The Friendly Beasts
I love the Christmas story! The shepherds and angels out in the fields. The Magi following a star. The drama of Mary and Joseph’s dilemma. And, my favorite: all the wonderful animals that gather around the Christ child lying in a manger. If you really read the Christmas story, there are no animals mentioned. We hear of Mary and Joseph having to travel to Bethlehem and we want there to be a donkey so that Mary won’t have to walk all that way, and so a donkey appears. And when we hear of a band of mysterious Magi coming from “the East”, our imaginations instantly conjure up camels because it adds to the Wise Men’s mystic! There is something about the Christmas story that captures the child in all of us, and part of the fun seems to be adding to it! Isn’t that cool!?!
For our Christmas Pageant this year, I had the children sing one of my favorite Christmas carols: a beautiful folk song called “The Friendly Beasts.” It’s a wonderful song that has each of the animals offering a gift to the baby Jesus. The donkey offers her back in order to carry Mary. The sheep offer wool for a blanket. The cow offers hay to pillow the babe’s head. Why even the doves offer a song to coo the little one to sleep. As I went on the internet to check out the exact words of this song, I discovered that there was one version that had 11 verses! My favorite one was about a cat:
“I said the cat with the velvet fur; I curled at his feet, for him I did purr;
I warmed his toes, so he did not stir; I said the cat with the velvet fur.”
Just for your information some of the animals present, according to this song, are mice and spiders (the spider spins a halo for Jesus’ head)! What fun! God gives us the bass line...the central story...but like jazz, he/she allows us to have fun with the story! To dance and improvise upon it. And, if we keep the central spirit of the story intact, all sorts of insights dance on the stage of this remarkable yet simple story!
This year I’ve been reading a bit of Christmas “Midrash!” If you aren’t familiar with the idea of Midrash, let me help you out. Midrash is the ancient Jewish practice of taking the sacred text and then expounding on it over the years. Reading Midrash is like listening to a hundred rabbis improvise on the baseline of scripture.
The bit of Christmas Midrash that I’m reading this year is an Advent devotional book called “Watch for the Light.” This is a true treasure! It has some of my favorite authors in it: Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, L ’Engle, Lewis, Willimon, Norris, Nouwen, Dillard and many more, and they are all “playing little jazz improv solos” over the Christmas story. I have found myself reading and re-reading as I find deeper and deeper layers of insight not only into the Christmas story but into my life.
Most of these reflections are inspirational, but others kind of scare you a bit (ala John the Baptist)! One of the more disturbing readings for me is one I read that had a different interpretation concerning the animals at the manger. I’ve always seen the animals as “friendly beasts.” As part of the glow of the Christmas message. In my heart I think they are a symbolic reference to the “Peaceable Kingdom” passage in Isaiah (Isaiah 11) where peace in the world includes the lion lying down with the lamb. But this reading refers to mystic monk who sees the animals in the manger as representing the deep human desires that tend to crowd the grace of Christ out of our hearts. The ox represents our passion and the ass represents our prejudice. They are animals which take up too room and don’t allow the Christ child to grow in our hearts because we are too consumed with feeding that ox and ass “on the quiet.”
Certainly, a different take than mine, but one worth pondering. As we move to the manger for bending, is there enough room in our heart to receive and nurture new birth? What passions and prejudices are we feeding “on the quiet” that are taking up room in our hearts?
Your friend and pastor, pondering like Mary whether I have room, Brook