Dear Friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For the past few years, my sisters and I have travelled to Chicago just before Christmas to visit our cousin’s family. Regretfully, these poor souls of the prairie has become so enamored by the windy city, that they have lost all connections to their Norwegian roots. Today, they wouldn’t know the difference between lutefisk and a Swedish meatball, or a rosette and lefse. Instead, my cousin’s children believe they are completely Italian after their father. Fortunately, and somewhat naively, they do assume that all good Italians in Chicago are Lutheran. So each year we make an effort to share with them a bit of their Scandinavian heritage, and they try to share a bit of their Italian. I am afraid, however, it may be a losing battle. They know nothing about the pink-cheeked diners decked in Nordic sweaters who head out in the weeks before Christmas to church basements eager for their plate of lye-soaked cod swimming in a sea of melted butter. Instead, they eat eel, and octopus and smelt for a meatless Christmas Eve dinner they call the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Even their songs are different.
If you’re an American of Italian descent in Chicago, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with this mid- 20th century masterpiece “Dominic the Donkey.” It goes a bit like this.
Yes, we all have our favorite traditions that tell us something about we are, and how we were raised and where we came from. Whether Columbian or Italian, Brazilian or Spanish, Danish or German, these musical and culinary traditions, are all important and help us to tell the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Not so surprising, in all of our cultures, animals play a part of that story as well. And why shouldn’t they be. They were the first witnesses to Jesus’ incarnation.
Yes, animals have always been a part of the Christmas story. Just ask any second-grader today about the animals present there in Bethlehem, “How did the little sheep greet each other that first Christmas Day?” Why, “Merry Christmas to ewe of course” Or “What did the shepherds in Bethlehem get when they crossed an angry sheep with a moody cow?” An animal that was in a baaaaaaaad moooooood!” Nowhere in the Christmas gospel, is it actually written that the Virgin Mary, heavy with child, rode a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but since the 4th century, in mosaics, frescos and paintings the ox and donkey have rested on either side of the manger worshipping the new born king.
Shepherds and sheep, however, are mentioned in scripture. And so we read that there were in that same region shepherds abiding in the fields and watching over their flocks by night. They were the ancient world’s forgotten men and boys; life’s misbegotten shepherds. They slept beneath the stars with worn and tattered blankets. They warmed themselves by smoky fires. And across the burning embers they watched their wandering companions – the sheep and the lambs. They had no dreams or illusions of life being anything more.
But suddenly, without sign or warning, the angel of the Lord stood before them. At the darkest hour, when the fear of predators was greatest, and the shepherd’s flock was the most vulnerable, the brightness of the noontime sun dawned upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown all around them and they were terrified. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.
Now you may be wondering, so why would God send the message of good news for all the people to hear to this lowly band of shepherds first? Why send a chorus of the heavenly host to sing for a handful of shepherds and their flocks when a quartet could have done just as well? Why not send the angel of the Lord to the Empire’s capital city of Rome, where a legion of couriers could have taken the message forth to every corner of the world? But God’s ways are not our ways nor the ways of the world. Instead, the Christmas story tells us that no community is so small or insignificant that the importance of God’s message cannot stir and transform it. The good news of Christ’s birth and song of angels comes precisely to those who need encouragement and strengthening for the work entrusted to them.
My friends, that is the promise of Christmas for you as well. When you are feeling most ordinary and overlooked, or when things are just not going your way, be patient. It is in the darkest hours, that heaven will meet you. Not in the halls of power, the shopping malls, nor on the great stages of the world’s capital cities. God’s light breaks in in the most unexpected and obscure places- like the lonely hills of Bethlehem. As the mystic Catholic theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.”
The shepherds were changed that Christmas Eve. They were transformed from shepherds into divine messengers. And whoever heard their story was amazed at what the shepherds told them. That is the wonder that the shepherds experienced. It is what God offers you this Christmas as well. It is not simply that you should enjoy the wonder of our Savior’s birth, but more importantly God wants you to be changed by his birth. Nearly, five hundred years ago, the reformer Martin Luther wrote, “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?” This gift is given to you so that you may have life and live it abundantly without regrets of the past, the present and the future.
And you and I are called to tell that story of what God has to those who have not heard. Of course, our children do this every December as a part of the Sunday School Christmas program. Little boys eagerly wave their hands volunteering to play the role of Joseph, and little girls long radiantly to be play Mary. A little more reluctantly, children agree to be the host of angels and the wisemen. But perhaps you are not sure what role you can or want to play. Oddly, no child I know ever volunteers to play the donkey. It is always a parent who is reluctantly drafted at the last hour to play the donkey. But truthfully, what greater honor could there be than playing the donkey. In the ancient world the donkey was a symbol of service, suffering, peace and humility.
Author Max Lucado wrote, “Somebody needs to be the donkey. I’m thinking a donkey at Christmas is a good thing to be. The Christmas donkey did his work. He delivered Jesus, so Jesus could be delivered. He plodded along. He didn’t gallop or giddy-up. He did what donkeys do. He steadily stepped in the direction the master directed. And, upon arrival, he stepped to the side. He demanded no recognition, expected no compensation. He isn’t even mentioned in the Bible.
He was happy to do his job and let Jesus have all the attention.” Isn’t that the lasting gift of life that you wish to share with your family this Christmas. After all the donkey carried Jesus- the greatest gift of all.
So perhaps, my relatives in Chicago do have something to teach us with that silly song about Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey. It maybe the good news that you need to hear this Christmas. For no matter how overlooked or forgotten you feel, there is always a place at the manger for the person who plods along, willingly, carrying the One, who will one day carry us all. That maybe God’s role for you. Amen.
Merry Christmas! May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.