All our Christmas stories of the Nativity – and many of our Carols – have animals as an essential part of them, for Jesus himself was born in a manger. His ‘crib’ was a wooden trough in a barn for farm animals to feed from, ‘because there was no room for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2: 7) The Gospel of Luke, telling of the shepherds ‘keeping watch over their flock by night,’ (2: 8) allows us to see the sheep and their lambs brought by the shepherds as they travel to Bethlehem, while the Gospel of Matthew, telling of the wise men who came from the east, invites us to picture the camels who carried them. (2: 1) Since the fourth century, tradition has added the ox and the donkey or ass, and filled the crib with soft straw. It is a scene that has inspired countless local and personal depictions of the Nativity as well as the universal archetypal motifs of saviours in every religion who are typically born outside or beyond the habitual customs of civilized life.
Giotto di Bondone, The Nativity. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c. 1305.
St Francis of Assisi, who loved animals and birds, and who felt at one with ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon’ and the whole of creation, may have been the first to dramatize the Nativity in 1223.
Giotto di Bondone, St. Francis talking to the Birds. Upper Church of the Basilico of San Francesco in Assisi. C. 1295-1300.
But while animals are always present with Jesus and Mary and Joseph and the Angel, they are rarely given a voice, and we do not know of any Carols of their own! So in this App we hear their story, imagining ourselves into the animals who were so close to the baby, and imagining what they saw and felt. In this way, perhaps, we may feel compassion for the ‘real life’ animals as well as other human beings, all of whom play their part in creation. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says: ‘Cleave a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.’ ‘I am the All.’
Father Thomas Berry, a very special friend – a Passionist Monk and a cultural historian who preferred to call himself a ‘geologian’ – wrote this poem about All the Children of the Earth:
To All the Children
To all the children,
To the children who swim beneath
The waves of the sea, to those who live
In the soils of the Earth, to the children of the flowers
In the meadows and the trees of the forest,
To all those children who roam over the land
And the winged ones who fly with the winds,
To the human children too, that all the children
May go together into the future in the full
Diversity of their regional communities.
Giotto di Bondoni. Institution of the Crib at Greccio. Upper Church of the Basilico of San Francesco in Assisi. C. 1297-1300.
Illustration by Gilly Kohler, (App). 2015.