Faith Works 12-21-13
The Animals' Christmas
There's an old story, or tradition, or superstition, or whathaveyou, that at midnight on the border between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the animals speak.
Who knows where this idea comes from, or what it teaches, but it has a certain charm, this idea that the donkey can talk to the lamb, and the ox to the camels, or your dog to the goldfish.
Animals are part of the Christmas scene from the Biblical narrative to the crèche set on your mantelpiece.
We know about Mary's poor donkey (more tradition than Scripture, but you don't think a nine-months'-gone woman walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, do you), the camels of the magi (not in Matthew 2, perhaps, but they come from Isaiah 60), and obviously shepherds have to have sheep.
The ox is necessary if only because a) any rural, farming family in that time and place would have had one, and b) that's the one of the "living creatures" from Ezekiel and Revelation which has traditionally been associated with Luke's gospel, which is where the classic heart of the Christmas story come from (the wise men added from Matthew's account).
That's the menagerie you generally have gathered in any traditional manger scene. They set the scene in many ways, since the manger, the feed trough in which baby Jesus is placed, the sign which the angels share with the shepherds as how they can tell they've got the right child, surely belongs in a barn, and what's a barn without animals?
We may overdo the barn-like associations; on a winter night in Judea, the livestock probably lived right in there with the family, for warmth and security. In Ohio two hundred years ago, a posthouse lodging like Granville's Buxton Inn had the stable in the basement, so the body heat of the horses and cows and pigs would help to warm the rooms upstairs. If you think "that's not all of what would waft upstairs," you have to remember that the guests would have bathed once a month whether they needed it or not, so . . .
Anyhow, you can't have the Christmas story without the animals. They set the scene, frame the story, mark the developments directly or indirectly, and remind us that the grand story of redemption opening up with the birth of Jesus is intended because "God so loved the world," the "cosmos" as the Greek would put it. The gift of the Christ is intended to begin the work of transforming all of creation, and that is not just a matter of humans alone. All creatures great and small have their place.
Many homes have their pet traditions at Christmastime. It may just be reindeer antlers on the family dog, or it might be a special collar in red and green. We always leave out not only a snack for that jolly old elf, the good Saint Nicholas himself, but also some carrots and apple slices for those eight (nine?) hard-working reindeer. Red-nosed or not, they now are part of the zoology of the season, and if you don't want reindeer droppings on your living room carpet, you'd better make sure to keep that snack plate stocked with more than cookies.
Does your cat have a stocking? Should there be an extra dash of fish food into the aquarium? I once knew a person who had a diver-bubbler in their tank with a festive red hat peaked with a big white pom-pom, that she put in only for the month of December. January 1, the regular diver went back on duty "under the sea."
Pets and companion animals have the primary purpose of offering companionship and comfort to we humans, and each of us has a different reaction to various animals. Some make of pets a kind of substitute child, others just want a creature to check in on, if not to communicate with.
As Christians, we who have primary stewardship of the story of Jesus' birth know that his relationship with each human soul is of primary importance. We also should know that part of the network of relationships that can open up hearts to the good news of the gospel is modeled in most of our manger scenes, where our relationships with animals are an integral part of the story.
May your whole family, human and otherwise, have a joyful and blessed Christmas celebration next week!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Newark; many churches in Licking County, including his, will be hosting a living nativity this weekend. Tell him how animals add to your sense of the season at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.