Ollie (short for “Oliver Twist”), as many in our neighborhood and most in our congregation already know, is our family’s ever-present and ever-busy Jack Russell Terrier. Lisa and I adopted Ollie from another family a couple of years ago, wanting very much to once again have a dog around the house; however, given that we actually knew very little about the nature of the breed, from the very first moment that Ollie entered our lives, it was an adventure!
But Ollie has also become an indispensable part of our family, and along the way we’ve discovered that he’s a dog filled to overflowing with personality: first of all, he’s relentlessly energetic and will take walks and play ball with you until you drop; he’s also very smart and communicative as to what he wants from us (which, generally speaking, is for all attention to be on him); cuddly when he wants to be (which is more often than you’d think) and quite cranky when he doesn’t; and he can alternately or bold or timid, something I’m told is pretty common in Jacks. He’s also fiercely protective of our tropical fish, loves going “up to camp,” and has a penchant for chasing skunks and chickens, but that’s a story for another time. Simply put, Ollie’s a bit quirky but we love him!
That said, some of Ollie’s quirks are, shall we say, unique. For instance, last year at about this time we were decorating the house for Christmas, which includes setting up a crèche on the bookshelf in our living room, a beautiful nativity scene with ceramic figures handmade by my grandmother. For us, this crèche is a symbol of both faith and family, and having it displayed at Christmas is an important and long-held tradition… which would have been fine, except that Ollie would have no part in it!
No sooner than the figures had been placed around the manger, Ollie began to bark and growl incessantly at them; and when he wasn’t doing that, he was either pacing back and forth in front of the bookshelf or else lying, trembling, on the living room sofa; his eyes wide and firmly fixed on the assemblage of shepherds and magi who were gathered about the Christ Child. In an attempt to calm his nerves, Lisa tried bringing a couple of the figures down from the shelf so that Ollie could sniff them and be assured they were, in fact, harmless; but this was to no avail, and when Ollie then attempted to leap from the love seat to the bookshelf to investigate matters first hand, we reluctantly decided that it might be best to pack the crèche away.
That was last Christmas, however; and undaunted, this past weekend we decided to give it another try; but once again, as soon as he noticed it was set back on the bookshelf, Ollie became visibly (and audibly!) nervous. The good news is that after a couple of hours of pacing and whining, Ollie began to show signs that he was making peace with his this part of his family’s Christmas tradition; that is, until… Lisa set out the snow globe.
Yes… the snow globe; specifically, the snow globe with the nativity scene inside, along with the parade of cows, sheep and other manger animals that encircle its base. So now, in all honesty we’re beginning to wonder aloud: What is it with this crazy dog? Were the nativity figures so incredibly lifelike as to fill Ollie with such abject fear? Could it have been that he’d once had an unfortunate run-in with some wayward Christmas decorations, an encounter that left him wary of any and all holiday traditions; or, as my wife slyly suggested, was the truth that as a puppy he’d been raised as an atheist and thus was merely registering his strong objection to our faith-based celebration of the season? The possibilities were many; but whatever the reason, one thing was certain: the whole notion of even depicting this Holy Birth was more than enough to leave our Ollie… distressed.
Which, as I’ve been thinking about it these past few days, actually seems like the appropriate response.
What with all the beautiful songs and images that we’ve warmly and traditionally attached to it, the story of Christmas is one that’s become very familiar to our eyes, ears and hearts; and yet, for all of its familiarity, we tend to forget that at its core the gospel account of Jesus’ birth is by its very nature distressing. The very idea that God’s own son – this one proclaimed as “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11) – should be born in the squalor of a cold, dark and damp barn amidst all the sounds and smells of farm animals should go against all of our sensibilities; likewise, that his earthly parents be two young, impoverished teenagers who, far from being welcomed as part of the ruling class of Judea, were firmly ensconced among the oppressed of the world; to the point of their later having to flee their homeland and become refugees in Egypt, all for the sake of their child’s life and God’s plan. Even that all of this all happens with little more than handful of shepherds and some far-away magi even taking notice: it’s all part of what the writer Halford Luccock once referred to as “shockingly irregular,” that such a child come into the world under such dire circumstances. “There was certain a place in the organized life of Judea in which babies might be born,” Luccock wrote. “It was not a barn. But there was no room in the inn, so a barn was used… if there is no room in the fitting place, God uses another, even a manger.”
It doesn’t exactly live up to our cherished vision of a scene where “all is calm, all is bright,” but it is very real, and more than enough reason for barking at the manger; and whereas our dog Ollie was not likely voicing his concern over the most distressing circumstances of our Savior’s birth, it’s nonetheless a good reminder to you and me of the deep, disturbing but ultimately life-giving truth that this where our God comes to us: right in the midst of the darkest corners of our lives and living. The nativity, more than simply a sweet remembrance of the birth of the baby Jesus, this is a story that depicts God’s full commitment and love to the world; a love that was personified in the person of Jesus of Nazareth: the one who grew from that tiny baby in the manger to become our Savior, Teacher and Friend; the one who by God’s own design would share our common joys and struggles, carrying the burden of our pain and our sin as his own, even unto death the cross; the one who is truly in every way we can name our Emmanuel, which means God With Us.
It is light coming into the world, and it is life both abundant and eternal; and one of the most amazing parts about it is that it all begins in a place that is as dark and unsettling for us as it must have been for them in Bethlehem; and as it continues to be for at least one little dog who continues to bark at the manger, all upset that suddenly, things are not as expected or at least not how they’ve always been.
The good news of Christmas is that they’re not… and thanks be to God for it.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry