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.
I find it significant that Jesus was born in a manger, aside from the point of his being of such humble beginnings. Jesus, we are told, came to redeem all creation, and most seem to think that “all creation” means only human beings. (And oh boy, do we need redemption!) I think part of our redemption will come when we can cease our chauvinistic belief that humans are the stars of creation.
I have read that 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 Jesus heralded a new beginning.
Jesus 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 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.
A moment here for me, as a Jew, to mention that Judaism is very strict in its teaching of kindness to animals. I believe that Jesus understood those commandments. Jews are forbidden from eating milk and meat at the same meal. That comes from God telling us that it would be a sin to cook a kid in its own mother’s milk—as was common practice among desert-dwellers with scarce water. Another sin—and a very big one—is taking eggs from a nest if the mother bird is in sight. Too heartbreaking for the mother bird. Other prohibitions are yoking an ox and a donkey together—unfair to both; whipping a beast of burden; eating before one has fed one’s animals; and hunting is considered cruel. In fact, many scholars claim that vegetarianism is actually a biblical commandment. See Genesis about that.
My great-grandmother (on my mother’s side) was a staunch vegetarian, and something of a character. She was well-known for going to the fish market and buying live fish. My mother told me that she would then keep them alive in the bathtub, until she could get to the river or sea and release them. She used to tell us all: “There will never be peace in the world until we stop killing animals.”
(On the other hand, my paternal grandfather was a Kosher butcher—and I grew up in that butcher shop. Meat is only considered Kosher if it has been slaughtered in one, painless and quick continuous stroke. It requires prayers and a ritual slaughterer. When I was five, my father had a break with my grandfather and went to work for a non-kosher butcher. At that butcher shop, he lost his arm in an accident, and my grandparents believed it was a punishment for the cruel practices of a non-Kosher butcher. [I know—yikes!] But I mention this dark story only to emphasize how important is the consideration of animals in the Old Testament and the New.)
The Christmas story has powerful symbols of infant and manger, animals and shepherds, and peace on earth between all creatures. 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 humans 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. My wish for all of us this season is that in our time, it finally becomes a reality.