You know what I really like about manger scenes? The animals. They’re usually not front-and-center for our religious stories. I like how they get their proper due for a few weeks each year.
It’s not Christmastime without the donkeys, the sheep and the camels, right? And they’re not just prominent in the crèches in our homes.
There’s a funeral home near my house that displays a traditional “live” nativity scene each year, with was figures along with sheep and goats and donkeys trucked in from a farm. Over the course of several weeks, thousands of people bring slices of apples and carrots to feed the animals. The kids have a great time.
If you’ve had any experience with religious elementary schools, then you know how children dressed as animals always steal the show in the nativity play. There’s not only jealousy over who gets to play Mary and Joseph, but over who gets to dress as adorable animals. (I always wanted to be an animal; closest I got was a shepherd one year.)
And you might remember how former Pope Benedict caused a stir a few years ago when he wrote that there really weren’t animals at Jesus’ birth. Some people got really upset over it. It’s one thing to point out that Jesus wasn’t actually born on Dec. 25; it’s something else to mess with the animals.
We love our animals. At least, the ones in our nativity scenes.
Too often, though, we tend to pack away our attention to animals along with the rest of the crèche when the holidays are over. Instead of being front-and-center, they get treated more like props the rest of the year.
For many of us, our closest connection to animals come in two forms: We dote on them as pets, and we order them from menus as entrees. Maybe we look up from time to time and watch birds flying overhead and marvel. Or we see a run-over animal by the side of the road and turn away.
Then it’s back to hardly thinking of them at all.
My family had various pets when I was growing up. There was a snapping turtle found on the shore of Lake Erie; a few goldfish won at church festivals; a couple of parakeets; a canary; one cat that got run over in traffic; several Schnauzers and a Doberman that all were named Duchess – yes, my parents were not the most imaginative that way.
My dad was a butcher. On occasion, I’d ride with him to the slaughterhouse to get a side of beef, put it in the station wagon and bring it home to be carved up for the extended family – much cheaper that way. What I saw at the slaughterhouse made me cringe; I was conflicted about the whole process and how the cows were treated. For most of my life, I avoided thinking about it.
(Watching “Glass Walls” narrated by Paul McCartney made me ill and snapped me out of my indifference to how animals are treated in the food industry.)
How we treat one another is a reflection on us, but isn’t how we treat animals a reflection as well? Don’t we have a responsibility to be compassionate to all of God’s creatures, regardless of our dietary habits or our feelings about pets?
Long before the nativity story, there was another story that focused even more on animals. Noah and the ark defined what it means to have “dominion” over animals – you have a responsibility to protect them and care for them and keep them safe and live in harmony with them. The animals belonged on the ark just as much as the humans.
In fact, the story has a surprising and challenging ending, one that turns our indifference upside-down. The story says that every rainbow should remind us that the creator is committed not only to us, but to animals and all of creation as well. Which means that by extension, we have a commitment to all of creation, too. Including the animals.
It’s not only Noah’s ark, but the animals’ ark, too. They belong there, just as they belong in the nativity scenes, front-and-center. Right in the divine spotlight.