by Rev. J.R. Hyland
During the holiday season, the Christmas manger scene is an important symbol for those who believe that the birth of Jesus was the birth of their Savior. It also has importance for those who are only culturally Christian but view the nativity scene as another symbol that takes its place along with mistletoe, holly, and Santa Claus.
But the real significance of the story of an infant born in a stable is ignored by believers as well as by non-believers. Although Christians give lip-service to the doctrine that Jesus came to redeem all creation, most seem to think that "all creation" means human beings. They hold to this chauvinistic belief in spite of the biblical account that details the birth of Christ. They ignore the profound implications of Luke's Gospel.
The birth of Jesus is a restatement of the creation story. In the original Genesis account, animals were created first and human beings were set in their midst and given responsibility for their well-being. But after the Fall in Eden, people began to abuse one another and all other creatures. The entire earth was in need of redemption and the birth of Christ heralded a new beginning. Christ was born in a stable. Like the first humans, he, too, was born into a setting that already sheltered, and gave sustenance to, animals. And the Gospel account continues this theme of human and animal relatedness when it tells how an angel announced the birth of Jesus to men who were out in the fields, caring for their animals.
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the lord appeared to them. 'Do not be afraid...I bring you good news...This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger'"(Luke 2: 8-10,12).
So it was that those chosen to be the first to hear [and] know the good news of the coming of Christ were men who cared for other creatures. The shepherds were the nurturing caregivers who, in their time, were living in a way that most closely approximated the peaceful accord between animals and men that God had ordained at the creation.
The work of the shepherds who attended Jesus at his birth was the antithesis of those whose work centered around the slaughter of animals on the altars at Jerusalem. And Jesus, who was welcomed into the world by men who protected and cared for animals, never participated in the sacrificial rites of the Temple. Neither did his disciples. Just as the beginning of Judaism was marked by the rejection of human sacrifice in the time of Abraham, so the beginning of Christianity was marked by the rejection of animal sacrifice in the time of Jesus. This was the fulfillment of the call for religious reform that had been given hundreds of years before, by the prophets of Israel.
Although the significance of the Christmas story is currently ignored by Christians of all persuasions, the powerful symbols of infant and manger, animals and shepherds, and peace on earth between all creatures, continue to be part of the ritual observance of this holiday season. For those who care about animals and also believe in a God who created life as we know it, the continued telling of this story can be seen as a leaven that is gradually changing the hearts and minds of women and men who, in increasing numbers, understand that God's care and concern extends to all beings, not just to the human race.
And those who care about animals but do not believe in a Creator God--or in any other deity--can take heart from the fact that the powerful symbols of human and animal relatedness, incorporated in the Christmas story, continue to influence our culture. Like all powerful symbols, they are a force affecting minds at the unconscious level. And as the latent power of these symbols erupts into consciousness, they can become a force for good.
So at this holiday season, let us each renew our hope. There are forces, seen and unseen, that are working with us to bring about a world in which no creature will suffer and die because of the greed and rapacity of the human race. There are forces, seen and unseen, supporting those who have been called to be part of the spiritual evolution that is manifesting itself among those who understand that care and compassion must be the hallmark of our relationship with all God's creatures.
There are forces, seen and unseen, working to make the Peaceable Kingdom a reality.
Copyright Humane Religion, 2000