In 2006, I decided to follow the lead of David H.C. Read, the former pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, who in 1957 began the practice of writing what he called “A Christmas Tale for All Ages,” most often written in verse. And he did this for the next 32 years. He was convinced that we need to use our imaginations to see what really happened at Christmas. So that’s what I attempted to do that year.
The following Christmas story served as the sermon for that Christmas Eve in 2006. It seemed appropriate then to talk about peace, as we were deep in conflict. It seems more appropriate now. May this be the year peace shows up. (John P. Leggett, Advent 2015)
The church we belonged to when I was a child used to sing a carol each Christmas that became one of my favorites. It is a part of my Christmas tradition to sing it, and I have enjoyed sharing it with my daughters over the years, though their reception to this point has been reserved at best. It’s the old English carol called The Friendly Beasts. It tells the story of the animals that played a part in that special birth on that first Christmas night so long ago. The opening verse of that carol sets the stage for the rest of the song:
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.
In the verses which follow, each of the friendly beasts—the donkey, the cow, the sheep, the camel, and the dove—tells of the special role they played in welcoming Jesus to the world that holy night. And the final verse sums it all up with these lines:
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.
That song has hounded me this year. It dug itself into my imagination, and I simply couldn’t shake it.
So let me share with you what happened several weeks ago when I was sitting in my office and started singing to myself the carol of the friendly beasts. Suddenly, I heard the voice of the dove from the song. I must admit that I was surprised that a dove could say anything at all. And I was even more surprised that she wanted to talk to me.
“I see that you’re singing that song again,” the dove began. “Of course, as your wife tells you about every song you sing, you don’t have all the words quite right. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because you always say it’s one of your favorite songs, and yet you don’t know the whole story. You only know the final part, which is why we’re called ‘the friendly beasts.’ If you knew the whole story, then you’d understand why it’s stuck in your head this year more than most.”
With that, I sat back as the dove began her story. She decided to start at the very beginning:
It all got started a long time ago
in Bethlehem town—as you probably know
In the strangest of ways, in an unlikely place,
Came the greatest example of God’s stunning grace.
A baby was born in the dark of the night,
And the world, once in darkness, was now bathed in light.
That light seemed to push all the darkness away—
In fact you can sense it to this very day.
Dear Joseph and Mary were there by his side
while I, a small dove, from the rafters tried
to comfort the child, so that he would not cry.
(I would say that he didn’t but I don’t like to lie.)
From my perch in the rafters I heard singing so sweet
And four-footed creatures all keeping the beat.
Imagine my shock when I saw who it was—
It truly surprised me and in fact it still does.
The animals there in the stable that night
Were singing to God with all of their might.
They wanted to tell everybody on earth,
that they played a part in that marvelous birth.
They bleated; they mooed; and some even brayed,
They sang from their heart of the part they had played
In bringing God’s child to the stable so bare,
You could tell from their singing they were glad to be there.
They each sang a verse in that wonderful song
And they sang it out loud and they sang it out strong.
They were happy to share in each other’s joy,
As they told what they’d done for Mary’s new boy.
Their chorus, it sounded so beautifully sweet,
an anthem of glory to the child at their feet.
They even thanked God for using each one
In their own special way to welcome God’s Son.
When she stopped to catch her breath, I told the dove that it didn’t sound like much of a problem to me. In fact, it sounded pretty good. I even told her that I thought we could learn something from those animals who had acted so friendly.
“You haven’t heard the rest of the story,” said the bird.
And before I could say any more, she picked up her story from where she had stopped:
At first all the beasts there were friendly, it’s true
But as the years passed their jealousy grew.
They completely forgot how they got in the story,
and that it was God who deserved all the glory.
They argued and fussed about whose gift was best
And they completely forgot how the world had been blessed
By the birth of a child who would lead us to peace,
In the world of God’s kingdom that would never cease.
Each animal there tried to outdo the other
As they told what they’d done for the child or his mother.
In their frenzied desire to prove themselves right
They got themselves into one terrible fight.
Each animal finally came to believe
That they mattered most on that first Christmas Eve.
And they didn’t care what others had done
In using their gifts to welcome the Son.
