Why are we taking up all the room in the Manger?

Thousands of Jesuses have colonized the front lawns of America, surrounded by clusters of people and animals. What substance Jesus is made from varies by social stratum: carved wood is very upper crust (but is usually not displayed outside for the general public to see), plastic is a solid middle class option, and painted plywood indicates a rugged back-to-the-workshop blue collar household.

Regardless of the medium, Jesus lies in his manger alone. Other species cluster around as supporting characters, but they are not the ones that are going to get saved. There is a discontinuity here, a break that runs through our idea of the world: us (Homo sapiens, but probably not other Homo species, were any to show up at the communion rail) and them (a few million other species).

The Catholic Church is quite clear about this (my italics): “The magisterium of the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God … man is the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake … In other words, the human has a value of his own. He is a person … It is by virtue of his eternal soul that the whole person, including his body, possesses such great dignity … the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God. With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order” Pope John Paul II, Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct 1996.

So, although there may be physical continuity between us and other species, we’re the only lucky winners of the soul, of dignity, and, they say, of consciousness. Other denominations follow suit, although usually without a well articulated public statement of epistemology (gotta hand it to JPII: his comments are meaty and well-reasoned). And, the vast majority of society buys in also, including modern science (experiments on chimps, anyone?).

So, fellow Humanoid Earthlings: a lonely Christmas? Or might we truly be kin with our fellow creatures?

“Tree” of life, showing relationships among species for which we have complete genome data. Center of circle is the common ancestor. Kinship is shown by branching order as you move out from the center. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “Why are we taking up all the room in the Manger?

  1. Robley Hood

    As a friend of mine likes to exclaim upon ingesting something especially delicious (tequila, perhaps) or hearing something especially exciting, “YES, JESUS!” All I know is this: the heaven I shall go to is the same one all my beloved pets and animals I’ve eaten and insects I photographed will enjoy: the stardust from which we all came. And we’ll return in another form, and that’s enough for me.

  2. Chris Mcdonough

    Another thoughtful post, David. Without at all disagreeing with you, I would point out that the entire tradition of creches and nativity celebrations originate with St. Francis of Assisi, whose vision of the continuity of all creation was greater than any pope’s, then or since. As he wrote in the Canticle to Brother Sun, Laudato sie, mi Signore, cum tucte le Tue creature.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Great response, Chris. Francis’ language of kinship was and is important. Brother wolf; Sister birds; now, we understand even better how deep that kinship is. I’ll think of him when I drive past glowing figurines — little pieces of Greccio scattered around the world?

  3. Mary Beth

    On kinship et al, from Occupy Denver: “Today, some are celebrating an underprivileged mom giving birth in a stable, to a baby who grew up to be a prominent activist for peace, love and anti-capitalist values; who preferred the company of honest prostitutes, the poor and the disabled than that of the religious or financial elite; who partook in radical direct action against the banking system, and who, at the conclusion of his life, was executed publicly as an enemy of state. Jesus was a revolutionary –Merry Christmas”


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