The Tale of the Donkey and the Ox
Once upon a time as Joseph and Mary made their way to Bethlehem an angel called a meeting with all the animals of the earth to choose which of them would attend the birth and be allowed in the cave with the newborn child. All of the animals were all excited and wanted to be there, of course.
First, the lion roared and said, “I am the king of all the animals. It is only right that I can be there. I will defend the child and tear to pieces anyone who tries to harm him.”
The angel cringed and said, “Too violent.”
Then the fox came forward. “I will stand guard over the child, and I’ll make sure the baby has good food every day. In fact, I will steal a chicken every day for the family.”
The angel stared into the fox’s eyes and said, “No, not a thief.”
The peacock strutted forward and said, “Let me. I’ll spread my feathers, and I’ll decorate the cave in a style fit for a king. It will rival Solomon’s own temple.”
The angel sighed, “Too proud.”
One by one the animals came forward with their reasons why they should be the ones allowed inside. Birds swooped down, darting in and out, cawing about. “Too loud,” the angel said. Insects buzzed about and chirped away. “Too annoying!” Squirrels chattered about, dropping nuts at the angel’s feet. “Nice effort but too much talking from you.”
The poor angel was getting frustrated and thought, “Why are these animals so much like humans?” The angel looked to see if anyone had been missed and noticed some animals in the fields. They were rather dour, old and slow moving. They had nothing and were not even in a group. The ox and the donkey were thus summoned to the meeting, and the angel asked what they would do for the child and his mother on that night.
They looked at each other and neither said anything. They both looked down at the ground and at last the ox said, “We learned a long time ago not to do anything out of line; to be humble and patient and long suffering. Anything else that we would ever do would get us less food and into more trouble.” They hung their heads and swished their tails. Then the donkey said quietly, “Well, we could keep the flies away by swinging our tails.”
The angel smiled in delight. “Perfect. Exactly! You will both do just fine. Come, we must move quickly Tonight is the night.”
Tonight is the Night
Tonight is the night – the night that Christ was born: poor, humble, and lowly, to a world weary and battle worn. The Christmas carol sings quietly of what is happening this night:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
above your deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
But in you dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are born in thee tonight.
I must admit that I come to this Christmas Eve with mixed feelings. It has been a year when it seemed as if Christmas just couldn’t get here soon enough. I have felt an urgency for Christmas that I haven’t felt in recent years. And yet, I also find Christmas this year to be challenging and difficult. Here’s what I mean.
One the one hand, Isaiah speaks to us of this child named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and he tells of the one who brings endless peace and whose authority continually grows (Is 9:6-7). On the other hand, I still hear the boots of the trampling warriors and see the blood stained garments Isaiah speaks of (see Isa 6:5).
On the one hand, we hear about the angel who proclaims “good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk 2:10) On the other, it’s hard to hear the angel’s voice over the cacophony of oppression: where one can be held out of the fullness of common, public, and religious life determined solely by color of one’s skin or one’s sexuality. Indeed, despite the prophet’s words, not every rod of oppression has been broken. (Is 9:4b) And for many people and parts of our world joy is in short supply.
On the one hand, I want to be like the shepherds and “go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15). I want to find the child lying in the manger and be reminded once again that it is all true. On the other hand, it seems as if all roads still lead to Aleppo or the Rio Grande or the shores of Italy. I’m not talking only about the ongoing human rights tragedies that those places represent but I’m talking about them in a larger, metaphorical sense that describes the tragic in each of our lives and throughout our world.
On the one hand, I love hearing the story of how God intervened “in those days” and “in that region” (Lk 2:1, 8). On the other hand, that’s not enough. I want more. I need to hear how God is intervening in these days and in this region, in my time and in my life.
I readily admit that this all probably says a whole lot more about me than about Christmas or even the past year, but that’s what I bring to the manger tonight. I bring my sadness and my concern and my fear for the world. I bring my shortsightedness and my inability to see the prophetic vision of Isaiah. I bring my dissatisfaction with simply hearing the story one more time. I bring a deep longing and desire to become and live the story. I bring all this and more. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think you all bring all sorts of stuff tonight.
I think we bring our stuff, whatever it might be, not because we don’t believe the Christmas story but precisely because we do and we take it seriously. But notice that we’re not the only ones bringing our stuff to the manger. Look of all that was offered or evoked at the birth of Jesus:
- The angels offered their song of praise and a message of “good news of great joy.”
- The shepherds offered their wonder and curiosity and they gave the newborn babe their status as homeless, probably foreign farmworkers.
- The heavens themselves offered a star, a waypoint, and a guiding light.
- The inn offered a closed door: no openness, no receptivity, no welcome, no vacancy;
But, the earth offered a cave with a manger to hold the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life.
- Mary offered her “fiat,” her “yes,” her “Let it be with me according to your word.” And then she her pondering and a trust in a mystery too beautiful to be explained.
- Joseph, so easily forgotten or ignored, offered his presence, his guardianship and protection of the son of God’s and of Mary, the Theotokos. And Joseph also offered his silence and his listening and trust in God.
- King Herod offered his fear, anger, and violence and the parents of the holy innocents offered their grief and their brokenness and unfulfilled futures.
- But, the other kings – the three offered gifts for the newborn king. But more than gifts, they offered their searching, longing, and their desire.
The whole world has been moved and affected by Jesus’s birth. All of creation has offered something. But these aren’t just characters, props, or scenes in a random, unconnected narrative. Indeed, I don’t think its all that difficult to make the connections. We’ve had visions of peace and we’ve also acted with fear and anger. We’ve sung praises and followed the star searching for something new, something beyond ourselves, but we’ve also closed the doors and hung a no vacancy sign. We’ve offered shelter to and been guardians of the holy but we’ve also known times when we turned them away. We’ve been welcomed as the bringers of good news and we’ve also felt like an outcast. We’ve planned our future and we’ve grieved its loss. Christmas is our story.
So tonight, we shouldn’t come to the manger empty handed. To come to the manger with nothing is to come as spectators. To bring our own stuff to the manger is to come as participants. Spectators see God’s son born in Bethlehem. Participants experience God’s son born in themselves. That is what I want for you, for me, and for the world.
After all, what does it matter if Jesus was born “in those days” and “in that region” if he is not also being born in these days and in this region? To use words attributed to Meister Eckhart, a 14th German mystic, “We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.”
Whatever it is we bring to the manger tonight is our means of participating in the divine birth. So tell me, what are you bringing tonight?
Name the hopes and fears you want met in him tonight. Name your thanksgivings and your disappointments. Recall the joys and the sorrows of this past year. What desires and longings have brought you here tonight? And what secrets make you want to turn and run? What did you celebrate this past year and what broke your heart? Whatever you offer tonight at the manger let it speak the truth of and about your life.
I don’t know what you bring tonight but I know that Christ’s manger is generous enough and big enough to receive whatever you might bring. And I know that the child is strong enough and powerful enough to change our lives and our world, even when we can’t see it or don’t believe it. That’s why I continue to show up here on Christmas Eve, especially on those Christmases that are difficult and challenging.
The promise of Christmas is that we will not leave here unchanged. It might take a while to recognize and live into this change but the promise is trustworthy and true. To us “is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And that is “good news of great joy for all the people” in every time, in every place, and in every life.