creation care / environment

Christmas, Animals and the Nativity Scene

By Katherine Smith

My dad liked to collect baseball caps; he had a whole wall filled with them, all lined up so he could easily see the names on the front. My uncle collected bottle openers and my mom brought home anything with a picture of John Wayne on it.

People collect all kinds of things that have special meaning to them. I collect nativity scenes from around the world. I have sets from Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, Germany, Guatemala and, of course, America. I have over 20 different representations of the birth of Christ – each unique in materials, colors, style and even the characters present. Each one is special to me because they remind me of the many different cultures present in this world who also consider our Savior’s birth of singular importance and worthy of celebration.

As long as I can remember, my favorite scenes include Jesus, Mary and Joseph, of course, but also the wise men, shepherds, an angel, sometimes a star, sheep, cows, camels and an occasional donkey. This cast of characters is prominent in the Christmas stories and traditions we cherish. 

I noticed many years ago that I have a certain way of presenting the characters in my nativity scenes. The animals and shepherds are always placed in a prominent position – even before the “three kings” with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I wonder if this reflects on my desire to elevate those often considered lowly in our stories—the animals and shepherds—even though they were the first to hear the good news: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

We do not know if there were really animals in the stable when Jesus was born. All we know is that Mary laid Jesus in a manger. As there was no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph and the fact that people often traveled by animal at that time, it makes sense that at least some common animals were present at the birth of Christ. Were these creatures aware of the momentous drama unfolding around them? Let’s look at Scripture for clues. 

Psalm 96: 11-13

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
   let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
    he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples in his faithfulness.  

From Revelation 5:13

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” 

And from Jesus himself:

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 

“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:39-40).

These are but a few of the passages from both the Old and New Testaments that speak of creation praising God—not just the people who inhabit this same space. 

Even our oldest stories found in Genesis and Job point out the importance of all of creation to God. In reality, the natural world would do just fine without people. God and his infinite wisdom knew that people needed all the wonders of this created world to survive. And shepherds certainly weren’t dressed as nice as the “magi” or as rich, but their job to lead and care for the sheep is one that is foundational to our belief in the Good Shepherd.

Were there animals present at the birth of Christ? In all likelihood, yes. Were they just quietly and dumbly munching their hay as the birth of the Savior of the world happened in their midst? I hardly think so! All creation praises our Lord and Savior. This Christmas, let us seriously consider where we place the animals and shepherds in our nativity scenes and, more significantly, what importance we place on that which God called “very good.”

Rev. Katherine Smith is co-founder and executive director of Baptist Creation Care Initiative, member of the CBF Governing Board and leader of the CBF Environmental Stewardship Network.

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