By Pastor Glenn Pease
The angels, the shepherds, and the wise men, along with Mary and Joseph, dominate the scene around the Christ-child, who gave the world the gift of Christmas. But animals also play a role in the greatest story ever told. Being dumb, they could not sing of it or talk of it, and the result is their silence leaves them the most neglected creatures connected with the Incarnation. We usually look at the astronomical witness of the star, or the angelic witness of the heavenly host, but we seldom to never notice the animal witness to the advent of Christ.
There is no escaping the facts, however. In His birth our Lord Jesus identified with the animal kingdom. He was born in a stable meant for the shelter of animals. He was laid in a manger meant for the feeding of animals. The first sounds baby Jesus heard could have been the sound of animals. He was first announced to the shepherds whose whole life revolved around the care, feeding, and protection of animals. The wise men, who represented the Gentile world, made their journey to worship Him on animals. They were likely camels, although horses were not impossible. Mary likely made it to Bethlehem riding on a donkey. Later in His life, Jesus was in a context where He related both to the angels and animals. Mark 1:13 says, "He was with the wild animals, and angels attended Him." This was during His forty days in the wilderness. Angels and animals have this in common, they are both servants of God and man. They are both a part of the Christmas story.
The result of all these facts is a world of Christian art and poetry full of Christmas animals. The famous nativity scenes through the ages include the ox, donkey, sheep, camels, and often the dove. One of our most famous Christmas hymns, Away In A Manger, says, "The cattle are lowing the poor baby wakes but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes."
The emphasis on animals in the birth scene is not part of our contemporary life-style because the majority of people no longer live with animals. Back in the 12th century when everybody had a daily contact with their farm animals, they sang songs that stressed the role of the friendly beast in Christmas. They sang,
Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood.
This song, sung over 800 years ago by Christians, reveals just how carefully they had thought through the role of animals in the Christmas story. They had each animal tell of what they contributed-
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave Immanuel.
I said the donkey shaggy and brown
Carried his mother uphill and down
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.
I said the cow all white and red
Gave her my manger for His bed.
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.
I said the sheep with curly horn
Gave Him my wool for His blanket warm.
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.
I said the dove, from the rafters high,
I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry.
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I.
I said the camel yellow and black
Over the desert upon my back.
I brought Him a gift in the wise man's pack.
All of this may seem superficial and sentimental to us as city people, but keep in mind God did not send His angels to announce Christ's birth to city people. He sent them to people who lived daily in relationship to animals. The Bible world was a very animal oriented world.
I think it is safe to say, every great leader of Israel, male or female, had a life strongly involved with the animal kingdom. Look at just a few highlights.
1. Adam and Eve dwelt in a perfect relationship with animals, and Adam even named them all.
2. All of the Patriarchs had animals for their wealth, and the story of their lives could not be told without reference to the animal kingdom.
3. Moses was a shepherd when God met him at the burning bush.
4. David was a shepherd when called to be the king of Israel.
5. Job was an owner of great herds of animals.
6. Most of the prophets used animal imagery constantly, to convey their message.
7. John the Baptist lived with the animals, wore camel skins, and ate locust.
The list could be greatly expanded, but the point is, Bible people were animal lovers. You would have a hard time finding any Bible hero who was not an animal lover. E.F. Schumacker went so far as to make this claim, "There have been no sages or holy men in our or anybody else's history who were cruel to animals or who looked upon them as nothing but utilities, and innumerable are the legends and stories which link sanctity as well as happiness with a loving kindness toward lower creatures."
Therefore, it follows that the greatest King of Israel, the promised Messiah, the Son of David, the Seed of Abraham, the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy, should also be in some way connected with the animal kingdom. No where do we see this connection stronger than in the Christmas story. Jesus was the only great person in Israel, as far as we know, to be actually born among the animals. Most would agree with John R. Rice who said, "It is unthinkable that any detail of the birth of Christ could fail to have a universal meaning for the race." The animal atmosphere is an example.
