I think my favorite carol of the Christmas season is one not widely known. I learned it as a child: The Friendly Beasts. In a few simple verses, the scene is set. The donkey, the cow, the sheep, the dove all speak in their own voices about the gifts they have given the Child.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
“I,” said the cow all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red.
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.
Transportation. A pillow. A blanket. A song. Basic comforts and protections, these gifts. These are the kinds of things that we know human beings need and want to survive and thrive in life. Most of us, today, have enjoyed, offered and received all of these from others in our lives. So, what’s the big deal? Why enshrine these basic things in a story about a man who is proclaimed to be God incarnate on earth?
I think that too often this song and other sentiments around Christmas time are twisted to say: “hey, what gift are you giving to Jesus–after all, you owe it to him. He’s God.”
I think that misses the point entirely. Look at the opening verse of this 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.
Jesus is our brother. He is no more special than the donkey, the cow, the sheep or the dove. They are his sisters and brothers, too. They do for him what they do for family. Never mind that he’s not a cow or a dove, a donkey or a sheep. Family holds a bigger sense of being than who your mother and father are, and these animal beings understand it. So did the one who wrote the song! Total equality. Total communion. Total exchange of energy.
Now consider the last verse:
Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.
I love that all of this required a spell. Magic. Mystery. To help human beings understand that if there is a God, that God is found in the very midst of life, in the most normal things, without pretense, offered freely and commonly. That’s what Immanuel means: God with us. God with us–on our level. God with us who are on God’s level. One. Communion. Total exchange of energy.
The animals knew.