Monday, December 31, 2012

Tigers, Elephants, and Lobsters at the Creche

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

I’m going to start this sermon with a poem.

“The Nativity”

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with an ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!

C. S. Lewis

What do you make of the presence of barnyard creatures at the manger? The greater surprise is the presence there of a birth-weary human family, isn’t it? Not to mention assorted angels and eastern sages. It’s a farm, a barn, a manger, for heaven’s sake! The ox, the ass, the sheep are right where they belong: it’s their neighborhood, and they are at home. Their presence at the incarnation of God in Jesus reminds us that God is entirely at home with all creatures where they live, and while God enters human flesh, this is for the purpose of redeeming, hallowing, healing all the species of life. God initiates the new creation with the help of human DNA, but as in the first creation human beings were entrusted with the care of all manner of beings, so in this new created order God’s purpose exceeds us and our salvation. We sink or swim, burrow or fly, hand in paw with all God’s precious beings.

When we get to the feast of St. Francis in early October and the church announces its intention to bless the animals, each time we do we discover all over again that at the heart of that ceremony is the gracious truth that our animal companions bless us. They are God’s agents in blessing us, and blessing always has its way of eliciting blessing from the blessed. Look your animal companions in the eye, and remember your calling to live your life in such ways that you actually do bless them. As St. Paul says somewhere, we are all of us members one of another, living links in an astonishingly rich and diverse chain of being.

By that awareness, we weren’t all that surprised to see among the dramatis personae at our Christmas pageant this year a tiger and an elephant. Last year, I distinctly remember a very green frog and a totally pink pig. A penguin makes an occasional appearance at our altar crèche. In the plotline of the film “Love Actually” a London church’s pageant includes two lobsters and one octopus. I’d expect a good backstory to that… but if anyone contacts us to ask why a tiger and an elephant here in the Berkshires, in quiet little Williamstown, what will we tell them except that we have learned in Christ to welcome all as we all have been welcomed by Christ? And given the prophet Isaiah’s riff today on robes of righteousness, if you’ve got the costume, wear it!

Reinforcing the justice that many species should be present at the holy nativity is the view of Christ expressed in the sublime language of St. John’s preamble to his Gospel, where we are told, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

I hear C. S. Lewis treating life humbly and reverently as he confesses his own animal traits on the deficit side of his ledger (he is slow like an ox, stubborn like an ass, straying like a sheep) while quickly naming what he admires in each animal and hopes will be his: the ox’s strength, the ass’s patience, the sheep’s innocence.

If we heard our animal companions and our other-species neighbors speak about the humans they observe, what might we learn? If the animals admitted to having certain less than admirable human traits, what might those be?

I imagine the animals saying that we humans are so darned busy, so distractible that we fail to give time just to play, to adore, to cherish, to hold and caress. Diana reminds me that our sweet old English setter, Abby, used to step on our feet when she wanted our attention. She would put her paw down on the foot of the person, as if to say, Don’t leave—I want you. In more recent times, our entirely trusting cat Bindhu, surrounded by people busily moving about the kitchen, would lie down on the floor—preferably the center, or right in front of the refrigerator—making himself a being to reckon with, transferring to us the responsibility to notice and respond.

While we have neither of these wonderful companions with us any longer, the memory of how they communicated with us makes us think of God. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given…” How busily, how busily, we humans fill our moments and our days, and often miss the opportunity, the blessing, the grace, to be still… to adore… to hold and be held, to play, to be present.

Isn’t that what the creatures convey at the manger? Isn’t this how they—and the poet—invite us to treat life humbly and reverently? And isn’t the new year a perfect time to hear and welcome this invitation, all over again?

(Lewis's poem can be found in "Chapters Into Verse", volume 2, edited by
Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.)