By Amber Noel
Jesus our brother, strong and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus our brother, strong and good.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried his mother up hill and down.
“I carried his mother to Bethlehem town,
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
“I,” said the cow, all white and red,
“I gave him my manger for his bed.
“I gave him my hay to pillow his head,
“I,” said the cow, all white and red.
A few years ago, I scribbled a few extra verses to the Christmas carol “The Friendly Beasts” into my hymnal. I just think too many beasts got left out (namely, the cat).
Was it likely that the Virgin Mary and her blessed spouse would have let a bunch of curious barn creatures hang their muzzles over their newborn? Did squirrels and birds gather around baby Jesus, à la Sleeping Beauty, to contemplate him? Probably not. But like all imaginative Nativity scenes, the point is not to paint a literal picture, but to give a splash of local color, as it were, and through it, to express a theological truth. It didn’t happen like this, but it matters like this.
And what is it that matters? What do animals tell us about Christmas?
Let’s back up a little, and begin with Advent. Among his many other provocative and unforgettable questions, theologian Willie James Jennings has been known to ask: “How do animals wait for God?” Scripture attests often to non-human critters waiting for God, relying on him — for food and survival: “The eyes of all look to you, / and you give them their food in due season … / When you send your Spirit, they are created” (Ps. 104:27, 30); for death and judgment: “When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust” (Ps. 104:29), “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it” (Gen. 9:5); and for redemption: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19). Human waiting for Christ may be self-conscious in a way it is not for other animals (though, who knows?), but we’re clearly not the only ones who do it. The next time your dog does that eyebrow-wagging, eye-rolling thing and sighs in the profoundest, most melancholy way, for apparently no reason, who’s to say ’he’s not longing for the return of his Master?
Other animals may not long for God in all the ways we do. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that they cannot, not being united to God in specifically human flesh. But speaking of that melancholy dog-sigh we’ve all heard, we might say a word here, along with animal waiting, about animal suffering, since to suffer is to endure. What is it that earth’s creatures wait for “with eager longing”? To be freed from “futility.” We may guess that, as well as communicating desires, sufferings, and needs to one another, animals also express them to God. When there is not another creature around, a cat might play, a wounded wolf whine, a bear in labor groan, a bird call, a whale or elephant elaborately “sing” over a dead calf.
C.S. Lewis, in his novel That Hideous Strength, puts us for a few paragraphs in the mindset of a bear, and asks whether, because they lack a sense of organized time, animals don’t feel joy and distress even more directly, fiercely, in their own way, than humans do. This might be him riffing on Jeremy Taylor, by the way, who wonders a similar thing about human infants in his Holy Living. Can animals also protest against what shouldn’t hurt, what shouldn’t be? Of course they can. Maybe it is no coincidence that one of God’s most tear-jerking Christmas promises in Isaiah comes nested in animal images: the lion with the lamb, the bear with the calf, the toddler with the snake, “and they shall neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”
So if animals can wait for God, even long for him and his deliverance, once he arrives, how do they celebrate? How do they rejoice in his presence?
Here, too, C.S. Lewis has done some work. He paints some very charming — and moving — pictures of animals interacting with Christ as the Lion Aslan, in the land of Narnia. Talking Beasts, given the divine gifts of speech and intellection, along with all the wonderful array of non-talking animals, show pure animal joy and pleasure in their Lord’s presence. They bark, bay, trumpet, roar, purr, snuffle, respectfully “kiss” him with their tongues and noses. The smaller ones wind in and out ’ between his paws, and rub affectionately around his legs. They also obey him, either directly, when he asks something of them, or indirectly, simply by flourishing: being what they are, being happy, bringing up their cubs and laying eggs — being alive.
In our own world, the Book of Revelation is bold enough to see animals singing for joy at Christ’s victory:
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” (5:13)
And circling back to Isaiah’s vision of a Peaceable Kingdom — well, frankly, I can’t imagine not being disappointed if it doesn’t include leopards, goats, and lions eating salad (Ever watched a cat try to eat grass with incisors? Unexpectedly effective!), along with, praise God, all the metaphorical layers of political and human healing.
