the friendly beasts
I'd be lying if I told you "ass" is the only swear I've ever said in church...
“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.”
Like many people, I love Christmas songs. Christmas songs, both religious and secular, are joyful and catchy and feel particularly needed in this moment. This year I finally started to understand why some people being playing them in October. One of my neighbors put up their Christmas tree on November 1, which normally I would be cause me to roll my eyes, but this year has been so scary and dark that even I, a firm believer in not starting Christmas traditions until Advent begins, started decorating a little earlier than usual. I needed some hope.
Advent is an inherently hopeful season. We wait for Christ’s birth and in that waiting is hope for the future and excitement at the possibilities it holds. What will be revealed to us during this time?
Growing up, my mom would sing a Christmas song that doesn’t make it onto too many playlists. It was her grandmother’s favorite and has since become mine as well. The Friendly Beasts is sung from the point of view of the animals present at Christ’s birth.
The donkey, dove, cow, and sheep each have a verse where they sing about what gifts they brought to baby Jesus. Each of their gifts is something simple-hay, wool, a song-that helps make Jesus’s first night a little more comfortable.
In college I met people who argued over the minutiae of Jesus’s life. I read theological theories asking if it was possible he cried as a baby, if crying is a sign of original sin, and if Mary felt pain during child birth. I’m sure those questions are interesting to some people, but I am fine with leaving the answers a mystery. To me, focusing on these aspects ignore the larger message of Christmas.
For my job, I plan a lot of Masses with the Archdiocese. When I do this I have to fill out forms that lay out exactly how the Mass should go. The previous Cardinal whose office I worked with for the first two years at my job was a very particular person. He noticed everything and it was stressed to me over and over that Masses always had to go smoothly when he was celebrating. Inevitably, when you take 350 mostly non-Catholic teenagers, file them into an auditorium, put an old white guy in front of them, and tell them to be on their best behavior, you will get a mixed bag of results. Mostly, your Mass will feel joyless and not at all like the celebration it is supposed to be and your Campus Minister will be too stressed to pray or fully partake in Mass because she’s worried she’s going to get fired since 30% of the kids are fully asleep.
The Cardinal’s fixation on the tiny details and protocol of Mass took away from the message of Mass. This isn’t an attack on him; he was always friendly with my students and colleagues. I recognize the importance of the elements of Mass. But there was an over-arching cloud of pressure from him and my bosses that took away from the joy of Mass. The word Eucharist, ευχαριστία, means “thanksgiving.” Going to Mass should be an act of joyful and enthusiastic praise! Choosing to analyze the altar server’s mistakes or the type of music playing draws away from that thanksgiving. Worrying that teens aren’t calling you by your proper title reveals a lack of understanding of your flock, and by extension, their own faith.
This is why I love The Friendly Beasts. The animals in the song recognize what an honor it is to be in the presence of the Christ-child and give what little they have to him. These barn animals understand what it means to truly give thanks. I’m trying to be a little more like them during this dingy manger of a year. I’m trying to focus on the bigger picture and worry less about the imperfect details.
My favorite version of The Friendly Beasts is sung by Sufjan Stevens and his friends. I like it because of its quiet simplicity. If you haven’t heard it I encourage you to listen. Other versions are by Johnny Cash, plenty of Mormon choirs, and the little asparagus dude from Veggie Tales.
What are your favorite Christmas songs? Christmas movies? Do you have any unique holiday traditions? Dan and I are starting a tradition of buying a Christmas ornament each year that is emblematic of our year. I’ve seen a lot of dumpster fire ornaments which feels appropriate in many ways, but since 2020 is also the year we got married I can’t call this year a total wash. Suggestions are welcome.
Links To Click On When You’re Bored At Work
I’m a proud language nerd who has the Merriam-Webster app on her phone, so this new time traveler feature where you can discover which words gained popularity in any given year is extremely my ish. A few that were coined in my birth year: AAVE, mixtape, autofill, gift card.
Over my adult life I have started to distance myself from celebrating Thanksgiving because of its racist connotations. This article does a great job examining the history of American Thanksgiving and the rise of the basic white girl who loves fall. Surprise: it’s rooted in white supremacy!
One of my top five favorite podcasts dropped a new episode. Crackdown is about the war on drugs in Vancouver made by addicts and recovering addicts. I started listening in 2019 and haven’t stopped. Before I listened I didn’t know about safe injection sites, and my knowledge of prescription heroin, morphine, and methadone was limited. Now I know enough that I can confidently say I’m in favor of increasing methadone clinics and creating safe injection sites here in the US. I credit this podcast for teaching me and for bringing nuance and human dignity to the opioid crisis. They are currently facing potential funding cuts so if you can support them I know they would appreciate it.
“Meredith pointed out that Down syndrome is defined and diagnosed by a medical system made up of people who have to be highly successful to get there, who likely base part of their identity on their intelligence. This is the system giving parents the tools to decide what kind of children to have. Might it be biased on the question of whose lives have value?”
Things That Are Bringing Me Joy
Homemade cinnamon buns
Taking Lola with me to pick up books from the library
Cole Arthur Riley aka @blackliturgies writes beautiful reflections and prayers. I recently started supporting her on Patreon because her prayers have helped me a lot in the past few months, especially when I’ve been so angry at the cruelty I’ve seen toward my Black brothers and sisters from supposed Christians.
My 11 hour-long Christmas playlist. It has all the hits and some deep cuts (yes, there are Christmas deep cuts) and there are so many songs that if you don’t like what you’re listening to you can skip until you find one of your faves!