Ask of the Beasts
“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” —Luke 12:24
You know, we talk of the innkeeper who turned Mary away while she was in labor, but the Bible doesn’t mention an innkeeper. An inn but not an innkeeper.
The Christmas carol Away in a Manger says
the cattle are lowing,
the poor baby wakes…
but the bible doesn’t mention cattle.
Another carol says
why lies he in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding
but the Bible doesn’t mention ox and ass.
We talk about the stable where Mary laid her newborn, but the Bible doesn’t mention a stable.
What the Bible does mention, of course, is an inn and a manger, and where there is an inn, there must be an innkeeper, and where there is a manger, there must be a stable, and farm animals who use the manger as their dinner table and dinner plates.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the Christian Church until the fourth century, and so far as we know, there were never any animals in the creche scenes until St. Francis came along in the 13th century.
In mid-December 1223, Francis traveled to a monastery near Greccio, about 35 miles south of Assisi. Francis wanted to have a special Christmas celebration, so he asked that livestock be brought in and carefully tethered next to a local husband and wife with their infant, who stood in for the Holy Family.
The gospels also told of astrologers (magi) and shepherds, so Francis asked some of the friars to represent them, as well.
Candles and torches lit up the night sky that Christmas Eve, and the tableau vivant—a liturgical drama or medieval mystery play—made of Greccio a new Bethlehem. At midnight Mass, Francis preached on the humility of God’s entrance into time, and on the poverty of Jesus.
After the service, he helped the nobleman serve a feast to the guests, and he asked that a double portion of hay and oats be given to the animals, and grain scattered outside for the birds.
St. Francis might be the most beloved saint in the Roman Catholic hagiathon. Or maybe he is tied with St. Nicholas, whom we heard from last Sunday, on Christmas morning.
One of the reasons St. Francis is so beloved is that he taught us to attend to our furry, four-footed friends. “Ask of the beasts,” he once advised, “ask of the beasts, and they will teach you of the beauty of the earth.”
When he said that, he was merely paraphrasing Jesus, who’s advised, long before:
Consider the lilies of the field…
Consider the grass of the meadow…
Consider the sparrow…
Consider the raven…
Consider the beasts. Be considerate of them, and attend to them. Learn from them.