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The Midrash of Christmas: The Animals in the Stable

Luke 2:1-7
December 8, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

For those who weren’t here last week, and for those who were but were asleep, the theme of my Advent series this year is “Christmas Midrash.”  In ancient Judaism, rabbis would often expand on scripture by adding commentary, dialogue between characters, or additional details not found in the Bible in order to clarify the meaning of those scriptures, and these extra details are called midrash.  Midrash is valued by the Jewish people; it is seen as an important component to Biblical understanding.  Christianity, however, has historically frowned on this sort of imaginative treatment of the Bible and has resisted adding anything to the biblical text, except for during one time of year:  Christmas.  At Christmas time, we are awash in Christian midrash!  We take the story of Jesus’ birth found in the gospel of Matthew, and the very different story of Jesus’ birth as told in the gospel of Luke, and we resolve the contradictions between those two accounts by weaving them together into one imaginative narrative until Matthew’s star appears over Luke’s manger, and Matthew’s magi kneel next to Luke’s shepherds.  We throw in extra characters such as an innkeeper, a donkey, oxen and doves, even a little drummer boy, and we set the entire scene in a stable.  None of that is in the Bible, not even the stable.  It’s all Christian midrash.

Don’t worry, however.  My intent in this series is not to berate you all for straying from the Bible in your Christmas decorations and carol singing because I am pro-Midrash!  I love stories and I believe that stories can be a very powerful way of communicating.  I think that much of the midrash that has grown up around the scriptural accounts of the nativity has persisted because these non-biblical details that we add to Jesus’ birth story often bring into greater focus the real theological concerns of the gospel writers.  Good midrash doesn’t contradict the Bible; good midrash accentuates and clarifies the biblical message, and good midrash will persist across time if it augments that gospel message and doesn’t detract from it.  It’s too early to tell if contemporary additions to the Christmas story like drummer boys will have sustaining power, but some of our Christmas midrash was first told nearly 2000 years ago and it’s with us still because it illuminates the heart of the nativity story in universally understood ways.  Last week, we looked at the midrash of the innkeeper, our midrash of confession, and today I want to look at some of the oldest midrash around Christmas, first found in Christian literature and art in the early 3rd century.  It is the midrash of the animals in the stable.

First, let’s listen again to the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke 2:1-7, and as you listen, count the number of animals that appear in this story. 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Imagine for a moment that you are a sculptor and a local church commissions you to carve the Nativity scene to place in their sanctuary.  

“Unfortunately,” they add, “the church is on a tight budget so we can’t afford an elaborate work.  In fact, given budget and space constraints, there will only be room for three characters and we’ve decided to leave it up to your artistic judgment to choose which three characters will go in the sculpture.”

Which three would you choose?  Take a second to think about that:  which three characters found in our traditional creche scenes do you think could adequately embody on their own the meaning of Jesus’ birth?

I’m guessing that almost everyone here would probably have as the first character on your list the baby Jesus because frankly, without Jesus, any nativity scene would just be a picture of random people hanging around a barn for no obvious reason.  Jesus is the reason for the season as the bumper stickers say so any depiction of Jesus’ birth has to minimally include Jesus.  That means that you as the sculptor really only have the freedom to choose two other characters to be part of your work and I’m guessing that for most people, that wouldn’t be a hard decision either.  If we can only depict three characters in our nativity sculpture and one of them has to Jesus, wouldn’t the other two have to be Mary and Joseph, his beaming proud parents?  That at least certainly appears to be the assumption in the modern day American marketplace.  I took a few minutes this week to browse through online offerings of creches for sale which is a very interesting experience because I found all kinds of creative treatments of the nativity scene:  you can buy a creche made of porcelain or pewter or made entirely out of Legos.  There are Star Wars creches with Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, and Chewbacca bearing gifts for the Christ child, and Harry Potter creches where Hagar watches over a flock of sheep… and a baby dragon.  There is one nativity scene available on Etsy in which Elvis is part of the angel choir announcing Jesus’ birth, and another which, for no apparent reason, features Batman perched on the stable’s roof, but no matter who else is present in these imaginative nativity scenes, Mary and Joseph are always there, center stage, with the baby Jesus.  They may be dressed as Royal Canadian Mounties but Mary and Joseph will be present in our creches gazing tenderly at their newborn son.  If you ask modern day Americans to pare down the Christmas story to what is essential, most will say that the meaning of Christmas is represented by that picture of the holy family — Mary, Joseph, and the baby — sharing the tender miracle of that night.  Christmas for us today is all about family.  

Christmas time, the holiday movies declare, is a time when we recognize the value of family — when little boys accidentally left Home Alone come to understand how important their annoying siblings and parents are to them, when the Grinch learns that Christmas time “will always be just as long as we have we,” and when we are told that the most Wonderful Life includes a caring wife and a brood of children embracing you under the Christmas tree.  Who better to demonstrate our modern emphasis on family than Mary and Joseph and their newborn son?

