by Pastor Marty
My 27 month old son Malakai loves books. The first thing he wants in the morning and the last thing he wants at night is to sit on our lap and plow through several books. Currently, he’s in the Christmas spirit with favorites about Jesus’ birth. Perhaps it’s because they are kids’ books, but all of the Christmas books we read to him focus significantly on the presence of animals at the birth of the Christ child. In one, “Old Ox” welcomes all “little ones” into his stable for warmth and safety. In another, the cattle guard the baby Jesus while Donkey warms Mary. In still another, each animal is in turn pictured as presenting the baby a precious gift similar to the wise men.
All of these stories can be attributed to “artistic license,” as Scripture does not include the literal presence of animals by Mary’s side while she delivered the Christ child. (Nor, for that matter, is there ever mention of a stable, or the location of Jesus’ actual birth!). However, there is a longstanding tradition to include the animals like the HMC Christmas choir who sang, “Ox and ass before him bow…” This tradition may have its genesis with St Francis of Assisi, the 12th century lover of animals who was the first to create what we know of as the nativity scene complete with animals, stable, shepherds, parents, magi, and baby Jesus. This picture is a mash up of all the stories spread throughout the gospels alongside a fair bit of creative license. Francis loved animals and nature, and one day, while Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:
My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you… you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.
No one knows for sure if animals were present at Jesus’ birth. But I, like Malakai and Francis, love to think they were! I love the picture of all creation praising God at the birth of the baby Savior! Creation praises God throughout the Psalms, in Joel, Amos and Revelation. And at one point in his ministry Jesus declares, “If these people were silent then the stones would cry out!”
And so, with a little artistic license, I invite you to take time this Friday (Christmas day) to be like the animals. Set aside time for family, for food, for presents and fun. But also set aside some time to worship God and Christ the newborn king. Pull out an old hymnbook and sing some songs together (we do that quite a bit at our house, and no one seems to mind when we’re off tune!). Read the Christmas stories from Scripture (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-2:18; Psalm 148) and reflect silently for several minutes. Jot down a list of things that would be missing from your life and the world if Christmas had never happened. Attend a worship service at a local church near your home. Try a breath prayer: sit quietly for 15 minutes and, as you breathe in say to yourself “Immanuel”; as you breathe out think “God with us.” Find a way to worship that fits your personality, gifts, and mood. And by all means, do it with your dog laying peacefully on your lap! In all that you do this Birthday, be like the animals: Be awestruck at the glory of God in Christ!
The heavens and the angels, the sun, moon, and stars, all that dwell in the sea, and the mountains, and the air, all people, men and women, young and old, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds,“Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148).