There are millions of stuffed animals given as gifts to children every year at Christmas. This is more appropriate than we realize. Every major holiday has some animal associated with it for symbolic reasons. The turkey for Thanksgiving; the rabbit for Easter; the donkey for Palm Sunday; the eagle for July 4th. But for Christmas there is no single animal to symbolize it, for the whole animal kingdom is involved. Any animal can be a Christmas animal.
There is an old English wood-cut printed in London in 1631, which illustrates an ancient legend of how even the dumb animals spoke on that Holy Night. In the center of the picture is the Babe with Joseph and Mary, the angels above singing, and the cock crows-Christ is born. The raven in a tree asks-when? The crow replies-this night. The ox cries out-where, where? The sheep near the manger bleats-Bethlehem. It is not meant to be believed that animals talk, but to convey the idea that animals were involved in Christmas.
Much of the symbolism of the Bible is from the animal kingdom. The Bible is a literary zoo. I counted 61 different creatures that could be studied. There are more animals in the Bible than you will find in some zoos. The more we get away from the animal kingdom the more difficult it is to understand many parts of the word of God. If you took all the references to animals out of the Bible you would eliminate more of God's word than you can imagine. A big chunk of the Christmas story is also lost if you remove all references to animals.
The secular world has added a lot of animals to Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas are full of creatures. A partridge in a pear tree; two turtle doves; three French hens; four calling birds; six geese a laying and seven swans a swimming. Our secular culture has raised up one animal that has gained a great deal of popularity and that is Rudolf the red nosed reindeer. He has relevance because he plays the role the camels played in the New Testament story. They got the wise men to Christ with their gifts, and Rudolf gets Santa to the children with his gifts. It is a story of an animal that is a blessing to man.
Animals are such a blessing to man in the Bible that when the Christ-child grew up He took upon Himself the names of these animals. The two most outstanding being the Lion and the Lamb. These two names bring out the two positive characteristics of animals in their relationship to man, and help us see the relevance of the animals of Christmas. The lion represents sovereign service, and the lamb represents sacrificial service. Jesus came to serve and to sacrifice Himself for us. He humbled Himself to be born with the animals because He fulfilled the purpose of the animal kingdom in relationship to mankind in two ways we want to consider in more depth. First let's look at animals and-
I. THEIR SERVICE.
We have already noted that in our secular Christmas, Santa would be a helpless pedestrian without his reindeer. It does not take to great an imagination to see how Rudolf can be a symbol of the Christ who alone had the light, in this dark world, to lead men to receive the gift of salvation. Santa could not deliver his gifts without animal service. The New Testament has another parallel with Rudolf in the donkey Jesus rode on Palm Sunday. He could not have fulfilled the prophecy of the Messiah without the service of this animal. There are some amazing stories of how animals have served men at Christmas.
Jim Stacy was the local postmaster in Calico, California. He picked up a stray dog one day and took him on his rounds. After years of this, Stacy fell ill and was unable to work. But Darsey, his dog, knew the route so well he was able to do the job. Stacy fashioned a harness with double saddlebags and from 1883 to 1886, Darsey the dog delivered the Christmas mail.
In the British post office cats have been on the payroll for over a century. As late as 1953 the assistant post master general assured the House of Commons that female cats were getting the same wages and benefits as male cats. They provide a major service to man by assuring that he gets his mail. Before they hired cats the mice destroyed a lot of mail. In 1868 they began the hiring of cats, and the problem has been solved, and people have been getting their mail unchewed ever since.
In our own country the famous Pony Express would have been impossible without the service of ponies. In the book of Esther all the Jews are saved by the service of animals in carrying a message to all the lands. Paul's life was spared by means of horses.
