The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the falling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The ambiguity of poetic language has rich implications for spirituality. Not only does it invite our response, it requires it in order for us to make meaning out of images—for instance, of the lion and lamb, or the camel going through the eye of the needle.
Much of Old Testament wisdom literature is poetry. In writing of this literary form Gerhard von Rad says, “Basically the sense of a sentence was never completely fixed; any attempt to understand it was always a flexible one.”
It is sometimes tempting to forget that language is not as fixed as we might like it to be, and that even what we call “facts” are always open to interpretation. Owen Barfield in his book Poetic Diction cautions us about the imprecision of language: “Meaning itself can never be conveyed from one person to another; words are not bottles; every individual must intuit meaning for himself, and the function of the poetic is to mediate such intuition by suitable suggestion.”
Although Jesus’ parables are not poetry, and the language of Paul is mainly exhortation, yet these ways of communicating, as well as the images and paradoxes they employed, were very much in line with the Hebrew tradition of “both/and”—a stretching of the poetic shoe to fit the foot that needed it. The rabbinic method of questions and answers, a dialectic that probes deeper not only into the subject, but into those taking part in the dialogue, adds a dimension of sharing the lively Word that can be lost if we lean only on straightforward fact.
The season of Advent is surely wrapped in both image and event. The birth of a child to Mary and Joseph is an interesting story. But the images, the mystery, the promises, the human responses … all are necessary for us to make sense of it and enter it.
In Scripture, centuries of ambiguity and poetry come to rest in a fact—a birth, the particularity in face and form of a boy child, arriving on a specific day in the fullness of time, son of a maiden, protected by an earthly father. At the Incarnation, the event of God-with-us, the images are concrete, at one with the birth.
Lion of Judah, Lamb of God, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace: the glorious appellations converge in the sprout of a family tree:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1).
In this season we look for the wholeness that can accommodate the mix of many things going on—images of truth that flash before us and then disappear; events that cannot yet be interpreted in the flux of time. It is faith in the redemptiveness of daily life that holds us in this tension of belief.
—Excerpt from Awaiting the Child: An Advent Journal.