Of course, if the true meaning of Christmas is the value of family, the holiday has little to say to those whose families don’t fit the Hallmark card template.  For people whose families have been broken by divorce, or who grew up with abusive parents, or whose families have rejected them because of their sexual orientation, or whose loved ones have passed away leaving their homes empty of the happiness they once knew, Christmas feels less like a message of hope and more of a reminder of how alone they are in their loss and pain.  When we choose Mary and Joseph and their newborn child — that perfect nuclear family — as the centerpiece of our Christmas celebration, we end up leaving a lot of people out of the gospel proclamation of peace and joy but the good news is that our modern day glorification of the family at Christmas is not found in the Bible, nor has it been present throughout much of the history of the church.  In fact, the reason I asked you to imagine yourself as a sculptor commissioned to create a small nativity scene was because in the 4th century, a sculptor in Milan was commissioned to do just that.  If you visit the Basilica of St. Ambrose, you will see his work: a stone relief of the nativity scene with only three characters present.  The first is, of course, the baby Jesus but the second and third characters in that simple nativity are an ox and an ass.  In this ancient nativity scene, an ox lies to the left of the manger and an ass lies to its right, and both stare in adoration at the baby Jesus.  Mary and Joseph are nowhere in sight; they’ve been upstaged by a cow and a donkey! (1)  

To understand Christmas, this sculptor declared, you don’t need innkeepers or shepherds or kings; you don’t need angels or stars in the sky; you don’t even need Mary and Joseph.  All you need is an ox and an ass standing to each side of the baby Jesus and there, the sculptor said, you will have the totality of the Christmas message.

And we say, “What?”

The ox and the ass aren’t part of the biblical story any more than the drummer boy is but they entered into Christmas midrash very early in the church.  In ancient Judaism, the ox was considered to be a clean animal and the donkey an unclean animal, and so the early church began to use the ox to symbolize the Jewish people and the ass to symbolize the Gentiles.  When the sculptor chose to depict the nativity with an ox and an ass gathered around the baby Jesus, he was proclaiming that Jesus came into the world to bring together those whose beliefs or traditions had divided them.  It is important to note that in this depiction, the ass doesn’t trample the ox or insist that the ox become an ass —  this is not a declaration that in Christ, the Jewish people will become supplanted by Christianity — but rather, in this nativity sculpture, the ox and ass kneel in peace.  The crusades and wars against the Jews came later in the church’s history but in those first centuries there were still Christians preaching that Jesus came not to divide us but to draw all people into peace with each other.  Though the ox and the ass were the earliest animals found in Christmas midrash, other animals quickly gained a footing in the Christian imagination to reinforce that message of reconciliation until eventually the manger was set in a stable and the baby Jesus was surrounded by donkeys, cows, camels, sheep, turtle doves, and an assortment of creatures all depicting the peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah where the wolf will lie down with the lamb and a little child will lead them.

The midrash of the friendly beasts in the stable isn’t just a nice children’s story; early Christians believed that their presence portrayed the heart of the gospel, a message that we continue to desperately need to hear and embrace.  Christmas, this midrash declares, isn’t about your nuclear family; it is about your human family.  Christ came into the world to save us by teaching us what it means to live at peace with one another and to love others fully, even those who are very different from us — the ox and the ass — and when Christ enters our hearts, Christmas declares, he calls us to put aside all of our judgment, all of our hatred, all of our pride, our self-righteousness, and all of our ways both large and subtle of oppressing others.  If Christ is to have a place in our hearts, we will also have to make room for the ox and the ass and all of creation, refusing to exclude anyone for any reason from the grace of God.  

Too often in its history, the church has done exactly the opposite; Christians have too often used the gospel as a weapon to persecute others and judge those it disagrees with, but when it does, it has strayed far from Christmas and from the message of Christ.  Jesus warned the righteously indignant of his own time that the prostitutes and tax collectors would be welcomed into God’s realm long before they were because, he said, God pays no attention to the pride of the rich or the assumptions of the powerful.  God cares most about those on the fringes of human society and insists on making a place of peace for them.  If we are to be part of God’s realm — if we are to bring God’s declaration of reconciliation into reality in our own corners of the world — we have to live out Christ’s bountiful grace toward others in our own lives.  As the sign on the front lawn of our Church Center says, “Love your neighbor … who doesn’t look like you, think like you, love like you, speak like you, pray like you, vote like you.  Love your neighbor.  No exceptions.”  This is the totality of the Christmas message; this is why Christ came into our world.

So when you set up your creche this year, feel free to leave out Joseph and Mary but make sure that you put the animals in the stable.  Place the ox and the ass right next to Jesus’ manger, and maybe throw in a wolf lying down with a lamb, a leopard playing with a goat, and if you want to include Hagrid watching over some sheep and a dragon, I think that would be in perfect keeping with the gospel message because when you look at that nativity scene with its friendly beasts gathered in peace together in the stable, you will be reminded that when Christ enters your world, he will call you to let go of your hatreds and your judgments and all of the things that divide you from others and learn instead to live at peace with all of creation. 

“Love one another,” Christmas declares. “No exceptions.”

1.  The official definition of an ox is any bovine that is used to draw heavy loads and while they are usually castrated males, they can sometimes be females if that’s what you have at hand, so I think I’m okay calling it a cow. 

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