The Common Good

My Advent Calendar: December 4

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The fourth window of my Advent calendar opened to reveal a deer in the snow, a nostalgic vision of winter. A frosty Christmas card scene.

Just a few nights ago, my family was driving down a suburban street when a huge, dark figure dashed out of the woods onto the foggy road. "What's that?" I shouted at my husband. We swerved. "A deer," he replied. "Look at those antlers!" For a moment, it froze, gazing at us through the thickened air. Oddly enough, he seemed to nod at us in a sort of soulful recognition. Then, the beautiful creature turned and darted back toward the trees.

Anyone who encounters a deer on a dark road knows that they are paradoxical animals. A deer is both regal and fragile at the same time-the lord of the forest and its most hunted victim. Because of this paradox, deer have often been a symbol of Christ, with their antlers depicting both a royal crown and a crown of thorns. Authority and suffering interweave.

Stories of the saints are full of deer as well. When pursued by Druid priests, St. Patrick invoked "The Deer's Cry," a song now known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" for protection. As he and his brothers sang, they appeared to the druids as deer in the forest and not as Christian monks. St. Giles was nourished by a deer's milk, and he later took a hunter's arrow shielding the deer that had fed him. St. Hubert converted to Christianity while hunting on Good Friday, when he experienced a vision of the crucifix in a deer's antlers. And, of course, scripture is rife with spiritual images of deer: "As the deer pants for the water brook, so my heart pants for you, O God."

I will long remember the elegant pathos of the deer in the road, not as a soulless beast "caught in the headlights," but with his sad and regal eyes fleetingly cast in our direction. The deer on this morning's Advent calendar reminded me that Jesus did not come to us in some sort of unknowing way, like a deer in headlights. Rather, Jesus was born into the world with soulful recognition, that God and humanity are intimately related in both majesty and suffering. And I wonder: Did the infant Jesus' eyes open knowing this spiritual paradox; did he possess an inner wisdom that he would one day be both king and victim?

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).

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