On Christmas Eve, according to Thomas Hardy, "the meek mild creatures knelt before the crib". But the canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - do not depict the animals kneeling in the stable; in fact there are no references at all to animals attending Christ's birth.
Where then does this familiar story come from? The source appears to be the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a compilation in Latin dating from the eighth or ninth centuries. This non-canonical source probably draws on an older oral tradition. The ox and the ass, for example, appear on sarcophagi of the fourth and fifth centuries and on ivory carvings of the fifth and sixth centuries.
To many the significance of this tradition, if it has one, is rather opaque. But this story does not stand alone in ancient, non-canonical literature. In the infancy Gospel of Thomas (fifth century), Jesus revives a dead fish and moulds sparrows from clay. In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the child Jesus makes peace with dragons in a cave, and lions and panthers accompany the Holy Family to Egypt. Most remarkably, Jesus encounters a family of lions who worship him, provoking the comment to bystanders that "the beasts are better than you, seeing that they recognise their Lord and glorify him".
In one Coptic fragment of unknown antiquity, Jesus encounters a man beating a mule, heals it, and admonishes the owner with these words: "Now go on and beat it no more, that you also may find mercy." Indeed in the Acts of Paul (end of second century), Paul is made to fight with a lion who turns out to be a peaceful convert to the new faith.
Of course these stories strain credulity, though in some cases only as much as their canonical counterparts. But they do not come from nowhere. They pick-up animal-friendly hints found, for example, in Mark i,13 that Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness "with the wild beasts", his triumphal entry to Jerusalem on a "humble ass" (Matthew xxi,1-9), and not least of all his saying about sparrows "not forgotten by God" (Luke xii,6). In John's gospel (i,36) Christ is explicitly claimed as the "Lamb of God".
The significance of these gospel hints and apocryphal traditions concerns Christ's identification with the animal world. Christ's birth and ministry are understood as a harbinger of peaceful creaturely relations in fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy that the "wolf shall live with the sheep . . . and a little child shall lead them" (xi,6). God's kingdom then consists in peaceable, filial, co-operative relations between species.
Theology has been the poorer for not pursuing this connection. Much of Western theology remains firmly anthropocentric. Its concentration on humanity has not unjustly led philosophers to suspect that Christianity is nothing other than the deification of humankind. Feuerbach's warning is relevant here: "Religion makes God become man and only then sets up this God that has human form . . . as an object of its worship and reverence."
At its worst, Christianity is idolatry in supposing that human interests are the sole or exclusive concern of God the Creator. Consequently, concern for animals and their suffering is frequently regarded as marginal, even peripheral, to Christian faith.
One way to eclipse that idolatry is by rejecting exclusivist readings of the incarnation. However picturesque the nativity scene now appears to us, it embodies a vision of the peaceful kingdom which Christians need to recover. The incarnation is not just about God becoming human, but about the Word becoming "flesh" - a God-given solidarity with all fleshly, sentient creatures. To put it in less theological language: a non-specialist endorsement of the rights of all sentient beings.
Despite their poor record on animal welfare, there have been moments when Christians have seen and made the connection. The RSPCA was founded in 1824 by an Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, as an expression of Christ- like charity. That Christian crusade against cruelty effectively laid the foundation for the modern movement for animal rights.
Not insignificantly, it was Thomas Hardy who wrote "Compassion: An Ode" in celebration of the society's centenary. He maintained that "mercy" should be the dominant Christian ethic and that without it "helplessness breeds tyranny".
The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once recounted the view of Rowland Hill that a person "was not a true Christian if his dog or cat were not better off for it". And commented: "That witness is true."Reuse content