Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The ox and ass and camel

I’ve been thinking a lot about camels recently, inspired by my trip across part of Manchester diocese on one last week. The experience taught me that, if nothing else, by the time they reached Bethlehem the Magi would have had sore bottoms. Perhaps my recent ride was why, sat in the cathedral on Sunday night for the last pre Christmas Carol Service in the diary, and hearing again Harold Darke’s evocative setting of Christina Rossetti’s words, In the Bleak Midwinter, one line sprang out: ‘The ox and ass and camel, which adore’.

The nativity story is composed around a series of journeys: Mary and Joseph are called from Nazareth; the shepherds are sent down from the hills; the wise men travel from a far land in the east. But some of the figures in the crib scene have made no journey at all. The animals are simply at home, at the end of whatever labours they had been put to that day, in their stable. And Christ is born in their midst.

Perhaps it helps that I’m a Franciscan, but I don’t hear Rosetti’s words as mere Victorian sentimentality. I believe in the Christ who is ‘Saviour of the World’; his mission is not just to pluck human brands from the flames, but to bring the whole created order to its joyful destiny. The biblical account may not specifically mention whether other creatures were there, but the presence of the manger is a pretty convincing clue. It’s in their home that the Son of God chooses to be born. They are the ones who are so blessed that they have no journey required of them before they meet the Saviour. They are ready and prepared to adore him just as they are.

The Anglican Five Marks of Mission call us explicitly to combat injustice and to guard God’s creation. Whether or not we go as far as St Francis, who would gently remove worms from the path for their safety, the animals among whom Jesus was born serve as symbolic reminders of those imperatives. Reminders too that the world we share with them, whilst marked and marred by sin, is in no state of utter depravity. Rather it remains glorious in the richness of its God-willed diversity, most of all whenever it offers that glory back to him in adoration.

And the animals remind us that sometimes no outward journey is necessary. Christ is here, in our midst, even as we are peaceably at home or engaged in routine. The task is to notice, to let our eyes be no longer blinded by our preoccupations and preconceptions, and to respond. Can we be, as we tuck into Christmas dinner, open presents or anxiously await the start of the TV Christmas special we’re so looking forward to, at least as aware of the divine in our surroundings as Rosetti suggests the creatures in the crib scene were?

Then ox, and ass, and camel, and we, might adore.

David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester

Posted by David Walker on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 at 5:00pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

Happy Christmas to all on this blog,


Posted by: John on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 at 7:16pm GMT

Does the new Bishop of Manchester believe that Fido and Tiddles go the heaven? If so what about the turkey to be consumed tomorrow? Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Posted by: Father David on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 at 9:28pm GMT

Thanks, John. You too. And a nice piece by +David.
Merry Christmas to all.

Posted by: Cynthia on Thursday, 26 December 2013 at 5:37am GMT

Father David. To answer your question, I no more believe in an eternity that is populated purely by God and discarnate human souls than Jesus did.

By the way, the Christmas nut roast was yummy. What's more, after two days there's no more leftovers lingering on.

Posted by: David Walker on Thursday, 26 December 2013 at 5:17pm GMT

I am delighted that the Bishop of Manchester enjoyed his Christmas Nut Roast as opposed to the more usual roast turkey. Merry Christmas to you, My Lord Bishop.By the way do nuts make it into heaven on the grounds that they don't qualify as "discarnate human souls"

Posted by: Father David on Thursday, 26 December 2013 at 8:43pm GMT

Thanks, Cynthia. Hope to meet one day.

Father David, why not meet on your next visit to Durham? We are all angry here, but remember: ut ait Seneca noster, "ira gignit insaniam". Believe me, I know.

Posted by: John on Friday, 27 December 2013 at 9:24am GMT

John , didn't you miss out "Immodica" (I never go abroad without it) from your quotation from Seneca? Why be angry? May the joy of the Christ Child be yours this Christmas, especially on this the feast day of your name sake St. John the Evangelist.

Posted by: Father David on Friday, 27 December 2013 at 11:02am GMT

No disembodied souls for me either. And a heaven where a lot more than half of creation is lost for ever does not make sense to me at all. Perhaps if you do not see it that way you would like to ponder the 'what about her mother?' problem. Let us suppose somewhere along the chain of evolution, there was a distinct point where a a woman first had a 'soul'. The first woman to be a daughter of God and not an animal. what about her mother? does she alone mourn for a wholly innocent mother who was lost for ever?

It makes no sense. Creation is essentially a whole. We are part of a continuum. Everything or nothing is of God, and loved by him, and for ever.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Friday, 27 December 2013 at 12:10pm GMT

Well, the very best detailed description we have in Holy Writ of what heaven will be like comes in the final book of the Bible - the Revelation of St. John the Divine. For him on the Island of Patmos a door was opened into heaven and he describes clearly what he saw in his great vision. Granted there is a winged man, a winged lion, a winged ox and a winged eagle mentioned but that only goes to shew how close the four Evangelists and their Gospels are to the throne of the Lamb. My worry is that "there was no more sea". Does that mean that fish don't make it into the hereafter - nor indeed "Whales, and all that move in the Waters"?

Posted by: Father David on Friday, 27 December 2013 at 1:09pm GMT

Fair cop, Father David, and thanks for the other thoughts. 'Sed dum doces, discis.'

Posted by: John on Saturday, 28 December 2013 at 9:26am GMT

Indeed so, John, indeed so.
Veni, Vidi, Velcro (I came, I saw, I stuck)
Novus Annus to all readers of Ratus Anglicanis

Posted by: Father David on Saturday, 28 December 2013 at 11:43am GMT
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