John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
In his meditations on Christmas, the Venerable Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland (1948-1981), reflects on the presence of animals around Baby Jesus.
“Living Nativity” scenes are attractive in many places. Children love petting sheep, donkeys, and the occasional cow or ox. The reality, of course, is less romantic: hanging around a sheep when you’re wearing a parka and the parish council is selling hot cocoa beats swaddling clothes (i.e., diapers) and the real thing. But Wyszyński wants us to draw some lessons from those animals.
First, except for his parents, the first living beings around the newborn Christ Child were the animals. The Word by which heaven and earth and all that is on it was made enters this world in the presence of a man and a woman and a stable full of animals. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its owner’s manger,” and man sees Isaiah’s prophecy come true on Christmas night.
Second, Jesus shows us man’s proper relationship to the animal world. While Isaac was saved from sacrifice by a ram, the ram in the stable sees the “Lamb of God” whose sacrifice would take away the sins of the world. While undoubtedly a few birds roosted in the stable’s eaves, the Baby would be presented in the Temple not with the offering of a ram but of two turtle doves—the substitute offering for those who were poor. Still, as Wyszyński reminds us, this Baby’s Father feeds the sparrows of the field, not one of which falls without His Knowledge. And Jesus, as King of Creation, the “Lion of Judah” lies down with the lambs of Bethlehem, already inaugurating in an animal’s stable that time of “peace on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9) that the Messiah brings. (My Christology professor, Fr. Joseph Szewczyk, used to remind us that the Temptation scene in Mark, although terse, is full of meaning. While Matthew and Luke focus on the three temptations of Christ, for Mark it suffices that He was tempted amidst the animals while the angels tended Him. All creation—material (animals), material and spiritual (man), and spiritual (angels, God)—is there).
Third, the animals give man example. In Polish and some other European traditions, animals are said to talk on Christmas night. Farmers will share their blessed wafers (opłatek) that they use at Christmas Eve supper (Wigilia) with their beasts. Dogs are often let off the leash on this night of freedom. (Having been followed down some snowy Polish rural roads on Christmas Eve, I can attest that the latter is true).
That tradition tells us something. If animals can speak on this holy night with human voices, with what kind of voice should men speak? If animals would want to act like men, why do men want to act like animals, especially towards their fellow man?
Remember that Wyszyński was writing at a time when memories of German and Russian occupation and German concentration camps were still vivid ones for many Polish families.
But animality is not just a Nazi or Soviet trait. It is a human one, because of sin. Social contract theoreticians like Thomas Hobbes defined humanity as homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to his fellow man). And plenty of people would say (though hopefully not on Christmas Eve) that “getting ahead” means “watching out for your interests,” even if it means stepping on others’.
Wyszyński does not explicitly mention it in this part of his meditation, but the fact that the Baby Jesus finds welcome in an animal’s feeding trough when all sorts of human doors were closed in his parents’ faces also poses the question: do we act human?
Wyszyński’s takeaway is this: as we reflect on the peaceful animals amidst which Jesus finds His first place on earth, animals that perhaps spoke a word to each other that night about the Word, should we not resolve that the words (and deeds) that come out of me—not just on Christmas but all the year—might at least try to be what the animals accomplished by miracle: human? Should we not commit ourselves to words and deeds that are … human?