History is filled with examples of how animals provide man with service that is vital to his comfort and progress. John said of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." That was his greatest service to mankind. He was also the Lion of the tribe of Judah. As such, he provided the service of a protector. The Lion, as king of the jungle, was used all through history as the symbol of protection. Huge statues of lions sat before the palaces of kings, and other important government buildings. The figures of 12 lions lined the steps leading to Solomon throne in addition to the two lions standing beside his armrests. God is represented by the lion, and Israel is, and Jesus is.
In one of the great prophetic messages of the Bible pointing to the Christ-child there is a strong emphasis on the effects He will have on the animal kingdom. In Isaiah 11 we read of the shoot that will come from the stump of Jesse. This descendant of David will be a righteous judge among people, but listen to what he accomplishes in the animal kingdom- "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together: and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the vipers nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
The Christmas scene of baby Jesus and the friendly animals surrounding Him is symbolic of what this baby will do for animals and men in reconciling them, and making them one family. Animals were hurt by man's sin, and they suffer in a fallen world. Christmas and the Incarnation mark the beginning of their restoration as well as our own. As the Lion of the tribe of Judah He came to save the animal kingdom from the fall, and all of the evil and suffering it has led to for animals.
Paul makes it clear that the salvation Christ brought is not exclusive to man, but covers all creation. Isaac Watts was a great animal lover and in his famous Christmas hymn, Joy To The World, makes it clear that animals are in on the joy. In the third stanza he writes, "He came to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found." In other words, He came to bless the animal kingdom as well as man, for they too are under the curse. In Romans 8:20-23, Paul writes, "For the creation was subject to frustration, not by it's own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."
Paul is saying that we are already saved in the inner man, but the part of us which is animal, the body, is not yet redeemed. We wait as does the whole animal kingdom for that final and complete salvation that saves the animal kingdom including our animal nature-the body. When this happens the whole of physical creation will also be redeemed. This means that for all eternity animals will be our friends and our servants. Horse lovers will be delighted to note that even before eternity the horse is one of heaven's greatest servants. The horse pulled the chariot that swept down and took Elijah into heaven. The book of Revelation pictures Jesus riding His white horse to victory. Call it symbolic if you wish, but there is no way to escape the Biblical teaching that the literal animal kingdom will share in the salvation that Christ brought to this earth. Animal lover's often go to extremes, and I have heard of some who will not even eat animal crackers, but extremes ought not to block our minds to the Biblical truth about the positive relationship of man and animals.
In the middle ages there was a popular story that has become a modern day movie-Androcles And The Lion. Androcles was a runaway slave who met a lion limping with a thorn in it's paw. He pulled the thorn out. Later he was captured and sentenced to fight lion's in the arena. The lion loosed on him was none other than the one he had helped. The lion recognized him, and in gratitude licked Androcles in the face, and then protected him from the other lions. The Emperor was so impressed by this miracle he pardoned Androcles and gave him his freedom. Saved by a lion! All of us are so saved from the lion who goes about seeking whom he may devour by the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He will also save the animal kingdom from this lion, and man and beast will live in peace, and be of service to God. The second theme we want to consider about animals is-
II. THEIR SACRIFICE.
Animals have to die for us to live. It is their greatest service to man that they die for his life and pleasure. The first animals on record who died, did so to provide Adam and Eve with clothing. Their sacrifice was necessary because of man's sin. Millions of animals have died since in sacrifice for man's sin. Jesus is called the Lamb of God because He did, once and for all, what sheep had been doing all through history-dying as a sacrifice for sin. The Passover lamb was sacrificed, and the people of Israel were spared by it's shed blood. Jesus became our Passover Lamb, and made it possible, by His sacrifice, for all to escape the judgment of God.
