Thank you for joining us this morning in worship. Thank you to all who came in their pajamas as well as the rest of us! Thank you for leaving the tree and the stockings, the breakfast table and the collection of family to be together in worship. Our Bishop wrote back in November as she began to get inquiries about Christmas on a Sunday. “The truth is, Christmas, the real Christmas, has never been convenient. The birth of Christ came amid a time of political unrest. The Jews were an oppressed people under the cruel domination of Rome. This Galilean couple made a hundred-mile trek across rough, unpaved roads, as the new mother-to-be rode perched on a donkey in her third trimester of pregnancy. The birth event itself ends up happening in a rustic stable for animals, not exactly the cleanest or most comfortable environment. A murderous, unbalanced king seeks the child’s life and kills a swath of innocent babies in his foiled attempt at eliminating the competition. A fancy Hallmark card depicting the nativity with golden insert envelopes simply doesn’t tell the real story. Christmas is still inconvenient, and it always will be. The coming of Christ ushered in a whole new paradigm whose purpose was to turn the world upside down, and not just a little.”1
Inconveniently, we find ourselves gathered on this Sunday morning on top of our plans for today, but gathered for worship. I wonder how many of you remember going to church on Christmas morning in days gone by. (pause) In some cultures, this is the more important day to gather, rather than Christmas Eve. Henri Nouwen tells the story of celebrating Mass in Latin America. He shares that while celebrating the Eucharist; he looked around and realized that he was surrounded by baby dolls. Small and large, elaborately dress and utterly naked the dolls were. He remarks that he had never seen so many baby Jesuses together in his life. He found out that the tradition was that baby Jesus had to hear Mass on Christmas day and so, the families all brought their Jesus’ out of the stable and into the world. Jesus was born to be in the world and in the messiness of the world.
In the manger – yes. But also in the menagerie. I think the first time I heard the word, menagerie, my mother was describing my dolls and toys all askew and disheveled. Nothing about menagerie conjures images of Christmas card perfect. The menagerie is not the properly dressed and well-rested group of those who showed up on time and left when they were supposed to. Menagerie is for those of us who are not quite put together in the ways we might wish. Menagerie is for those of us who would not pass inspection or muster. Menagerie is those of us who live in the messiness of the world.
Menagerie was also for those who first came to see Jesus. Despite their airbrushing and gaslighting that has happened since, none of the original visitors would be fit for our sanitized Christmas cards. No, the menagerie of first Jesus adorers were smelly and perplexed. They were outsiders who travelled great distances. They showed up late and probably overstayed their welcome.
Jesus was first attended by animals. In fact, great traditions about baby Jesus and the animals have grown up around this simple fact. This is where our carol from this morning comes from. Traditions going back towards the middle ages celebrate animals as a part of the Christmas story. The carol, The Friendly Beasts was first written in the 12th century as a part of Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival). In this French tradition, during the mass on January 1st, a donkey would be led or ridden through the church out of gratitude for the donkey carrying Mary into Bethlehem and then, onto Egypt. Bishop of Sens, Pierre de Corbeil, is attributed with the first composing of the carol. Each verse was concluded with ‘Hail, Sir donkey, hail.’ In 1934, the song was republished with English words by Robert Davis.3
In the carol, we hear from the perspective of beasts- donkeys, cows, sheep, and doves, who considered Jesus to be brother, first, and Emmanuel, second. Animals that we would shutter to allow into the sanctuary today, who no doubt served the baby savior. The donkey who has since found himself featured in songs, books, and even movies. The donkey carried the pregnant Mary to the stable and then, to safety in Egypt. Where are we carrying the vulnerable? The cow who is known best for what he gave up. Not eating from the manger for a period. Fasting. Where are we giving up our beds, our food, so others may eat and be sheltered? The sheep who gave of his coat, his wool to make a blanket and keep warm against the cold. Where are we giving our coats and blankets to the cold? The doves who offered song and comfort. Joining with a mate, the dove offered song to the child. Where are singing to the anxious and concerned? Pausing at the manger, when their space was invaded and they offered hospitality.
And so, we pause at the manager with the shepherds beside us, sheep behind us, angels above us, and the menagerie all around us. We pause at the manager to worship and adore Jesus the Christ, the Redeemer of the World. Then we like the animals of the Friendly Beasts taken our turns in serving Jesus in any way he calls us to – whether we are carrying the vulnerable, giving up our beds for homeless, sharing our blankets with the cold, or comforting the anxious.
Our gospel lesson almost ends with that wonderful mystical and contemplative verse: “And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Christmas is an incredible gift of God who is perfect coming to live with us – yes, us, who are far from perfect and loving us. Christmas is a time for contemplation and reflection. That might be hard to believe for those of us who rarely feel as though the noise and the din settles down enough to reflect on much beyond what we need at the grocery store. But even for those who live in the menagerie, we find moments of reflections. Moments of reflections, so that we then like then, like “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Whether you imagine yourself a cow, a dove, a sheep, or a donkey, let this worship time be for you a chance to reflect on yourself in the salvific story of Christ, so that you might proclaim God’s love to all the world.
This is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2Nouwen, Henri. Gracias! A Latin American Journal. quoted in Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen, found on page 56.
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 52:7-10
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 2:15-20
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, December 25 ~ Saturday, December 31
Sunday: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Isaiah 52: 7. Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace among all those that God favors! Spread Christmas peace today!
Monday: “Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.” Isaiah 52: 8. Lift up your voices, turn up the songs! Sing today God’s great story of salvation in hymns, carols, and song!
Tuesday: “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” Isaiah 52:9. Prayerfully consider who God is using you to comfort.
Wednesday: “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” Isaiah 52: 10. God continues to show up and be seen. Where have you seen God?
Thursday: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” Luke 2: 15-16. Going with haste, they found Jesus. Consider how you go with haste to draw nearer to Jesus.
Friday: “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Luke 2: 17-18. Shepherds could not help but share. They were great evangelists. Who are you telling about the birth of Jesus?
Saturday: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Luke 2: 19-20 . Pause today to treasure all these things in your hearts before returning to your home and praising God!