How is your Christmas Eve so far?
Are you all set to continue your traditions, even the silly ones? If you're not, that's okay you know. Sometimes life intervenes. We have a lot of traditions in my family: one, for instance, is that everyone gets new jammies on Christmas Eve so they look good for those Kodak moments the next morning. Another tradition is that the tree has to fall over at least once.
In past years my mother has started a tradition with me: she sends me the funniest religious cards she can find the most irreverent, hilarious cards. One had on it "The Negativity Scene" instead of "The Nativity," where Joseph is complaining that there's another mouth to feed and Mary is saying "I wanted a girl!"
My favorite, though, is one that Mom sent me two or three years ago. It shows Mother Mary sitting at home, clad in her traditional blue veil, and a grown-up Jesus is coming through the door. Snowflakes are whirling through the open door into the house. Mary is saying, "Jesus, close the door! Where were you born . . . in a barn?"
It's a great joke. Especially great because of course we've all had that remark tossed at us, and because while it's considered an insult, the truth is that yes, Jesus was born in a barn. Our triumphant processional to Bethlehem leads us not to a fancy, golden palace but to a humble manger, where four-legged critters quietly keep watch while a young couple sweats and labors to bring a new child into the world.
We hear this, how there was no room in the inn, and we feel sorry for Mary and Joseph (but especially Mary). A stable, a barn, a manger where barnyard animals eat. There's no dignity in that! Such shame! But wait. Where's the shame, exactly? Two thousand years ago, large animals like cattle and donkeys were very expensive and important to their owners, and they would have been carefully cared for. That barn, warmed by the body heat of gentle, quiet, friendly beasts, probably provided a more peaceful, comfortable atmosphere than Mary would have found in a noisy, crowded inn. It would have been kept clean and it would have been filled with the smell of hay and cozy animals. Perhaps young Mary found it comforting to have such silent and supportive witnesses to her labor as the cows and sheep, who give birth as simply and naturally as eating or lying in the grass in the sunshine. Maybe that would make her ordeal somehow easier to bear, away from the chaos of the human crowd.
When we deck our halls with boughs of holly and glittery silver and gold decorations, we should recognize that we do it to celebrate simplicity, not to impress the neighbors, or even to give God glory. The Jesus tradition informs us that God doesn't need glory like that. And I think the animals in traditional manger scenes best represent that simplicity, that natural earthiness that Jesus preferred to pomp and fuss. I like to imagine the friendly beasts whooshing their tails and maybe walking up to gently snuffle the baby with their warm muzzles. Another human baby, they think. Maybe this one will be a good influence on those other t two-legged ones.
I like to think of Christmas as the sacred story of how God decides to get born in a barn. I hope you will too. I hope you will think of the blessedness of this night as a call to embrace all of God's creation as precious and irreplaceable, and that as you enter into the magic of this evening, you will call into your circle of love and appreciation those critters who offer their silent hallelujah to all our sung glorias. It is all our world, those who walk upright, those who walk on cloven hooves, those who fly on wings, those who crawl along the ground taking their nourishment without the benefit of hands. Jesus, our reason for singing "Joy to the World," came to bless the whole world, and to encourage us to be mindful and caring of all of creation. Of all of the friendly beasts who were present at the birth in the manger, it was Jesus' wish that his human brothers and sisters be the gentlest , most humble and most grateful to God of all.
I hope you will join me in singing this sweet old carol, "The Friendly Beasts