My guess is that most of us have a huge selection of images to draw upon when we imagine the Christmas story. Many of these will be drawn from our regular hearing of the bible passages – year in, year out, the same passages read and re-read. The rhythm of the words sinking into our hearts and minds.
In the sixth month an angel ..and there were shepherds…when they saw the star….In the beginning was the Word…and they laid Him in a manager. How can this be? Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts…
But we have other words too. From poems and carols that feed our imaginations.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. A cold time we had of it. Stood a lowly cattle shed. All is calm, all is bright.
Layer upon layer we continue to build our Christmas. Once St Francis had built the first crib we were able to add full technicolour. A donkey and an ox appeared at the back of a northern European medieaval stable. The surroundings now are that of a farmyard. A soft light shines on the mother and child – or rather, not on but from the mother and child. We can’t see the cold….indeed, it looks warm in the stable. By the time the kings arrive (for who wants ‘wise men’ with dusty old books when you have the chance to deck kings out in their gold and jewels)…by the time they arrive our imaginations are in overdrive. Camels appear and the star (like a ‘super trooper’ on stage) that beams down from above with its blinding light.
Last week, as we displayed 40 (and more) crib sets in Barney Church we had a competition. The competition was not to choose our favourite crib set – they are all too much loved to decide between them- but to choose our favourite character from the story. Jesus was too young to enter the poll and so voting was between Mary, Joseph, the animals, the shepherds and the kings. Who won? Mary polled well. Joseph picked up the dad’s vote but the winners were the animals: the ox and the ass sat in the background. Two characters who aren’t even mentioned in the gospels. The sheep – they are there with the shepherds ‘keeping watch’ over them. But the ox and the ass don’t appear – they are just assumed. Why? Why do we make that assumption? Well, we assume Mary and Joseph had some means of getting to Bethlehem…and the story mentions a manger but leaves vague who it was for.
That it was there however there can be little doubt. A peasant home in first century Palestine was built on two levels. You entered through the main door into a space where, last thing at night, you brought your animals. Leaving them there you climbed a handful of steps to the main living area: high enough above the animals to be clear of their mess but able to receive the heat they gave off. …and at this level, cared in the floor or (if you will, made out of wood) a trough or a manger from which your animals could feed. No ‘separate’ stable then: the animals part of the picture from the beginning.
We don’t know that they were an ox and an ass. That tradition comes from an obscure passage in the book of Isaiah where the prophet, in God’s name, rounds on the disobedient people of Israel and says:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
And so the ox and ass and camel who ‘adore’ the Christ in Rosetti’s carol appear in our crib scenes as examples of obedience. They know their owner, their master – do we?
And on around we go. Christmas rituals in all our homes. Trees and cards, much loved decorations making their appearance from cardboard boxes at the back of cupboards or brought down from the loft. The twelve days pass, lifting us up and over the turn of the year – why? Why do we do it? There are so many answers to that question. For many of us this year (of all years) the desire to switch on the lights has been stronger, to bring some relief at what feels like a dark and difficult time for us and for the world as a whole. A celebration of light in darkness is no bad thing. But there is more: of course there is more.
At the center of the scene – in our readings, in our carols and poems – there is the child. The One Christians believe to be Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. God of God, Light of Light here in front of us. The Kingdom of God in Jesus is making itself known on earth as in heaven. If any of this is true then we must learn from the animals for The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.
This Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords; of His kingdom there shall be no end – the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Unlike our crib figures He is not to be wrapped up in kitchen towel and put away in a cupboard. Rather, He seeks our recognition. He invites us to follow Him to learn from Him. And so at Christmas God issues us with a great invitation and he expects a reply – is it too much to say ‘yes’?
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