In the more agrarian society of the carol writers, it was often the case that the locations of churches were determined by how far they were in walking distance from the farms and barns where cows would need regular milking–even on the Sabbath. It was not until a dairy herd was imported to the Jamestown Colony in the early 1700s that the colonists really began to thrive; in the words of the 19th century essayist William Cobbett: “When you have a cow, you have it all.” (Ron Schmid, Green Living Journal).
There are many biblical references to milk: the Old Testament promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, for example; in the New Testament, Paul uses the image to describe how he provides instruction to those new in the faith: giving them “milk to drink, not solid food, because you weren’t ready.” (1 Cor. 3:12) Milk thus often signifies spiritual blessing and the nurturing care of God for his people.
On this New Year’s day, remember that God is nurturing and blessing you, even now.
Christmas, Day 7–oh dear. Here’s another one where there’s so little helpful mention in the Bible: Leviticus and Deuteronomy both list the poor swan among the unclean birds of kashrut, or kosher laws. No one could or should eat them. But that’s about it. This explains why I won’t be asking my sweet baboo to pass the roast swan!
More helpful, perhaps, are their long symbolic associations in mythology, which certainly would have been known to the carol writer: prophecy (especially of death); royalty; music and poetry; fertility and fidelity (they mate for life); the bridging of the eternal and the mortal worlds. Thus, “seven swans a-swimming” would focus into one beautiful image:
- the creative arts that flow from the celebration
- the blessedly fertile womb of Mary
- the fidelity of Joseph
- the kingship of Jesus
- the divinely perfect nature of the holy child
- the perfectly human nature of the holy child (and that divide forever bridged)
- and the prophecies that hover over both His birth–and His death.
Consider the swan. Consider its gifts and its graces.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
Christmas, Day 6–“as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” Isaiah 10:14
This one was a bit of a stretch, as there are not any mentions of geese themselves, and not too many of eggs! Eggs have a rich history of biblical symbolism–the womb, the tomb–but all is apocryphal and not really based in scripture. In Jewish tradition, the closed shell of an intact egg becomes a symbol of mourning, as it signifies the mouth of the mourner, closed in grief. And of course, the roasted egg of the Seder plate serves as part of the ritual remembrance of the night of the Passover.
I am particularly intrigued, though–since we’re being all symbolic and apocryphal–by the Celtic church’s image of the wild goose as Holy Spirit. Early Christians in the northern lands drew all kinds of spiritual lessons from these wild creatures, moving purposefully on paths in the air, paths only they could see.
Preachers love to preach on the lessons of the wild geese. Communal, mutually supportive, watchful seekers of justice who pursue the unseen call home, wild geese are a lovely object lesson. They serve as the guiding image for the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering of contemporary Christians seeking to find a new way for, a new conversation within the Church by evoking their characteristics of “unpredictability, beauty, and grace”.
I, however, am reminded of some traumatic times during my college years, when the walk between the dining hall and my first lecture was a gauntlet of terror: migratory geese had settled on campus for their nesting, with their favorite nursery spot right along the very route I needed to take to get to class. For birds clearly out of their normal seasonal homes, they were fabulously, terrifying territorial, defensive giants with wings and beaks and a raging claxon honk . . .
Those were my sprinting years.
Let today’s image from the old carol remind you of the powerful movements of the Holy Spirit in your own experience–bringing new life, protecting and guiding you–calling you, always, towards home.
There are golden rings in the Bible that signal authority: Pharaoh places his signet ring on Joseph as a sign both of royal favor and the extension of his power to the young dreamteller. People will argue about the purpose and scriptural nature (or not) of wedding rings.
Always they represent wealth and status. But this verse, part of the beloved and (when read closely) deeply troubling parable of the Prodigal Son, speaks to the conferral of sonship by a father.
The younger brother has demanded that his inheritance be given to him early. In the social structure of the time, he has essentially declared openly his wish that his father were dead–you’re lingering too long, old man, fork it over now. The father complies, and waits. Does he know from experience or the wisdom of long observation that his rebellious son’s new wealth will bring him no happiness? We don’t know. He watches the road, and waits.
And after long months, he sees a familiar figure on the road–beaten down, haggard, broken–no longer proud–his son. Though the young man has rejected the ties of family, separating himself in a way that violates them both, the older man has continued to regard him during this long absence as his son.
An embrace, a kiss; a robe, a ring. And then the feast.
So may it be for us.