Based on Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
So far at The Land, our December Saturday morning gatherings have highlighted stories about angels, about Mary and Joseph, about shepherds and kings…everyone who has been positioned in the Nativity Scene has had their moment on the brightly lit stage of our theological review. The only guests left waiting for their moment of fame are the animals.
There are many things that aren’t factual about the arrangement of the Nativity scene. Though denying this feels futile and exhausting, simply skipping over the conversation feels irresponsible and shallow. In the past, I have always found energy around looking behind the curtain at the gaps between what most likely happened and what we choose to believe for insight and inspiration. This year, for whatever reason, I found myself sitting on the stage with all that has been placed there. This year, I have chosen to embrace the factually inaccurate to search for the spiritually true. The truth that lies in a narrative being created behind us, before us and around us this Season and all Seasons, for that matter.
Theologians and biblical scholars accept that the Nativity scene is a result of 2,000 years of interpretations and elaboration. For example, only the gospel of Matthew tells of the Magi, or the wise men, following a star, but he doesn’t say there are three of them and they likely arrived quite some time after the birth. Only Luke mentions a manger, shepherds and a chorus of angels. There’s no mention in either version that Mary rode into Bethlehem on a donkey. And there’s no mention of any animals in the stable – though one could assume some may have been present.
The presence of the animals at the manger scene is attributed to St. Francis of Assis, who in 1223, in the town of Greccio, Italy set up an empty manger (the feeding trough of farm animals which served as Jesus’ crib) inside a cave, and even included a live ox and donkey beside the manger just as it was believed to have happened on that first Christmas night.
Regarding his desire to create the first nativity scene in his town, St. Francis is quoted as saying he wanted, “to do something that w[ould] recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”
These inconveniences St. Francis refers to plant themselves in the remembrance of a Jesus who was born among animals; A stark juxtaposition to the presence of Emperor Augustus, whose name means translates as “highly exalted.” This Jesus staged in the Nativity is born grounded in the earth; surrounded by animals.
Though far from historically, or even biblically accurate, the set-up of the manger scene has become the encapsulation of the story itself; the way in which a simple scene tells a story, communicates a message and infuses meaning into our concept of Christ’s presence in the world today and our own placement within creation.
Could you imagine a hospital birthing room today filled with a donkey, some sheep and a goat? The noise, the smell, the chaos that this brings up in our imaginations sits curiously next to the peace-filled image of a sleeping baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloth, lying in a manger.
The need for a sanitized space in light of scientific developments surrounding the genesis of disease dictates that babies should be born in sterile environments. Fortunately, the theological argument of the Nativity is not for the insertion of animals into birthing rooms. The theological argument of the Nativity is for the desterilization of our spiritual lives and for the reintegration of our physical presence.
Two weekends ago, carrying a large bin that I had wisely loaded with books up two flights of stairs, I hurt my lower back. Even after taking pain medication, applying heat and then ice, I was still in the type of pain that required grunts to accompany the slightest movement. Feeling rather sorry for myself, I encouraged my dog, Tracey, to come snuggle with me. She was lying only a few feet away from me on the bed, so I patted the spot next to me and called her name. She raised her head and scooted a few inches in my direction before she stood up, turned herself around and laid back down in a direction on the bed where she neither closer to me nor was she even facing me.
This is not too distant from the ways in which we, on a corporate level, have heard the cries of our fellow creatures only to turn away, returning to our own version of the sweet slumber of ignorance. Ignorance not simply of their plight caused by our practices, but ignorance of our deep interconnectedness to all of creation. An ignorance sparked by a great forgetting of our need to remain connected with creation to be spiritually challenged, spiritually alive.
This great disconnect with creation is much more reflective of a desire to be highly exalted over and above than it is to humble ourselves within the manger scene. The cleanliness we seek in our religious lives; represented in an impractical commitment to the false segregation of the sacred and the secular, of human and animal, communicates a dangerous comfort in a risen status as pseudo-Emperors… even as we witness a Christ in the Nativity pulling us back down and rooting us in Creation.
It is the Nativity scene, in all its historical and biblical inaccuracies, which grounds us in our identity in Christ and reminds us of our call in this world. This call being an invitation to sink into the interconnectedness of a world tangled in the constant rebound of cause and effect, a web in which we too, are recipients of our own neglect and caretaking of the creatures with whom we share this global home.
In his book, The Life-Changing Benefits of Animal Encounters, Richard Louv builds on an emerging body of research showing that animal companionship helps in the management of a plethora of mortal diagnoses, including stress, depression, and dementia. Examining the rise of pet ownership in the United States, Louv makes a strong case that the trend is linked to human loneliness, an epidemic that some experts predict will soon surpass the health impacts of obesity. “I think,” Louv writes, “that we are desperate not to feel alone in the universe, and ironically, we are surrounded by a neighborhood of animals.”
The Nativity scene is much more than a historical depiction of how Jesus was born. It is a powerful theological message that we are truly not alone. A masterful message contained in one simple scene that we too are birthed into a deep web of fellow creatures; brought to life by plants that fill our lungs with oxygen, donkeys that provide our tired feet a rest, birds that wake us with song, cats that warm our laps and dogs that make us laugh.
The Nativity scene functions as a colorful, spiritual pallet for divine accompaniment as we journey through a world that can be cold and cruel, isolating and dividing. A world that often identifies difference as that which disconnects when it is, in fact, the opposite that we find to be true.
In the Nativity, there is a place for all of creation and, this Christmas Eve, I would like to suggest that a place in the scene is also held vacant for you. To offer you hope that the restoration of Creation requires this return to our belonging as Creatures. And, to gently remind you, if you even need reminding at all, that you have not been disqualified from belonging for something that you have done, nor will you be exiled for the person that you are.
The Nativity has no doors. No bouncer. No VIP list.
There is no special creed or secret handshake or rhythmic knock; your belonging is granted by nothing more and nothing less that your presence in this world. Created being. Beloved creature. Placed in a scene filled with diverse guests, surrounded by a neighborhood of animals. The movement of the world and the sound of all creatures, form a carol buried in each human heart, singing that though this world may at times feel desperately lonely, in the presence of Creation, the fact is that we are never alone.