I keep my crèches in my downstairs closet, where they are handy for set up. I have a variety of sets, from plastic ones that children can play with, to a lovely porcelain one I keep up higher where children can gaze but can’t reach. In my house of course the issue isn’t children, it’s dogs. They love all the decorations that comes out this time of year, as well as the tree which comes in. I have know idea what they think of it all but they are very curious. And they do like carrying around the crèche figures, and finding some private corner to chew on them.
All of which brings me to the phrase “a dog in the manger.” Its an old expression and not used very often these days so maybe some of you haven’t heard it before. But I don’t need to hear people say it “out there” because the phrase just lives in my head. I remember many years ago at a staff Christmas party at Don Mackenzie’s house. Don is a former minister of our church and when I began serving here too the tradition was already established that Don and his wife Judy would invite everyone to their place on a Saturday before Christmas. The house was always beautifully decorated, with a tree and lights and a lovely crèche that was always on display. We would all share a potluck meal and enjoy a light-hearted gift exchange. I still have the Santa Claus toilet seat cover I got there my first Christmas In Seattle. So you get what level of “light hearted” I’m talking about.
As the years went by, we developed two traditions around that gathering. One was to choose one of the particularly “interesting” gifts we had received at the party to leave behind, hidden so Don or Judy would find it at some random future time. It was always fun and tricky to choose just the right gift and find just the right time to hide it.
The other tradition was to add some random animal to the crèche.
So it came to pass that one Christmas, thinking of that phrase “dog in the manger” I brought a little border collie statue to leave behind. As I recall (whether or not it happened that way), I actually moved the baby Jesus aside and put the dog in the manger. Yes, I do have a “just on the edge of sacrilegious” streak. As I also recall Don spotted the change before the party was over and quickly returned Jesus to his rightful place. The little plastic border collie was reassigned to sheep management, which suited her just fine. In my imagination the statue of Mary breathed a sigh of relief.
It was not until a few years ago that I got curious about what the phrase “dog in a manger” really means. Although it was coming up regularly in my head, I didn’t know how to use the phrase in a sentence. It turns out that dogs in mangers have nothing to do with nativity scenes. The phrase is actually based on an old Greek fable that was written down by Diogenianus just a few decades after the New Testament stories were recorded. Basically, the story is that a dog hopped into the manger where a horse’s grain was. And although the dog, being a carnivore, had no use for the grain, he nevertheless stayed in the manger, preventing the horse from getting dinner as well. It eventually became a part of Aesop’s Fables, where the horse becomes an ox and the dog becomes envious, representing people who can’t use something but won’t let others have it either. Yes, I’ve met people like that. I’ve even noticed that shadow in myself.
Of course it fascinates me to put these images together. My original image of a child born in a stable, cradled in a manger, while he and his family are comforted by a welcoming dog reminds me of the way all sorts of friendly beasts occupy our lives, grounding us and connecting us with all creation. And the other story of a dog guarding for herself what she cannot use, refusing to let the hungry cow near the grain the cow needs, reminds me of Mary’s song about the meaning of this birth: that God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Yes, I will keep imagining dogs in mangers. Not only is it a habit with me now, but I like the way it points me to both the tenderness and the prophetic message of this season. May you also know the connection and the call of this Advent time.