Why are we so interested in animals, anyway? Why do we seem particularly sensitive to their suffering or pleasure? Why do they tug our heart strings? Christmas may give us a clue here, too. At Christmas we contemplate the meek and lowly, beginning with the Lord Jesus. Christ’s lordship is like Adam’s: participating in compassionate existence with other species, being made of earth, and being one of many made likewise. This is our human lordship, our primal, Edenic lordship, fulfilled. But that God became a human animal among other human animals and other creatures, grown in a womb, born in blood, nursed on milk, needing warmth (it’s absurd how little fur humans have!), bathed and tended, vulnerable in a harsh world? That is a new thing. Animals, like our Lord, are amazingly humble. They receive reality as it’s given, and even as they suffer, they wait. They abide. One the most mysterious and most precious ministries of Christ’s incarnation is his “withness,” his patient abiding — which must be more than a patient animal’s, but it is surely not less. The Shepherd is also one of our flock, God’s lamb.
Christmas is the reunion — the new union — of God and humankind. The animals smell it: something’s going on here. They gather around. What just changed? They, too, wait with eager longing, ears cocked, whiskers piqued, noses to the wind.
It’s easy to romanticize animals. But to be fair, it’s also easy to romanticize people — or anything. And is the romantic vision always wrong? So far, we’ve considered mostly domestic or Narnian animals, you say. What about the tsetse fly, the anglerfish, the tarantula, or any wild beast that would just as well run or attack than look at you?
I have a cat named Blue. He is 14 years old, and since he was a few weeks old, he’s had a way of drinking from his water dish loudly, in small sips and large smacks, that somehow communicates distaste. It is a known quantity that cats enjoy water that’s moving, over water that’s still. One gruesome barbed-wire gash, eight stitches, and one exorbitant vet bill later, Blue is now banned from going outside to seek wilder waters and adventures. He gets bored, and yowls to be let out. And yet, with all its limits, he enjoys sharing life with humans. He gobbles up the stray cats’ food, but he always comes home.
Sharing life with humans adds a dimension to the lives of other animals. Even wild beasts, when they learn to trust a human, will submit, play, or groom as they do with others of their species; but they may also show unique behavior: respond to a name, come when called, lead a human to newborns, learn to wag their tails, ask to be petted, or give birth to whelps with domestic traits (see this PBS documentary on wild mule deer or Kevin Richardson with wild lions and hyenas on a reserve).
Of course, relationships with sinful humans come with dangers, too. We abuse, neglect animals, ravish their habitats; we are attacked, bitten, scratched, poisoned, eaten. All animals share the suffering of the earth we harmed by disobeying the Creator. In this world, a herd of elephants is drowned in a mud slide. A jellyfish stings and kills a human child. Might not the enmity in our members St. Paul talks about include the members of the earth, of any body of which humans are a part?
We do not yet know the fullness of fearless peace Christ purchased for us. But in what other way can animals know the joy that we know: the joy of God’s presence, humanely mediated, incarnate, other than in relationship with us? And in what other reality can animals maintain all the benefits of being wild and free as well as all the relational richness and security of being tamed? The same place humans can: the kingdom of God.
The newborn King — he is king of this kingdom. He is the Master whose voice perks our ears, whose fire we enjoy, whose home and table we share, whose high and strange vocabulary we learn, and from whom we will someday receive a new name. His house is the house where all water dishes are living streams, and the vision of Revelation is fulfilled, and the earth is full of the glory of God.
“I” said the dog, with wagging tail,
“I led the poor shepherds through moonlight pale,
“I led them to him without stumble or fail,
“I,” said the dog, with wagging tail.
“I,” said the cat, with eye so bright,
“I crouched by his crib and watched all night.
“I kept away things that might give a fright,
“I,” said the cat, with eye so bright.
“I,” said the mouse, in hidden beam,
“I sat still all night and heard him dream.
“Though small like me, I king him deem,
“I,” said the mouse, in hidden beam.
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel.