It’s the romanticized backdrop to Jesus’ birth in a manger. The animals provide a peaceable community and steady witness — and perhaps even warmth — along with the small cast of humans… Mary and Joseph, a few straggling Shepherds and the odd Spiritual seekers from afar… vis a vis the cold and uncaring night into which Jesus was born into the world.
We imagine the cows gently mooing the baby to sleep. The sheep nestled nearby. The donkey having borne almost full-term Mary on the long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, now tethered and waiting patiently for the next leg of the journey. Camels, regal arrivals with the Kings, standing outside, a sign for the larger world that something different is going on, quietly, in this outbuilding outback.
And the goats– well, I can’t figure out with all their nibbling, bleating and nipping, how they fit in, but in our creche, they’re there too.
Maybe part of our picturing the scene comes from transposing or overlaying the Christmas prophecies we rely on for our understanding of the Incarnation’s promise. Isaiah 11: 6-9 prophesies:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling 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.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
But what about when life doesn’t work out as promised? When our reality — or our holiday — isn’t so beatific, so picture-perfect?
Each time we host the animals, it seems, there are complications, something that didn’t go quite right, or at least easily. Actually, I think this is among the deeper meanings that Old First having a creche each year is supposed to remind us of. Something about real animals that get hungry and produce dung that needs to be scooped up. Matted fur and nibbling that can sort of surprise one — somehow they keep us from letting the Nativity become to sanitized and Hallmark.
The randy cow for the last couple of years that kept jumping up on people (a bit more challenging with all its weight and awkwardness than even a big dog jumping).
Perhaps, apocraphyl, but when we used to have a camel, and it got loose and wandered down 4th Street…
This year it was a juvenile donkey that wasn’t acclimated to sharing a corral with other animals. Not a good neighbor, you might say. He terrorized the goats until they took refuge, cowering under the feeder. And he took tufts of hair out of the sheep. And bites out of the poor calf. We kept getting distressed messages from visitors to the creche: “the animals are going wild; that donkey is trouble.”
We did what we could, separating Dill the Donkey from his victims. And it helped for a time. But if a donkey doesn’t want to stay put… Our creche is set up more for a peacable kingdom than for animals that can’t get along or share the corral.
Not being too gloomy, one could also describe humans as animals that often don’t really get along. We often don’t share “the corral” easily.
And this is exactly the world that Jesus came into. The world that wasn’t ready to receive him. Because we’re fighting and unfair with one another. But God sent him to us nonetheless. Not to condemn the world. But to save the world. Animals and all.
Sorry if you missed the animals visit this year. They’ve gone back to the farm where there’s room for Dill — maybe a whole pasture — to be by himself until he gets a bit more mature and better at living with others.
They will be back next year, usually for the whole month of December. If you want to get involved with their care and our creche ministry, contact the office at Old First (215.922.4566 or firstname.lastname@example.org): we’re having great success in getting more people from the wider community involved. This year, it was truly a delight to see so many people taking them for walks in Old City: what better way to share some of the Christmas story with people right in the middle of their ubran lives.
… And maybe “we animals outside the corral” are learning to get along better! We believe Jesus shows us a way…
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
Rev. Michael W. Caine… for the Old First UCC Church community