The baby Jesus was human. More importantly still, an animal.
Most English speakers use the word “animal” for something other than human. But of course, we humans are animals, too. The Latin word anima simply means “breath.” Whatever is breathing is an animal.
This matters for the Twelve Days of Christmas, a season to celebrate God’s intimate embrace of creaturely flesh, and it matters on a planet in the throes of an ecological crisis. Christmas matters as a celebration of God’s solidarity with the whole of God’s creation and not only humans.
The Gospel according to John points us in this direction by insisting that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14). As theologian David Clough notes, the key Greek word in that verse is not anthropos (human) but sarx (flesh), which is used elsewhere in the Christian Testament of the Bible as an inclusive term for all living things, just as writers in the Hebrew Bible used “flesh” to evoke the whole of God’s living creation.
Clough goes on to argue that the foundational Christian claim concerning the incarnation, therefore, “is not that God became a member of the species Homo sapiens, but that God took on flesh, the stuff of living creatures.”
More pointedly, Christianity does not offer an escape hatch from the material world of the flesh, as if all the gloriously messy realities of embodied life are sinful or evil (as the Christian tradition of my youth seemed to suggest). Christian faith invites instead a thoroughly materialistic spirituality.
Appreciating the material world not merely as a grand “stage” on which the human-divine drama plays out but as the location of divine encounter and the vehicle of divine grace has profound implications for how we treat all animals, human or otherwise.
We could begin by noting the mind-numbing scope of animal consumption. Conservative estimates suggest that 56 billion farmed land animals are slaughtered every year on this planet for food. That’s roughly 153 million every day, or 6 million every hour, or 106,000 every minute. These figures do not include marine animals or animals killed for sport or who die in zoos, circuses, and municipal shelters.
(For the latest figures on animal consumption, see the online animal kill counter here, and the Animal Equality site for conditions on factory farms, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For resources on protecting the welfare of farmed animals, see CreatureKind, founded by David Clough).
How we treat other animals—whether in factory farms or on exotic hunting safaris—has a direct bearing on how we treat other humans. Feminist scholar Carol Adams noted back in the 1990s the correlation between how meat for consumption is packaged and how women’s bodies are similarly “packaged” in popular culture. Historian Thomas Laqueur analyzed early modern approaches to human sexuality that compared the “brutish” sexual acts of other animals to the “lower classes” of Europe. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas urges us to notice how white supremacy is maintained, in part, through the hyper-sexualization and thus “animalization” of black women and men. And these are but recent examples in a long history of dehumanizing through animalizing, as nearly every human society has done to its enemies before going to war with them.
Meanwhile, as the Apostle Paul insisted nearly 2,000 years ago, the whole creation is groaning with anticipation for the coming day of salvation (Rom. 8:19-23). Christmas marks the dawning of that eager hope, and other-than-human animals were most likely among the first witnesses of that glorious dawn.
The former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, Steve Charleston, offers an elegant reminder of that most holy night when the Word of God became creaturely flesh and of the animals (human and otherwise) who bore hopeful witness:
Now, on this day, all the animals turn, wherever they are, and look toward that place, that one place, where long ago they gathered, drawn by a wordless summons, to see the future of creation born, lying in straw, a sleeping hope, nestled safely among them. The animals know that this is the eve, the beginning. They sense the great cycle of sacred time, they know the meaning of the change to come. Now, on this day, on this eve of everything, they make ready the welcome they have prepared, since before the star above them first appeared, set alight by an unseen hand.
Kiss your spouse, hug a friend, pet your dog or cat—celebrate the flesh on this most holy night. And let us commit during these twelve days of Christmas to change the way we live with all other animals.