The Friendly Beasts

A meditation on my favorite Christmas carol.

For many years, my favorite Christmas carol was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (though if you asked me why, I couldn’t really say). It has since been supplanted by “The Friendly Beasts.” I first heard the song — which was originally written in 12th century France — on Ding! Dong!, the third disc in Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas set.

Just listening to it, “The Friendly Beasts” is a delightful little song, one that you can easily picture a bunch of little costumed kiddies singing as part of a Christmas program — especially with lyrics like these:

Jesus, our Brother, strong and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good.

“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother uphill and down,
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town;
I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the cow, all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed,
I gave Him hay to pillow His head;
I,” said the cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

“I,” said the dove, from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry,
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I;
I,” said the dove, from the rafters high.

Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.

I love a good Christmas carol, and not just because it puts me in a pleasant holiday mood, gives me warm feelings towards my fellow man, and causes me to wax nostalgic for the Christmases of yore — though those are all certainly good things. I love a good carol because the best Christmas carols are some of the most perfect encapsulations of Christian theology around. And “The Friendly Beasts” most certainly falls into that category.

At the very heart of Christmas is the Incarnation — the process by which Christ, who was fully God, entered this fallen world and also, somehow, became fully Man. Which, while a glorious truth, also raises a whole host of messy questions. Because if Christ was truly the God-man — fully divine and fully human — then we’re forced to relate to Him as a human being. And frankly, we Christians are much more comfortable with the divine side of the Christ equation.

We don’t know what to do with the idea that Jesus was truly human, and as such, subject to all of the things that we humans are subject to. The Bible says that He was tempted in all things, as we are. But if He was fully human, that means that He also got hungry, used the bathroom, felt sleepy, blew His nose, stubbed His toe, dug out splinters from His hands, sneezed, and was subject to the entire spectrum of human experience, both good and bad. He had to be, otherwise He couldn’t be the second Adam.

Which brings us back to “The Friendly Beasts.” In the song, the animals in the Bethlehem stable all sing of the gifts that they were able to give the newborn Christ child: transportation, bedding, warmth, and solace. Gifts that He wouldn’t need if He was not, indeed, a total and complete human being.

The song, in its own inimitable way, reminds us of one of the deepest and most mysterious truths of Christianity: that the Trinity didn’t remain outside of humanity, forever alien and remote, but instead broke through time and space and entered into this world in the weakest and most vulnerable form imaginable; not as a mythical hero or mighty conqueror, but as a defenseless baby, complete with crying, spitting up, and poopy swaddling clothes. And from there, He grew up and experienced all that it means to be human, thereby becoming the perfect atonement.

Furthermore, it is no longer impossible to believe that God understands all that humanity undergoes this side of heaven, both the good (love, joy, peace) and especially the bad (murder, cruelty, injustice, hatred). Because Christ, a member of the Trinity, suffered in this world — from the limitations of being an infant to one of cruelest forms of execution ever devised by human minds — we can take solace that God does, indeed, know all about our aches, pains, and sufferings.

He has experienced them, and because the eternal and divine aspect of Jesus was right there when the mortal and human aspect of Jesus was experiencing them, He has experienced them to a degree we can’t even imagine. A thought that can, and should, bring us great comfort and peace even in the midst of dark times.