Throughout the Christmas season, we echo the refrain “O come, let us adore Him,” and every fiber of our being prays. We celebrate in feasting, rejoicing in the gifts shared through the generous mercy of God. We do all this, of course, because of that first Christmas, when Christ in His birth manifested to the world the Love of God and the beginning of our salvation.
On that first Christmas, joy and praise were not our refrain alone. All of creation sang out, for the Creator had come into the world. In reflecting on Christ’s birth, we can see how all levels of creation, from non-living matter through immaterial angels, joined together to praise God, who became man to sanctify and redeem all creatures.
Typically, non-living matter does not appear to be praising God. Rocks and water, air and fire, are, after all, not alive. How could such non-living things praise the Creator, since they can do nothing by their own volition? They are bound by forces like thermodynamics and gravity, and are controlled, to an extent, by man.
That natural place of subservience is the purpose of non-living matter. A rock’s nature is to be a rock, and so it is, which is how the universe can function. Imagine how chaotic, how disordered creation would be if everything went against its nature, as we sinful people are prone to do. So simply by being rocks (or fire, or water, or air), non-living matter praises God.
In Bethlehem, the non-living material world serves a great purpose, but only in as much as it is used by higher players in the drama. For example, the star shining down on Bethlehem guides the Magi to the child. Assuming that the star was, in fact, some sort of celestial body, and not an angel, as posited by some of the Church Fathers, then we have a non-living thing controlled by something higher (an angel, perhaps) to act as a signpost. The star serves its master as a sort of herald, an announcer of the Messiah’s arrival. That, at least, is how the Magi interpreted the astronomical sign.
Or take the cave in which Mary and Joseph stayed and in which Christ was born. Hewn from stone, much like the tomb that would accept the Lord upon His death, the cave of the Nativity is part of the Earth. It is carved and shaped by human hands for a lowly purpose, that of housing livestock. Yet like us, who are unworthy to receive our Lord and admit as much at every Mass, the cave receives Christ and in its existence serves its master.
This, then, is how these non-living things serve Christ our King. They serve Him by being what they are. The star shines, giving off the light which guides travelers from afar to worship Christ. The cave, strong and hard, nevertheless provides a place for Christ when human houses and hearts were unwilling to take him in. They praise in their existing; that is enough.
The Praise of Plants
Where do plants factor into the Christmas story? We speak not of poinsettias or trees, nor other symbols added to the Tradition. Here we turn to perhaps the most lowly, and yet most important, plant in the Scriptures: grass.
Grass is a wide ranging family of plants, including within it both the green grass on our lawns and the grains we grind to feed ourselves. In both ways, we see a connection to the Christmas story. We see grass on the hillside where shepherds fed their flocks by night. Likewise, grain gathered leaves behind straw and hay, which formed a bed for the Christ Child. Like the rock and the star, these plants serve those involved in the Nativity, and in doing so praise the Lord.
Plants provide another, more direct, way of praising Christ in the Christmas story. The wise men from the East come bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. While the gold would fit in the last section, gold being a mineral, the frankincense and myrrh are firmly rooted in the realm of plants. Both are drawn from the sap of particular trees, both selected for their fragrance. Frankincense was burned in the worship of God; the lyrics of We Three Kings are instructive here:
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high
Myrrh was used to anoint the dead. We see in the myrrh an assurance that Christ, even in His death, would be honored.
The trees that produced the frankincense and myrrh, in producing their resin and living their tree-dom out, provide the opportunity to honor Christ. How beautiful that plants could play such a role in praising their Creator.
What would a Nativity scene be without animals? Furry creatures dominate the scene, even if they are (sometimes) anachronistic. They are present for our Lord and, in their own way, praise Him.
We know from the Gospel that the first people, outside of Mary and Joseph, to greet the infant Jesus were shepherds, who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2:8). Upon hearing the proclamation of the angels, these shepherds traveled to the place where Jesus lay, more than likely bringing their sheep with them. So these sheep joined, so to speak, in the praise of their masters.
More profound are the animals in whose manger Christ slept. Animals lack reason, and cannot be willfully uninviting, as we who might say to Our Lord, “Go elsewhere. I have no room for you in my presence.” Animals are particularly territorial about their food supplies, and yet here they acquiesce to their Creator. The image echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 11, which depicts all of creation becoming an Eden-like paradise of peace between all creatures in the time of the Messiah.
Unsurprisingly, many Christian writers throughout the millennia have made the connection between Christ being laid in a feeding trough, and the fact that He would one day feed the world with His Body and Blood through the Eucharist. He would not be food for the animals, but He would make Himself our food for eternal life.
The animals, in peacefully giving up their own food so that Mary would have a place to lay her Son, give us our own Eternal Food. So the animals of Christ serve their Creator.
Rational Beings Praise Him
Perhaps the most obvious example of praise to God in the Christmas story comes from intellectual creatures, that is, humans and angels. Since the Scriptures are predominantly about the relationship between God and the human race, it make sense that the focus of the Christmas story are the people. And, since angels are the messengers of God, they play a profound role in the Christmas story.
Central to the drama is, of course, Christ. Surrounding Him are a cast of human characters: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi. Each one has an important role to play, and in performing their roles they adore the Lord.
Mary and Joseph welcome Christ into their family, submitting to the will of God, even if they did not fully understand how God’s plan would play out. The shepherds are the common people, the poor, the unremarkable, who are the first outside of Christ’s immediate family to adore the Incarnate Lord. Simeon and Anna announce their praise in the Temple, representatives of the Old Testament’s expectation of the Messiah. The Magi, in travelling from far away, represent the praise of the Gentiles for the true King of the world.
The angels, likewise, fill the Christmas story with songs of praise. Gabriel the Archangel announces the coming of Christ to his family. The angels appear to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Messiah with songs of “Glory to God in the Highest!” Lastly, angels warn Mary, Joseph, and the Magi of Herod’s evil intentions for the Christ Child, and bring the Holy Family back from Egypt when the land was safe again.
The lesson here is clear. In this Christmas season, we should unite our thanks and praise with Creation, and welcome again the Lord into our hearts.