Groping around in the recesses of my memory while pondering kid-friendly advent stuff a few weeks back, I remembered a less-popular Christmas carol called “The Friendly Beasts.” Anyone know it? Think “Old MacDonald’s Farm,” spruced up a bit in tune, and set in the classic nativity scene. Nothing could be more perfect for a four- and two-year old at Christmas time… especially when combined with YouTube and visuals. We all love it (which we ‘d be happy to demonstrate by singing all six verses).
As I sat with my tots on the couch and watched – repeatedly – the animals approach the barn to bring Jesus their gifts of hay, wool, songs, etc, I considered anew the whole baby-Jesus-born-in-the-stable scenario. Isn’t it funny that God chose to send his Son into a setting that is comprehensible and endearing to a two-year old? Basic, rudimentary animals that toddlers delight to identify, and whose sounds they love to mimic. Identifying barn animals and making their sounds happens pretty early, developmentally speaking – way before colors, for example, at least if my two-year old is an indicator. So the appeal to barnyard animals is certainly childish in the true sense, and yet it’s also transcendent. Jesus’ birthplace was humble, yes, but it was also universal in that it was so eminently accessible to the human imagination. How interesting that Jesus not only tells us that we need to “become like little children” to enter his Kingdom — but demonstrates it so powerfully from his first minute on earth by entering a setting that would be the perfect destination for a preschool field trip.
Secondly – the animals themselves. My husband is something of a hobby-farmer, and in the past five years we have kept cows, sheep, and chickens. And while I love that we keep these animals and enjoy them from afar, I have to say that- moment of candor and vulnerability here – I’m not wild about them up close. Any of them. The “Friendly Beasts” just don’t feel that friendly to me when they’re in my face; they just freak me out a little. I wish I were a woman who could casually grab a hen and throw her back into the coop when her free-range time is up; goodness knows my husband wishes the same. But no, I inevitably have to get a rake and kind of herd her back in without actually getting too near to her. (A few years ago one of our 200 lb sheep got out of his pen during an evening Bible study while my husband was away and one my friends, bolder than me, thankfully spearheaded the process of herding him back in.)
I bring this up as a roundabout way of saying: I personally would be freaked out to spend a night in a barn with animals roaming free – much less do so at nine months pregnant. And to deliver a baby there? I can’t even imagine. How would I feel if my husband brought me, in labor with my firstborn, into a stable that housed enormous, grubby animals and said: “Good news honey, I found you a place to have the baby. Let me make you a bed of hay over here near the sheep for you to deliver”? I would feel furious; sorry for myself; fearful; incredulous. What must this process have been like for Mary? Did she feel any of those emotions, I wonder, or did the sweet and supreme peace of the God whom she was bore that night in human form simply cover her?
When I step back and look upon Jesus’ birth from the “Friendly Beasts” angle, I have to marvel at God. Who would have imagined such an entry into the world? Unexpected, humble, appealing, a little scary… yet somehow perfect and beautiful in the midst of it all. Nothing that could have been conceived by the human imagination. Such is the God we serve, and Who we celebrate this week at Christmas. O come, O come Emmanuel.