It will come as no surprise to most folks that I have always like the Christmas carol, “The Friendly Beasts.” The song is based on the legend that at the stroke of midnight, as Christmas day begins, animals talk. Of course, if you’re going to have a story about a baby born in a manger, sooner or later someone is going to start playing with the likelihood that there were animals there. And then it is only a short step to begin making up stuff for the animals to do. “‘I,’ said the sheep with the curly horn. ‘I gave him my wool for a blanket warm. He wore my coat on Christmas morn. I,’ said the sheep with the curly horn.”
There is something profoundly comforting about imagining the infant Jesus being surrounded by friendly beasts. We put the pictures in the story books we give our children. We dress up our manger scenes as if a shepherd awakened on a hillside by singing angels would have slung a lamb over his shoulder as he headed down the hill to town. Some crèches even have enough sheep to suggest that the shepherds brought their whole flock running with them to the manger as they came with haste to find who was lying there. The reality of it all is, of course, very different. I can’t imagine bringing lambs anywhere if I am in a hurry to get there. And how would I bring a whole flock? At least one of our church’s Christmas picture books includes a Border collie arriving at the stable with the shepherds- an absolute necessity in my opinion if you are going to bring a bunch of sheep to a birth. And it had better be a very good border collie at that.
As for being born in a stable, well. . . . I once helped my veterinarian do a caesarean delivery of a lamb out in my barn. I was surprised by the lengths to which he went to try to create some kind of sterile environment out there amidst the muck. There he was, carefully donning gloves, unwrapping packets of instruments, responding to possible contamination as if he was in a pristine operating room. The lamb was not alive when we got to it, but with good antibiotics, the ewe survived that surgery. I picture Mary having her first child in a stable and I shudder.
I am sure the writer of the Gospel of Luke intended us to shutter. And then to notice. And maybe even to imagine the animals there. Stories of Jesus’ appearance, or of Mary’s visitation to faithful followers of her son in the 2,000 years since that first story was written, have always highlighted the poorest, least reputable, most discarded of the world as the place where God shows up. The point is clear. If we are truly searching for God’s presence, we could do a lot worse than to look in unexpected places, and to listen for unfamiliar voices.
As the animal legend is told, even today, if you are in the right place at the right time, you might hear the animals speaking, praising God, even laughing together in joy in the first moments of Christmas day. In some countries it is said that children sneak off to stables to listen for the sound.
On Christmas Eve our church has a candlelight service of lessons and carols that ends at midnight. Back on the farm, my sheep are already in the barn, settled down for the night. Because I am in Seattle and they are on Whidbey Island, I have never been there to test the legend of talking sheep. But no matter. I have been listening to the sheep all year. And they do, indeed, say “Praise.”