I thought I might do something a little different with my sermons during this brief, four-Sunday Season of Advent. I thought I might step away from the lectionary readings in order to offer a devotional focus on the Nativity scene. Each Sunday I want to reflect on a person, group, or element of the Nativity as a way to lead us more fully into the Feast of Christ’s Incarnation. In future Sundays we will look at Mary and Joseph, at the shepherds and magi, and at the Angelic messenger, but this morning I want to begin by starting at a seemly odd place, with the donkey.
At the parish I served in Richmond, the part of the donkey was always the easiest role to fill in the Christmas pageant. Conner always wanted to do it. Sporting two gray, felt, floppy ears hanging down from a baseball cap and a tail pinned on to his behind, this young man reveled in crawling up the center aisle on all fours with Mary and Joseph following closely behind. No matter how brief the pageant was intended to be, it was never short enough for Conner not to lose his attention. Before all was said and done he was rolling around the chancel steps and trying to engage one of the shepherds in some horseplay (if a donkey can do that!).
It is interesting that Joseph had a donkey. We don’t know if he owned it – thus suggesting he was not desperately poor – or if perhaps a friend lent the animal to him so that the pregnant Mary would not have to walk the long distance from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. More than offering insight into Joseph’s net worth and adding a humorous component to pageants everywhere, the donkey adds a key element to the Nativity story. Its presence suggests how all of creation is drawn into the Incarnation. God’s Son coming into the world is an event intended to have consequences that reach far beyond the human and heavenly realms.
Many classic paintings of the Nativity capture this truth in various subtle ways. Because the birth took place in a stable of sorts, a variety of animals is usually included in artwork. Often you will see a donkey and an ox, with one or both gazing at the newborn King. Their adoration may not be as noticeable as that offered by shepherds and angels, but it is there none-the-less and it is significant. Some artists will include stalks of wheat and sprouts of vine in their work. These symbolize the bread and wine that one day will be used to convey Jesus’ Body and Blood. Finally, most depictions of the Nativity will contain the celestial event of the star that guides the magi.
While we scarcely could imagine the Nativity apart from being set in nature, the fact that it is set in nature – a stable, in the presence of animals, and under a star – should not be overlooked. Nature is invited to join with the human realm and the angelic realm in the joy of the Incarnation for it is not just souls that the Christ has come to redeem, but it is all of creation. It is not just angels who sing a song of Gloria, all of creation lifts a voice of praise.
The 18th century English author Joseph Addison, captures the voice of creation in his poem, The Confirmation of Faith:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s power display;
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale;
And nightly to the listening earth,
Repeats the story of her birth;
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball;
What thought nor real voice nor sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice;
For ever singing, as they shine,
‘The hand than made us is divine.’
Are you trying to get ready for Christmas? If so, the presence of the donkey, representing all of nature, suggests that one of the best ways to prepare is to get outdoors: take a walk, work in the yard, go fishing or hunting, ride a horse, play a round of golf, or go to the aquarium or to the zoo or perhaps sit in silence with your pet. There is a reason why we find these kinds of activities so refreshing, so re-creating. It is because nature sings a song of praise to the Creator and even if we don’t always hear the words, being in the presence of the tune has a way of setting us right.
More and more I am learning to enjoy the writing of William Wordsworth. Listen to this reflection from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, - both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
Every time I read this I think about the places I have hiked or ridden on my mountain bike; and some of those places have been really, really remote. I think about how being in the woods and meadows and streams and rocks and vistas has affected me. I always come away from the experience more whole, more healed, more complete no matter how muddy, bloody, and exhausted I might be. God did not create us apart from creation, but called us forth from it and into it. Our connection to the created order is real, it is strong, and it is spiritual.
In some small way the presence of the donkey at the Nativity points to this and affirms it. All of creation rejoices at the sight of the baby King who is born in the flesh, in the substance of creation. We learn from Scripture that this is an event intended not just for you or for me as individuals, but for all humanity. And even more, it is an event intended for all of creation. So with creation we lift our voice of praise. And with creation, we lift our eyes awaiting the Incarnation of the Savior.