the text to be a historian — one encounters how the shepherd does consider the larger evidence of the ninety-nine sheep in the hills, but then moves beyond it to recover the missing or the lost sheep from the presented evidence of the ninety-nine. While the bleating of the majority sheep does count as evidence, they are contextualised in order to reveal the singular story of the lost sheep. More than sheep, the operative word in this passage is the word “lost”. The “lost sheep” becomes a metaphor for the socially weak or the marginalised, who are lost within the peripheries of society. Turning our focus on the historical method, we see how it is heavily driven by the evidence that emerges from the archival text, its claims of veracity and the ability of the historian to critically examine such evidence — while also finally providing insight through her or his analysis. In the case of the passage, a historian would normally be driven by the evidence of the ninety-nine sheep. However, one also realises how texts within archives are often circumscribed by strategies of power. These strategies of power can be doubly reinforced within the archive: first, in the manner that an archive is organised and controlled, and secondly, in what it purports to represent. These strategies of power are also reflective of processes operative within society. As de Certeau would note, “a strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations” as also codifying identities. Identifying these processes within the archive and the society that produced them — metaphorically speaking, the bleating of the ninety-nine — provides the contextual setting for recovering the voice of the lost sheep, the socially weak and the marginalised. 20191210FindingLostSheepChristmas_03 De Cetreau contends that the socially weak — the lost sheep — cannot count on a “proper” as they do not have a place and so employ creative tactics that circumvent strategies. Tactics take recourse to time, rather than place, that are on the lookout for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing”. One needs to add that de Certeau did not necessarily see strategies and tactics in the light of power relations but rather in terms of how ordinary people reinvented their everyday lives and identities through these mechanisms. Nevertheless his dialectic of strategies and tactics enable us some insight on how the socially weak resist strategies of power that circumscribe a proper for them, and why their tactics do not necessarily contain themselves within the archive. It provides us insight on why researching on the marginalised does not necessarily or exclusively happen within an archive but also needs to be undertaken by accompanying and being in contact with the marginalised. More than often, histories of the marginalised need to be investigated by (un)reading the archive or from the perspective of the marginalised. Or else, one would never recover the lost sheep — for the loud bleating of the ninety-nine would drown the feeble baas of the lost sheep. Christmas celebrates the birth and coming of Jesus. For a Christian it is probably as important to investigate the purpose of his coming: for “the lost sheep of Israel” — the marginalised of society. Christmas does exhibit such concerns for the marginalised. However, it is also possible to take our concerns for the socially weak and the marginalised beyond Christmas to our everyday lives. As the parable of the lost sheep demonstrates, investigating our histories from the perspective of the lost and the weak enable us a more inclusive reading of our histories. In the end, as the shepherd rejoices over the finding of the lost sheep, the lost is now restored to its rightful place among the flock. 20191210FindingLostSheepChristmas_05   Cc-by-nc-nd_icon- Historia Domus Christmas Card 2019 Download PDF (A4 size) | Print | Share  

  1. Victoria Torres Benayas, “La borrasca Miguel dejará vientos de más de 100 kilómetros por hora en el noroeste”, El País, 6 June 2019, (accessed on 10 December 2019) 
  2. In the summer of 2019, I walked the central route of the Camino Portugués — from Porto to Santiago de Compostela. | Read more: Rinald D’Souza, “Walking back from Santiago de Compostela”, Historia Domus, 20 June 2019, (accessed on 10 December 2019) 
  3. While this is not always recommended, time constraints had led me make the ten-day camino within nine days. Hence I had to walk two stages in a single day — from Ponte de Lima to Rubiães (17.89 km) and from Rubiães to Valença do Minho (17.23 km). 
  4. According to the Antonine Itinerary, an early compendium of the Roman roads, the Via Romana XIX was the longest Roman route in north-west Hispania that linked Bracara Augusta (Braga) to Lucus Augusti (Lugo) via Iria Flavia (Padrón). The Via Romana XIX was constructed during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE) and continued to be used by pilgrims in the medieval period. | Read more: Vias Atlánticas, (accessed on 10 December 2019) 
  5. Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 
  6. Advent refers to a four-week liturgical season preceding Christmas where Christians spiritually prepare to celebrate the nativity of Jesus as also the remote eschatological Second Coming of Christ. 
  7. Raymond E Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997, pp. 187-193. 

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

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