The book of Isaiah describes God’s peaceable kingdom like this: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. . . . They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says God’s messenger.
In the beginning, our ancestral stories tell us, humans lived in peace with all the animals, taking joy in them and naming them. There was intimacy in Eden, where humans were created to guard and serve the earth. But the humans broke that intimacy, and we’ve been living with the loss ever since.
Christmas is the beginning of that healing.
It’s a story we’re so accustomed to that we’ve lost the capacity to be astonished by it, but astonishing it is! The holy parents are no more than a couple of teenagers, bedded down among sheep and donkeys. A baby, helpless and needy. Every part of the story speaks, in its simplicity, to our shared vulnerability and animalness.
It’s a story of God starting over, not somewhere outside of the picture, or over our heads, reigning from up in heaven. In this story, God is among us, incarnate, literally “in flesh.” Our assumption of some great distance separating us from God has been obliterated, as God becomes explicitly a part of the family of earth. A creature, like us, of flesh and blood and loves and fears and needs.
And it is for the purpose of creating the Peaceable Kingdom that God takes such an intimate step, entering into the family of creation, which we celebrate and recognize through our traditions of animals’ roles in the Christmas story.
There are many tales of animals on Christmas Eve. A very ancient story says that the ox and donkey in the Bethlehem stable bowed down when Jesus was born. In Europe folks told their children that, on Christmas Eve, animals gained the power of speech. Canadian Aboriginals said that, on Christmas Eve, all the deer in the forest would fall on their knees to praise the Great Spirit. You may have grown up, as I did, with the book “The Animals’ Christmas Eve,” in which different barn animals tell the story of the original Christmas by recalling the creatures who were the first witnesses of the miraculous birth.
It’s easy to mistake these stories as purely fanciful, childish. But there is a deeper truth to them: God’s incarnation is good news for all creation. All of it. The humbling of a divine being who entered into the human race—and an oppressed, impoverished nation, at that—means the lifting up and dignifying of not only oppressed, impoverished humans but also the larger creation. A God who could be born in a stable, with sheep and donkeys and oxen, who could use a feeding trough as a bed, is a sign: God loves the poor and humble. God loves those on the margins of society, the powerless, the forgotten. Indeed, one of the refrains of Scripture is that, though the rulers may forget the poor, God remembers them. God always takes their side.
Who is more outside power than the animals? The Christ Child is good news for them as well. The Christ Child shows God’s deep solidarity with creation; with the needy; with limited, mortal beings. The Christ Child is an icon of the face of God, a revelation that God is among us. The red-faced, squalling baby Jesus, framed by hay and rough wood, surrounded by his teenage parents and humble shepherds and barn animals, that is God’s self-portrait. At my church in Cleveland, the priest used to say every Christmas Eve that, on this night, all heaven breaks loose. And it’s true, but the heaven is not the one we expected: it is, instead, a heaven on earth. This earth, this spinning blue dot that contains all the life we know of, suspended in space. God opens heaven, and shows us our world, in a new light.
Theologians of the early church called Jesus the second Adam, because through him our lost interconnectedness would be restored and creation would be made whole. The presence of the Christ Child in that stable is God’s pointing finger, indicating the fragile, created world, the world of barns and hay and warm, breathing animal flanks, the world of cows and cats and hermit thrush, of lynx and black bear, moose and chickadee. The baby’s face illuminates all that is precious and tiny and threatened, all that we sometimes fear to love because it is mortal and might be lost to us. This child, his umbilical cord just barely cut, tethers us and our spirituality to the things of earth, he pulls us into relationship with each other—with the vulnerable—and calls us to a similar vulnerability. This infant is the child foretold by Isaiah, the one to lead the peaceable kingdom, in which all beings are reconciled and crowned with dignity.
There’s a favorite poem of mine, on a favorite Christmas album, “A Christmas Together,” by John Denver and the Muppets. Some of you maybe know this album, too? This sweet and fanciful poem is told from the point of view of Alfie, a Christmas tree who lives in the forest, not one that’s cut down in the living room. Alfie “liked wolves and eagles and grizzly bears/And critters and creatures that crawled/Why bugs were some of his very best friends/Spiders and ants and all!” It’s a beautiful reflection on universalism and the family of humanity and I encourage all of you to listen to it tomorrow if you can on YouTube—I checked, and can report that it is available there!
But tonight I want to pass on the message from Alfie, the free-range Christmas tree. “When you’re at Christmas prayers this year/Alfie asked me if I’d ask you/Say a prayer for the wind and the water and the wood/And those who live there too.”