The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
A memorable moment in my church's Christmas pageant came when one of the little sheep got loose and started wandering innocently around the church sanctuary.
The director and several teachers waved frantically and whispered directions, but the little child wearing her floppy-eared lamb costume was oblivious to all the excitement. And, of course, the bathrobe-clad shepherds never thought to leave the manger to collect the straying sheep.
Fortunately, the errant lamb never became truly lost. Her parents eventually pointed her back to the front of the room, and we were all able to return our attention to the joyous enactment of the Christmas story.
Luke tells us that Mary "gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him with bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."
How different our story would be if Mary and Joseph had been able to get more presentable lodgings.
Instead of a charming pageant with cute sheep, cows and donkeys milling in the stable, we might have to act out a scene from inside Bethlehem's tavern. How would we dress up the Sunday School kids to act the part of drunken travelers and Roman soldiers? It just wouldn't have the same appeal.
Of course, there's more going on in this Christmas tradition than either historical accident or sentimental staging.
Luke's account of the birth in a stable doesn't mention gathered animals at all. The livestock that are so much a part of creche scenes, paintings and innumerable children's stories are part of an extended folk tradition. In some cases, the critters may have been added for sentimental reasons, or for artistic purposes. But, overall, the presence of these diverse creatures is not just incidental.
For centuries, the telling and acting of the Christmas story has been explicit in tying the incarnation into the fullness of God's creation. Christ is born into a world that includes ox and ass, sheep and goat. And they, too, celebrate the good news of God's saving act.
The theological point about the animals is made in a carol from the 15th century:
Cradled in a stall was he
The livestock who are portrayed in the stable are exceptional, symbolic creatures. The cattle don't drool on the baby, and the donkey doesn't try to munch on the swaddling cloths. In the iconography of the manger scene, the barnyard critters represent all of the non-human parts of creation.
Along with the shepherds and the magi (who have been dragged to the manger from Matthew's gospel so that we can have a tidier story), the creatures gather in worship and praise. As a friend wrote, "There's a neat trilogy to the nativity story -- animals, shepherds, magi -- creation, the poor, and the outsiders, all have a part in the story."
If we look at those animals only as part of the stage setting, we're missing out on an important part of our faith tradition. Sidelining the animals trivializes a profound expression of historic Christianity.
In many families, I've heard, historical accuracy goes out the window for the living room creche scene. Along with the sheep and the donkey, other animals are added. One person described to me some of the unusual witnesses at the manger: "two bears, three cats, two beavers, an eagle, a frog, two turtles, five birds, and a big-horn sheep." In our house, a moose sits quietly in the stable to represent the other-than-human world.
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Old Testament scholar Claus Westerman was writing about the opening verses of the Hebrew scriptures, and not the start of the Christian gospel. But the point he made can easily be translated to take account of the animal-filled nativity scene. He wrote:
The simple fact that the first pages of the Bible speak about heaven and earth, the sun, moon and stars, about birds, fish, and animals, is a certain sign that the God whom we acknowledge in the Creed as the Father of Jesus Christ is concerned with all these creations, and not merely with humans. A god who is understood only as the god of humankind is no longer the God of the Bible.
The animals who gather at the manger are not an aberration for the biblical faith.
Our entire scriptural heritage proclaims the relationship of God with all of the creation. God is present in, and revealed through, the created order. And praise of God spills forth from rocks and hills, trees and sky, and from all manner of living beings.
Let us give thanks for the birth in a stable, where such a wonderful spectrum of creatures can be present to rejoice and give praise!
This week's Notes revises a similar message distributed in 2001 and 2010.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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