The Nativity scene in which the Christ child lies in a manger, surrounded by animals, has come to represent the Christmas season for believers. And because the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus are reported in Luke's Gospel, many people assume that Christmas has always been celebrated in this way.
But it was not always so. Although Luke's account makes the animals and shepherds important witnesses to the birth of Jesus, it was not until the time of St. Francis of Assisi that their pivotal role in welcoming the Savior was recognized.
St. Francis understood that God cared for all creatures. He knew that each glorified God in their own way. And because he understood this, he realized the significance of the setting into which Jesus was born. Francis knew from the scriptures that "the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption...for the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together." (Romans 8:21,22) And he knew that the "whole creation" meant the redemption of nonhuman, as well as human, beings.
In the original creation account, animals were created first. Then, Adam was placed in their midst and given dominionóresponsibility for their well-being. But when human beings fell from their high estate they began to abuse one another, and all other creatures. The entire earth needed to be redeemed, and the birth of Christ heralded a new beginning.
His birth was a restatement of the creation story; like Adam, Jesus was born in a place that already sheltered animals. "The time came for the baby to be born...She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6,7)
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them... 'Do not be afraid...I bring you good news...This will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:8-10,12)
So it was that those chosen to be first to know the good news of Christ's coming, were men who cared for animals. They were the nurturing caregivers that God meant man to be when Adam was given charge over creation. These shepherds were living in a way that, in their time, most closely approximated the peaceful accord between animals and men that God had ordained and the prophets had described in their millennial visions.
Both shepherds and sheep continued to play an important role in the life of Christ. During his ministry he designated himself "the Good Shepherd" and in so doing, was continuing the tradition of the prophet Isaiah who used the same image to express God's loving concern for all creation.
"Here is your God...He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." (Isaiah 40:9,11)
Jesus used the shepherd image to represent divine care and compassion, but he was also reminding people that an ideal relationship with animals was one in which they were the object of man's concern and care. The life of the shepherd was also a life of service to nonhuman creatures. It was a lifestyle that Jesus consistently held up as a model to his followers. The work of the shepherds was the antithesis of those whose work centered around the slaughter of animals in the Temple at Jerusalem. And Jesus, who was welcomed into the world by men who protected and cared for animals, did not participate in the sacrificial rites of the Temple. Neither did his disciples. Just as the beginning of Judaism was marked by the rejection of human sacrifice when Abraham substituted a ram for his son Isaac, so the beginning of Christianity was marked by the rejection of animal sacrifice.
The infant who was born in a stable surrounded by domesticated animals, grew up to become a man who suffered the same fate as the gentle lambs who were endlessly slain on the altars of sacrifice. Men said that the slaughter of those sheep was pleasing to God. So, also, Jesus Christósaid to be a blasphemerówas killed because men thought this would be pleasing to God.
The babe in the manger who grew up to become the Good Shepherd, ultimately became the Lamb of God who went to his death "like a sheep that is led to the slaughterhouse." (Acts 8:32)