My Advent Calendar: December 11

By Diana Butler Bass 12-11-2008

Not surprisingly, when I opened the eleventh window, it revealed a picture of a lion holding a book-the ancient Christian symbol for Mark the evangelist.

Since the beginning of recorded history, lions have symbolized royalty in both society and in religion. Lions appear in many stories in the Hebrew scripture to signify God's power or the courage of God's faithful people. From the gospels to the Book of Revelation, Christians readily associated the lion with Jesus.

I confess: Lions don't really appeal to me. Sure, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and cried when Aslan was killed. I loved The Lion King. And I was even moved when Meryl Streep's character in Out of Africa shot her first lion. But I've never seen a lion outside the context of a zoo-where they always look so sad. Moreover, I am a rigorously democratic person and a Christian feminist who doesn't believe in any sort of social hierarchy. In other words, no symbol for Jesus could be further from my life experience or spiritual sensibilities.

Tradition assigns the lion to Mark since his book is considered the royal gospel. It opens with the "voice of one crying out in the wilderness," the lion's roar of the coming Christ. Mark's miracles demonstrate Jesus' kingly power. And the gospel culminates at the palace, with the crowd mocking "Hail, King of the Jews!," the purple cloak, and a sign hanging above his suffering head, "The King of the Jews." At every narrative juncture, Mark insists the Jesus is king.

However, Jesus' royalty is not a heavenly hierarchy, where sinful human beings grovel at God's throne for favors. That is not the sort of kingship Mark appears to have in mind. Mark purposefully contrasted Jesus with Nero, the Roman Emperor, to make a theological point. Mark inverted all the symbols of divine kingship-powerful signs of oppression throughout myriad centuries. Whereas Rome's imperial power was majestic and all-powerful, Jesus' royalty is hidden, revealed in healings and in parables. Only those close to Jesus, those with eyes to see and ears to hear, know that Jesus is the Anointed One.

The world expects a King of Glory. Yet, God's reign defies human expectation. The lion represented Caesar and Empire; Mark's lion represents a kingdom of the poor, outcasts, women, children, and the crowds of peasants who followed Jesus. What kind of kingship is this that begins with a lion's roar and ends with the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is both lion and lamb, the mysterious and elusive "Son of Man," the king of cradle and cross.

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass ( 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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