“This will be a sign for you … a child, lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:12 (NRSV)
We know all we know about the first Christmas Eve from a few Gospel stories, all written decades later, all different in detail. They have this in common though: no animals are mentioned at Jesus’ birth. No lowing cattle, no braying donkey, no stamping sheep, no droopy-eyed dromedaries parked outside.
Which is why, when it comes to Christmas, imagination is more reliable than Holy Writ. Christians know what to do with the bare bones of a good story: add flesh.
No animals? But there’s a manger, so there must’ve been animals! The evangelists probably just forgot. Surely God wants this corrected. Henceforth, then, let us sing about the donkey in the corner stall, paint loveable lambkins into the scene, arrange cattle in crèches where they belong and, while we’re at it, throw in Godzilla and a cat.
Thus have animals become gospel. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
I once got a card showing Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. An ox muzzles at it, stink-eyeing the babe, as if to say, “You’re cute, little boy, but you’re lying on my dinner.” Ugh, I moralized, there it is on a Christmas card – humans monopolizing all the space, making life hard for every animal but us.
But I also felt glad. Glad the ox was even there. Glad that we humans, so self-centered most of the time, noticed for once that a vital part was missing and rushed to paint, write, and sing it back in. Glad, too, more than I can say, that tonight is born for us the One in whose bright realm no one is ever missing, no creature great or small left out of Love.
Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.