When I opened the sixth window on the Advent calendar, a very traditional Christian picture greeted me: a shepherd carrying a sheep.
Having been born and raised in cities, I don't know much about sheep, and my closest acquaintance with them was not a happy experience. My junior high school locker mate lived on a farm. Her family raised sheep. Every morning, she helped feed the critters and arrived at school with clothes smelling like manure. The aroma got into my clothes as well, prompting some seventh grade boys to dub us "the sheep girls." It wasn't a compliment.
Most people probably have more romantic notions of sheep, however, than do I. Cute, furry creatures depicted in pastoral scenes of old-fashioned farms. Baby lambs born in the spring. The shepherd conjures images of Jesus the Good Shepherd holding us, carrying us through life's difficult patches and protecting us from predatory beasts-rather like a bucolic version of the poem, "Footprints in the Sand."
The symbol of the Good Shepherd first appeared in Christian art in the first century, making it one of the most ancient signs of the faith. It was not, however, invested with quixotic ideals of rural life. Rather, the Good Shepherd was the most common form of catacomb art-it was how early Christians decorated their tombs. The sheep was a symbol for the deceased soul, and the shepherd was the symbol of Jesus bearing the dead to heaven. In the ancient liturgical funeral prayer, a priest would say over the dead, "May He be to this soul the Good Shepherd and carry her on His shoulder to the fold."
The Good Shepherd in early Christian catacomb art was often accompanied by another depiction of sheep-of the shepherd milking sheep. The milk flowed as from the "land of milk and honey," and the shepherd gave a cup of sheep's milk to the newly dead as they entered into the "eternal joy of the society of saints." Thus, our ancient forebears associated sheep with death, and the crossing over to God's unending feast. Eventually, Christians enlarged this vision to include Jesus Christ as well-by the fourth century Jesus was pictured both as the Good Shepherd and the slain lamb, often simultaneously.
On the sixth day, the calendar reminds me that the baby born in the manager will die. It is an unbearable thought. Can't we save that for Lent? Who wants this precious infant to die? Yet, Jesus is just like every other human being. Christmas is the feast of God incarnate. God chose to be one of us and will share every human experience including death. And Jesus, the lamb who will die, will also be the One who bears us to the land of milk and honey, the terra firma of divine love.
Diana 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).
P.S. "My Advent Calendar" will return on Monday.