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Thinking Out Loud

"Christmas Eve and Twelve of the Clock"

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 15, 2014
TOLImage 121614The headline of the British newspaper, The Telegraph, on November 20, 2012, read: "Nativity donkeys and cattle are a myth, says Pope." The headline referred to something then Pope Benedict XVI had written in a recent book. The former pontiff, a formidable scholar, was simply stating the historical facts as he understood them. But his comments drew a firestorm, and the Internet went nuts.

Or, maybe not nuts at all.

Among the responses I read to Pope Benedict's comments (and I have only read a fraction of them), there was a reminder that there must at least have been a donkey around (i.e., the one that conveyed Mary to the manger in the first place). Not nuts.

There were several reflections on the first known living Nativity scene, which was staged by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222 near the village of Greccio, Italy, in a grotto complete with an ox and a donkey. I'm not calling St. Francis nuts, and you can't make me!

There was an exceptionally insightful theological reflection by The Catholic Register (November 28, 2013), which explained that the reason animals are pictured at the birth of Jesus is to proclaim the fact that Christ is Lord of all creation. "The world was present" at Jesus' birth, and all creation bowed in worship and adoration at the manger. Theologically speaking, this is sensible indeed.

C.S. Lewis, in a well-known poem “The Nativity,” used the presence of animals at the nativity (adding sheep, since the shepherds also made their way to the manger according to the gospel story) to reflect on our human struggles to respond to Christ in faith. Each animal, for Lewis, personifies something in us, and each stanza of the poem begins a devotional reflection, as follows:

Among the Oxen (like an ox I'm slow) …

Among the asses (stubborn I as they) ...

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed) …

Though Lewis doesn't allude to it himself, there is a legend which also says that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve all of the animals are granted the power of speech. A French Christmas carol of the twelfth century draws on this legend, concluding with the verses:

Thus every beast by some glad spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.

("The Friendly Beasts," translated into a English in 1934 by Robert Davis)

There is biblical warrant for the theological view that all creation praises God for its redemption, as The Catholic Register commentary reminded us. And there are few ways we can better illustrate this theological conviction than by placing words of praise in the mouths of the lowliest animals standing round the infant in the manger. Thus, the wisdom of the ancient legend.

The most recent, and one of the most poignant, renderings of this theological wisdom is Lee Bennett Hopkins' new children's book, Manger, lavishly illustrated by Helen Cann. Hopkins selected poems by a variety of poets allowing a horse, a cat, a mouse, a dog, a cow, a wren, an owl, a fish and a spider each to praise the infant Jesus. Among the most wonderful of the short poems in this beautiful picture book for small children (and, of course, the adults who love them) are "The Mousesong" and "The Spider's Gift."*

There's something really significant and profoundly resonant about the idea of animals attending the birth of Christ, something that reaches deep inside of us, perhaps touching the child in us who longs for wonder. This is why the Internet lit up when Pope Benedict called the presence of animals at the Nativity into question. The idea that animals bear witness to Jesus' birth even affected the romantic old agnostic poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.

Hardy's poem, “The Oxen,” which begins,

Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease

takes us deep into a legend that would not die, even in the heart of the poet who also penned the fiercely elegiac "God's Funeral." In the minds of rugged shepherds beside a fire in rural western England, Hardy pictures a vision of animals gathered together to worship and praise God.

The poet expresses the incredulity of his time, the modern era, and expresses doubt poured equally and liberally on superstition, legend and faith alike. But he continues on to say:

So fair a fancy few would weave,
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said, on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

And so would I. No matter who says it's dubious. "Hoping it might be so."

*Lee Bennett Hopkins and Helen Cann, Manger, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014).

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