Now we no longer need sheep or any other animal for sacrifice. People in Bible times had to raise spotless and pure animals as part of their spiritual life of obedience to God. But Jesus made this unnecessary. Then the modern industrial revolution made animals unnecessary in many areas of life. The result is we have lost touch with the significance of the animal world. Yet everyday our lives are dependent on the sacrifice of animals-not only the fish, fowl and barnyard creatures, but the multitude of minute animal creatures that make our bodies function properly. Even the strongest vegetarian would be shocked if he realized how many tiny animals he consumes everyday in his water and his vegetables. No vegetarian would be alive today without the sacrifice of animals.
Sometimes even the animals not intended for human food are crucial for man's survival. When the German's surrounded Paris to starve them out in the Franco-Prussian War, the zoo became a food supply, and the people ate the kangaroo, the wolf, the camel and the elephant. The same thing happened to the London zoo in World War II. People were even eating giraffe cutlets. The furred, the finny, and the feathered all went into the frying pan for the salvation of man. Man saved the animal kingdom when Noah built the ark, and so it is fitting that the animal kingdom would often be the salvation of man.
We live in a culture where the humane society plays a major role, and where the animal kingdom is treated with high respect. There are also animal hospitals everywhere in any large city. Walt Disney contributed to this greatly by making animal creatures very popular and personlike. C.S.Lewis has been to the Christian world what Disney was to the secular world. His series of Narnia books exalts the animal kingdom. The land of Narnia is under the rule of Aslan, the Christlike Lion. He created it out of nothing and thus we see the lion represents God. All of the animals think and talk and are raised to the human level.
In all his works Lewis pictures the animal kingdom as ideal, and then man comes along and makes a mess of it by his evil. Man brought down the animal kingdom and they had to suffer with him. But they are destined to be friends and rise again to the level of peace and oneness. In other words, the goal of God is a happy ending for man and animals together. Lewis pictures the universal chorus of praise in heaven as being, not of voices only, but of purrs, grunts and squeals of delight from the animal kingdom as they join man in this song of eternal thanksgiving.
When Martin Luther read Romans 8:21 about the creation itself being liberated from its bondage, he looked at his little dog and said, "Ja! Thou too shalt have a little golden tail!" The world of poetry is filled with such sentiments.
"I do not know the future ways,
I can but dimly see,
Just what within that Unseen Land
There is of bird or tree:
But could that heaven my heaven be
If there were not some woodland friends
To meet with Christ and me?" Author Unknown
The shepherds who went that first Christmas to see the Christ-child no doubt felt this way about their lambs. We forget that the lamb was often to the Jew what the dog is in our culture-the family pet. People have always loved their pets on a level close to children. When God saves families in the Bible, He saves their animals with them.
1. In the ark God saved animals as well as people. The promise He gave was to the animals as well as men. Read it and see for yourself.
2. In the Exodus animals were included in the greatest deliverance of Israel.
3. In the deliverance of Nineveh, because of their repentance, God made it a point that He had compassion not only on the children but on the animals.
4. God gave the Sabbath to save man from self-imposed slavery and He made it clear that animals were also to get that day of rest.
The whole plan of God is summed up by David in Psalm 36:5-6, "Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. O Lord, you preserve both man and beast."
When Saul Kane is converted in a country drinking house, a very unlikely place, John Masefield in, The Everlasting Mercy, has him say a very unusual thing to describe what happened to him.
"I did not think, I did not strive,
The deep peace burnt my me alive;
The bolted door had broken in,
I knew that I had done with sin.
I knew that Christ had given me birth
To brother all the souls on earth,
And every bird and every beast
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast."
From Eden to eternity animals are partners with men. When God saw that it was good after He had created the animal kingdom, He loved and enjoyed what He had made. He has no intention of letting the sin of Satan and the fall of man rob Him of an eternity of enjoying the animal kingdom. They will be a part of the new heaven and the new earth for the pleasure of God and man. That is why Jesus humbled Himself to be identified with them as well as with man in the Incarnation. Thus we are to look upon the Christmas animals, not as mere incidental props but as a very real part of the plan of God. We will begin a taste of the eternity God has planned if we learn to love, even in time, the Christmas animals.