Each was convinced that their God loved them most
And when you think that, then you can’t help but boast.
They each told their neighbors, who then told theirs too,
And their fighting continued and their conflict it grew.
I couldn’t believe things had gotten that bad,
and thought that it must have made God very sad
to see how we treated that gift of God’s grace,
when God’s love first looked up from the Christ-child’s face.
At that point I simply had to interrupt her.
“That sounds like what we’re doing today. We are a world divided. We keep arguing about whose God is the strongest, and who loves God the most, and who doesn’t, and who’s in and who’s out. We are separated into all sorts of different nations and religions and denominations and tribes and you can’t even think straight for all of the fighting. What did you do then? And what can we do now? Is there anything that can be done to bring the world together, to bring peace?”
“Why do you think I’m here talking to you this year,” the dove finally asked. “Let me finish my story and perhaps you’ll understand.”
I finally decided enough was enough,
it was time to stop doing that terrible stuff—
our conflict was tearing this world into parts,
and hatred of others had hardened our hearts.
From the rafters I cried out and called them by name,
“My sisters and brothers, we all share the blame.
We’ve failed to remember the young mother’s prayer,
she sang to her Jesus—and we were all there.”
“She sang of her hope that the child would bring peace,
that his love, and his justice, would ever increase.
Let’s listen once more to the words of her song,
for we are God’s creatures, to God we belong.”
“And with that,” the dove told me, “I reminded them of this amazing song that we had heard Mary sing to Jesus. It was a song that was hard to define. At times it sounded like a lullaby, and then like a prayer. And then it would shift into a blessing. You may remember how Luke wrote in his gospel that Mary pondered things in her heart. Well, believe me, there was a lot for her to ponder. But what Luke didn’t write down—because he wasn’t there to hear it as I was—is that what Mary had been pondering in her heart, she finally started to put to words. Only she didn’t just write them down; no, she sang them to her child who slept in her arms. Once I finally remembered them again, I have never forgotten the words of Mary’s song. And, from what I’ve seen, the world needs to hear them now like never before.”
I leaned in close so that I wouldn’t miss the dove’s next words. “Here’s what Mary sang,” she said:
“My Jesus, my child, I’ve waited for you.
I’ve dreamed of this moment, as all mothers do.
I’m finally holding you close to my breast,
for I, among women, have been greatly blessed.
The prophets first told us of the Promised King
God was sending to save us to right everything.
We waited in hope for God’s new day to dawn,
but our aching grew deeper as the years they marched on.
Then the angel did tell me what my God would do,
to bring us salvation and make this world new.
We never imagined that the long-waited One,
would come in the weakness of my newborn Son.
My Jesus, my child, you’re finally here
to end the world’s darkness and conquer our fear.
You’ll break every chain and quench every thirst,
you’ll welcome the outcast and eat with the worst.
And through you the lowly will lift up their head
and those who are hungry will finally be fed.
Your name means salvation—for you’ve come to save,
to lift up your people from out of the grave.
My Jesus, my child, I see in your face,
the love of our God for the whole human race.
I cannot explain it but one day you’ll see,
that love of our God is so costly to me.
I wish I could hold you right here by heart
just hold you forever and never to part,
that’s what your new mother would most like to do,
but God’s love is bigger than just me and you.
In you, my dear child, God’s love will be known,
In all that you do, God’s love will be shown,
God’s love is the reason that you had your birth,
God’s love, in your flesh, will walk on the earth.”
The dove stopped her story just long enough to tell me that remembering the words of Mary’s song changed things for those animals. And she hoped that we would be changed by them too.
Since she clearly wanted others to know of our conversation, I’ll let you hear it from her the way she told it to me:
We knew that our actions had all been absurd,
Once we remembered the song we’d once heard,
A song from a mother, who loved her dear Son,
A song of God’s peace in love had begun.
And now, my dear humans, I’m speaking to you,
if animals got it perhaps you can too.
It’s love that is needed to end all your strife,
the love of our Savior will lead you to life.
So, come to the table, and feast on God’s grace,
See God’s love shining from each human face,
And know that your love must not ever cease,
For that, my dear children, is the way to know peace.