Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Christmas Mystery, as told by The Friendly Beasts

Although I have been known to criticize, in passing, the over-emphasis on carols at Christmas, today I'd like to draw attention to a worthy carol and some aspects of its lyrics. The song is "The Friendly Beasts," known by many people from recent recordings, though the melody and lyrics both have their roots in medieval France.

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good

I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown
I carried His mother up hill and down
I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town
I said the donkey, all shaggy and brown

I said the cow, all white and red
I gave Him my manger for His bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head
I said the cow, all white and red

I said the sheep, with curly horn
I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn
I said the sheep, with curly horn

I said the dove, from the rafters high
I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry
We cooed Him to sleep, my love and I
I said the dove, from the rafters high

Thus every beast, by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel
The gift He gave, Emmanuel

While a cute story about animals at Jesus's birth, the song also probes the very meaning of the Incarnation, the coming of God as a man. Imagine, for a moment, that the president, the pope, a famous writer, or some other person you deeply respected was coming to your home or church. Think of the excitement, both before and after. For years, you'd tell friends and neighbors, "Right there, on that corner of the deck, Pope Francis and I sat and drank a few brews together."

But consider another wrinkle: God is not merely someone you respect or even a dear friend. He is these things, but He is also your maker and judge. His power circumscribes all things. His will holds us in existence. His judgements are perfect and final, for He circumscribes even time itself. It would be with excitement, yes, but also fear and trembling that you would tell your neighbors, "God is coming to my house."

But then a curious thing happens, and it is this point where "The Friendly Beasts" really begins its reflection: God comes "not as a monarch but a child" (as an Ambrosian hymn reminds us). Almightly God is weak. And, as a consequence, He needs our help. Thus do the beasts recount their deeds of kindness to the Christ Child: "I carried His mother to Bethlehem Town.... I gave Him my manger for His bed.... He wore my coat on Christmas morn.... I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry." As if to emphasize the wonder that they, mere creatures, should render such service to their creator, each of the verses ends with a reminder that this happened to them, personally.

I'm not sure I understand how God became man. I can't explain quite why He needed our help. Indeed, the Church tells us that the Incarnation is a mystery; at its deepest core it is something we cannot fully explain. But we can revel in the wonder of it all. That is what we do at Christmas and that's what the friendly beasts do.

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