The Revd Janey Hiller explores how Advert presents an opportunity to reconsider our relationship to animals and God’s true intentions for all His creatures.
The idea of animals at Christmastime may conjure up images of cute puppies in pointy red hats and fluffy kittens popped into knitted stockings. Or perhaps even bring to mind some of the more elaborate pet costumes – reindeer, elf or santa – that seem to have become popular in recent years.
Those of us who have lived with animals in one way or another, know what it is to feel a special bond to a furry or feathered friend. They become a much-loved part of our families, our lives and our celebrations. So it’s natural to want to include them in all things Christmassy.
Sometimes, though, animal friends can become little extensions of our human selves. The growth of ‘pet influencers’ on social media is a recent phenomenon which portrays animals as having human-like lifestyles – playing dress-up with friends, going on lunch dates or trick-or-treating, lounging on the bed in a onesie – all aided by an industry which produces designer pet-wear and accessories to suit all manner of tastes.
The top ‘pet influencer’ on Instagram is jiffpom – a Pomeranian dog, who has over 30 million followers across various social media channels and who has (presumably with human help?!) posted hundreds of images and videos of his fluffy self in various poses and costumes, spawning a range of merchandise. The fact that jiffpom is a living, breathing, sentient being seems to be incidental to the marketable ‘product’ he (and many like him) have become.
Let’s move on to Picture 2
The traditional Nativity assembles into one ‘scene’ all the characters and storylines from the birth of Jesus narratives found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mary, Joseph and the swaddled baby Jesus are surrounded by the angels, shepherds, magi and oh-so-many-animals!
The first thing to notice in this image is that the animals are just that – animals. The humble contrast to the images of ‘animals-as-comical-little-people’ above, is striking. The nativity animals participated in the story of Jesus’ birth not because they played a part set for them by humans; rather it was their very animal-ness that meant they could be an integral part in the story’s unfolding.
There was a relationship between the humans and the animals which involved the animals ‘working for’ the humans – the donkey, for example, was a beast of burden who brought Mary to Bethlehem. But, as the assembled scene shows, the humans and animals shared a mutuality of purpose in their participation; to be the first gathered worshippers of the God-child, Jesus.
This inclusivity of all flesh around the word-made-flesh is deeply profound. This symbolism is further emphasised by Jesus, the bread of life, having an animal feeding trough as his first resting place. The clean and the unclean come together in a radical redrawing of the boundaries around who can belong to God. Traditional nativities depict an ox and an ass; symbols of the people of Israel and the Gentiles respectively. Their inclusion in the nativity scene alongside each other and in close proximity to the holy family is a symbolic forward echo to the work of Christ in reconciling all creation.
How might we reflect on animals in the light of these two pictures?
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, animals are afforded great dignity. God’s creativity is displayed in abundance through the multitude of animals, birds and sea creatures we share the earth with; all of which God created with joy and called ‘good’.
In biblical times, animals were a sign of prosperity and God’s blessing and were to be treated with honour. Animals are integral to the covenants God makes (for example the covenant with Noah was with his family and all the animals). And animals are part of the creation that groans in expectation for the redemptive plan God has for the world.
Let’s pause for a moment with a couple of questions for us to ponder over advent:
- What do these two images reveal to you about your relationship with animals?
- What do they tell you about what animals are really ‘for’ in God’s plan for his creation?
My prayer for us all leading into Christmas is that we can be inspired afresh by the animals in the nativity scene. That they will be our ‘pet influencers’! I pray that we will continue to reflect the humility of Christ and to nurture our inclusiveness towards all others. And as we busy ourselves with advent and Christmas activities, I pray that we will do so with a renewed and shared sense of purpose; namely that just like in the assembled nativity scene, each one of us is drawn together in the end to worship with joy and wonder the God-made-flesh, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Revd Janey Hiller is an Ordained Minister and Pioneer Activist in the Anglican Diocese of Bristol.