Snake at the Manger

Luke 2:1-21, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on December 24, 2021

Peace is the message of this night. Yes, peace—peace for this omicron-infected Christmas Eve; peace amid the news of Kimberly Potter’s conviction and our lament and rage, our repentance and our hope that we might end violence against black and brown bodies; peace for an evening held within an unprecedented December that brought tornadoes to Minnesota, embodying the distress of our climate and our fear of what is to come; peace to the many people who, tonight, are fighting life and death battles—with addictions, eating disorders, depression, or grief, with food insecurity, abuse, or inadequate shelter. “On earth, peace,” the angels sang to the shepherds beneath the stars. How on earth do we receive this time-worn message tonight? What does the proclamation of peace mean amid this present strife and struggle?

The poet Henry Vaughn famously describes peace this way:

My Soul, there is a country/Afar beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry/All skillful in the wars;

There, above noise and danger/Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles,

And One born in a manger/Commands the beauteous files.

 Setting aside the puzzle of what “the beauteous files” are, this poem captures me. And yet, I thoroughly disagree with the poet about peace, at least peace as the Bible, and the best of our ancient faith, imagines it. Peace is not in a far country beyond the stars. Peace is the incarnation of God with us, the enfleshment of the divine in creation. Peace does not sit above noise and danger. Peace sits right here in the mess and pain of birth. Peace is cradling a frightened and hungry newborn. Peace is to be found amid the smell of sheep the teeth of predators. Peace is given to us by the rough hands of shepherds.

Peace, in Hebrew, and according to our Jewish roots, is shalom. Shalom is a vision of the wholeness of creation. The illustrations our children made are helping me realize that the nativity story is a story of shalom. Alistair’s grandma sent me his drawings of the animals at the manger. A sheep I expected. I was a little surprised to see a chicken, but then Jim and Joy keep chickens, so they would be very familiar to him. But it was the snake at the manger, or as Alistair put it, “snake-walker,” that really caught my attention. Myself, I had never noticed that the nativity scene in the Spark Bible incorporates a snake. Alistair noticed. After that, Theodore’s mom sent me his picture of Mary and Joseph meeting the zookeeper. That really got my imagination working. A whole new picture of the nativity came to me: a manger scene in which the infant Jesus is gathering all creation to himself.

Now to be fair, “on earth, peace” conveniently skips a few words of the angels’ message. Here’s the full sentence: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” New Testament professor Sarah Heinrich says:

“Peace among those with whom God favors” is not a phrase designed to limit God’s favor and peace to a few. We human creatures, along with God’s other creatures, have been favored. God longs, has always longed, for us to know and love God.[1]

The question for us, I think, is how and why our reading of the Bible has been so shaped by the assumption that God does not favor us all, that God does not naturally love God’s own creation.

In her book, Dwellings, Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan intentionally pays attention to creatures humans have labeled unpleasant or dangerous, or made symbols of alienation and temptation—bats, wolves, porcupines and, yes, snakes. In her chapter titled “Snake” she writes:

Before snake became the dark god of our underworld, burdened with human sin, it carried a different weight in our human bones; it was a being of holy inner earth. The smooth gold eye, the hundred ribs holding life, it coiled beautifully and mysteriously around the world of human imagination. In nearly all ancient cultures the snake was the symbol of healing and wholeness. (p.140)

Of course, as Hogan points out, a colonized and colonizing Christianity departed from this ancient wisdom, a situation reflected in our view of the snake and, most importantly, in our behavior toward the rest of creation:

“In more recent times the snake has symbolized our wrongs, our eating from the tree of knowledge, our search and desire for the dangerous revelations of life’s mystery. In only a short duration of time in earth’s history, the power of that search, the drive toward knowledge, has brought ruin to our Eden. Knowledge without wisdom, compassion or understanding has damned us as we have been stirring about in the origins of life. (p. 141)

Still, Hogan finds hope for a different future. She writes:

The image of snakes twined about a tree or one another looks surprisingly like the double, twisted helix of DNA, the spiral arrangement of molecules that we share with every other living thing on earth, plant and animal, down to the basic stuff of ourselves. Perhaps Snake dwells at the zero of ourselves, takes us full circle in a return to the oldest knowledge, which says that the earth is alive. (p. 142)

We could interpret the animals around Jesus as a sign of his poverty or deprivation. Or, with our children, we could see the purposefulness of the stable. Jesus was never supposed to be born in a five-star hotel. Jesus belongs with the animal peoples, tree peoples, stone peoples, and all the more-than-human peoples of creation, and they with him. And the message of Christmas is that we belong in this zoo too. In human society as it stands today, there may appear to be little room in the inn, scare space for God’s holiness embodied in creation. And yet, the message of this night is that the divine Spirit is ever present. The inn of shalom is open and we are welcome and all creation with us. Shalom is not the absence of struggle, and sorrow, death, or even killing. As another poet has said, of our nation’s long process of becoming, when she spoke at President Biden’s inauguration in the tumultuous days following the January 6 insurrection: “We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.” Shalom is integration. It is the gift of belonging. Shalom is the deepest truth of the universe: we belong to creation; we belong to one another and to the greater whole. So friends, come to the manger. Shalom is gathering all around us. Fleeting and incomplete, yes. Facing resistance and interference, surely. And yet, here and now, the God of peace is with us and for us.

This Christmas, I am loving a new version of an old song. For me, singer Audrey Assad captures the promise and the real presence of shalom in this very moment with her intentionally ironic rewrite of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Your peace will make us one,” she declares. And what I hear is the earth taking up the song of the angels, proclaiming the promise of peace on earth back to God.

You are laying down our swords,

Replanting every vineyard/’Till a brand-new wine is poured

Your peace will make us one

You are mothering and feeding/In the wee hours of the night

Your gentle love is patient/You will never fade or tire

Your peace will make us one

With a glory in your bosom/That is still transfiguring

Dismantling our empires/Till each one of us is free

Your peace will make us one.