By Beth Norcross
Sooner or later, my son and his wife knew they would have to have the difficult conversation with their oldest daughter, Lucy; they just wished it could have waited another year. A lunch discussion with her friends about whether Santa was real led to some tough questioning of her mother on the subject. After some intense grilling, her mom relented and told her the truth. Lucy was incensed. Having been schooled on truth-telling, this felt like an absolute betrayal. The light went on in Lucy’s mind, and she wanted to know about other special creatures that had occupied her childhood. In turn, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and others fell like dominoes. She was left wondering what was true and what was not.
I feel Lucy’s pain. It’s the first week of Advent, and I’ve been thinking about what the Christmas story means to me. For many years now, I have dismissed the literalness of the story—virgin birth, angels, shepherds, and wise men—in favor of a more metaphorical theological message. I have relegated the traditional Christmas pageant to a pleasant children’s story. Like Lucy, when one part of the story fell apart, I found the rest came tumbling down as well. Has the Christmas story slipped away like Santa, reindeer, and elves?
There is something, though, in that old, familiar story that still beckons me. I still put the Christmas tree up, full of lights and angels. I find the music of the traditional Christmas carols to be familiar and comforting. And of course, the lovely hand-made birch manger scene is up on the mantle.
As I look at that manger scene, I notice the beautifully carved cattle, donkey, and sheep that sit serenely beside the newborn Jesus—accompanying him and his parents at his birth. While there are no animals in the original Biblical narrative of Jesus’s birth, they are in the creche on my mantle and in most manger scenes around the globe.
I find myself wondering why, for many years and by many peoples, these animals were imagined into this significant story. Perhaps this important human drama would simply not have been complete without the animals. Regardless of whether you believe that Jesus is the son of God, or is God, or perhaps was a Jewish sage or prophet, it is somehow important that he came into the world surrounded by his family—not only his human mother and father, but his dirty and smelly four-legged kin as well. After all, Romans 8 declares that this child will eventually reconcile and renew all creation, not just humans.
In Gayle Bosse’s beautiful new children’s version of her popular book, All Creation Waits, for each day of Advent she presents a different animal preparing for winter. She describes turtles barely breathing at the bottom of ponds, bears snuggled together in caves, and birds searching for berries. Then on Christmas day, she says that the animals have finally found what they’ve been waiting for: “A human at home with all creatures as kin.” This is a story I can embrace.
In unpacking with Lucy her new revelations about Santa Claus, we talked a lot about stories, which she has loved since she was tiny. When I asked her what she liked about stories, she said: “I like stories because I can be free.” When I pushed her to explain what she meant, she responded: “In a story, I can imagine things the way I want them to be.”
With Lucy as my model, this Advent, as I look at the manger scene on my mantle and consider the traditional Christmas story, I will imagine things the way I want them to be—a world that embodies the promise of Romans 8, one in which all of us humans are at home with all creatures as kin.
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