Animals have their place at the crib

One of my prized possessions is a carved olive-wood Crib scene. It comes out afresh every Christmas as the centre-piece of our decorations.

One of my prized possessions is a carved olive-wood Crib scene. It comes out afresh every Christmas as the centre-piece of our decorations. It was bought in Bethlehem many years ago, and given to me by kind friends in one of the first church groups I led on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It has been added to over the years by a camel train for the wise men, and a spotlight to shine on the Christ child. I usually manage to find a few Christmas roses and stems of winter jasmine to stand alongside it and set it off.

The animals, of course, are an important part of the scene, all beautifully carved, the recumbent ox and ass intended to be placed with heads inclined adoringly toward the Christ-child, likewise the sheep, with the camels towering outside. All very traditional, as in countless similar cribs. Yet, if the truth be known, there is no mention in the scriptures of there being animals present at Christ's birth. One might possibly assume from St Luke where Mary "laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn", that animals might have been present, a manger being their eating-trough. But there is absolutely no authority for this.

The ox and the ass apparently only begin to appear on sarcophagi of the 4th and 5th centuries, and on ivory carvings a little later. The Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 1.3, that "the ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master's crib" could be the source for this.

There are also hints from the part animals play in the ministry of Jesus that could have been back-sourced to the stable in popular sentiment. Jesus began his ministry " in the desert "with the wild beasts" (Mark 1.13). He rode into Jerusalem on a "humble ass" (Matthew 21.1-9).

The Rev Prof Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, which opened last month to research the ethics of our treatment of animals, argues in a recent article that these gospel hints, and some apocryphal animal stories, testify to an animal-friendly tradition within Christianity. Right back to Isaiah, Christ's coming was seen as bringing peaceful creaturely relations, when the "wolf shall live with the lamb . . . and a little child shall lead them".

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But this has not been the view of mainstream theology, as espoused by such giants as Augustine, Aquinas and Luther, which has hinged rather on Genesis 1.26 where man was given dominion over the animals, which are provided for our use, by killing for food or harnessing for labour.

This "dominion" is now interpreted more in terms of man's "stewardship" under God for all natural resources, including the animals, a sacred responsibility rather than exploitation. But it is this theology which is behind our use of animals for meat, for leather, fur and ultimately, I suppose, for testing drugs for human benefit, which many question today.

I have never been sentimental about animals.

Many people today are too sentimental about animals for their good, and over-pamper and anthropomorphise them in a way no sensible farmer ever would have done. Brian Sewell admitted on the radio recently that every time he had moved house he had transferred the remains of his successive dogs to his new garden, and intended to be interred among them.

But as Prof Linzey pointed out there was also this other animal-friendly tradition in Christianity, which flourished in the lives of many saints of both east and west, who commended kindness to animals as a mark of holiness.

St Francis of Assisi, of course, was filled with piety when he contemplated all God's other creatures, including even the sun and the moon, calling them "brother" and "sister" because they had the same origin as himself.

This animal-friendly tradition carried on into the humanitarian movements of the 19th century. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury insisted that cruelty to man or beast was incompatible with Christian discipleship, and Anglican priest Arthur Broom in1824 founded the SPCA (later with the R in front) as a Christian society, precursors of the better aspects of the animal rights' movement of today. (I am sure they would have been utterly shocked by its more extreme elements.)

But that it not all. Some suggest that Christianity is solely about human salvation. But a closer reading of scripture rather disputes this. St Paul (Ephesians 8.18-25) wrote of the whole of creation "groaning and travailing together" as it urgently waits for human beings to accept their destiny and responsibility as God's sons and daughters. Then things will change for the better. The scope of salvation is cosmic, and the animal world, now "red in tooth and claw", will be redeemed.

So the animals are rightly included in the crib scene, and share our wonder, their destiny being linked with ours, in the salvation wrought for us by the Christ child.