When I say “sheep” what do you picture? A creature covered all over with white fluff, or luxurious black locks? A nose just peeking out of a wool-covered face, or the bald headed- look, with the wool beginning below the ears? Does your imaginary sheep have horns? Is she fragile, or sturdy? Is she even a “she”?
One of the gifts of shepherding an actual flock of Romney sheep is that when I hear people talking about sheep, a very specific image forms in my head. Woolly head, medium staple, about 80 pounds, friendly face, no horns. The color of my imagined sheep is usually iron grey, although Romneys come in a variety of shades ranging from a rich dark charcoal to a creamy white.
There are disadvantages of such an immediate and vivid image too, of course. A friend might be telling me about his flock and I’m picturing Romneys while he’s talking Katahdins. Katahdins are low maintenance “hair” sheep that do not produce wool and come in such speckled colors that they can sometimes be mistaken for goats. If I ask my friend who shears his sheep he will only give me a puzzled look. If I tell someone looking for his farm that it’s “the one with all the sheep,” that person could drive right by what she perceives as goats and never find what she’s looking for.
And of course, whenever a preacher starts talking about Jesus the Good Shepherd, seeking the “lost sheep,” it takes a long time for me to disengage from my own actual experience with that task. With my mind fixated on the realities of late night searches through blackberries, nettles, and overgrown meadows, I can miss the point the preacher is making. Even if that preacher is me.
All of that is to point to the gifts and limits of language. Words give us a sense of shared meaning while at the same time limiting our understanding of what it is we are talking about. This is especially true when we try to describe deep spiritual realities. The words we use matter. And of course no words can actually contain all that we are trying to say.
Advent is a season of profound spiritual words. We hear them broadcast through store sound systems and all over the radio dial. The words are so familiar we imagine we know what they mean. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” But what does it mean to call Jesus “Lord”? Is it a title? A relationship? Both? Neither?
“Silent night. Holy night,” we sing. But what makes this night, or any night, Holy? Indeed, what does “holy” even mean? And as we follow those words with “round yon virgin mother and child.” what are we actually talking about? Arguments over the meaning of those words have split churches, toppled denominational hierarchies, and confused children for centuries.
When I was little I named my Christmas doll after my mom’s best friend, Virginia. But to avoid confusion, I used “Christmas nickname” I had heard. Imagine the scene of confusion as I told my mom and Virginia how my doll had gotten her name. “She’s named after you,” I said. “I call her ‘Virgin.’”
In the Islamic tradition there are 99 names for Allah, offered with the understanding that none of them are adequate, and with the mystical suggestion that there are 1,000 names beyond those 99 which are themselves unknowable. In some Jewish traditions, the word God is never spoken, nor even written, except as “G-d,” in part as a reminder that the Holy One is ultimately not limited to or controlled by a single human description.
Even when I reflect on the simple image of sheep and shepherds in the Christmas story, I find myself spinning from my own literal and lived experiences (what type of flock were the shepherds watching by night?) to profound metaphors of love and justice, (what was the social estimation of a first century shepherd and why would they be the ones to whom and angel of the Lord came down in glory, while the king himself was kept in the dark?) and back again.
Whatever words you are hearing in this season of Advent (which is derived from the Latin word for adventus, meaning “coming,” which itself is a translation of the Greek word parousia), may the meanings you give them take you closer to the reality which these words and stories are attempting to describe. God is with us. In darkness and in light. In sorrow and in joy. However you are giving them meaning, may the blessings of this season be yours.