On Christmas Eve, we put a new wrinkle on the singing of an old carole -- "The Friendly Beasts" (Ok, it is my personal favorite; you can hear it by clicking HERE).
We gave children toy animals to bring to the manger. They come up with their animals and I gave them a short children's homily.
Then we led them around the church in a long extended children's procession while we say the Friendly Beasts. When we got back to the manger, the children gave their animals to the baby Jesus. I then finished the homily in the pulpit. The idea of two parts came from my mentor Don Brown, and the photo is by Diane Wakat, showing the children during the homily. We had about 75 kids marching around the church. Here below is my Friendly Beasts homily:
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First, I want to talk to the children, but the rest of you can listen in. So, kids, come up here for a few minutes. Bring your animals, but hold onto them because you are going to help them in a little while.
Tonight you are going to meet the animals that who were there on that first Christmas night. I want you to imagine what happened with the animals on the night Jesus was born.
Do you know where Jesus was born? Jesus was born in a stable, or a barn. He was surrounded by his mother and father and many animals.
Each of the animals brought a gift to the baby Jesus, and tonight I want you to help the animals bring their gifts to the baby Jesus.
In a few minutes, you will bring the animals to the baby Jesus so the animals can give Jesus their gifts. Think you can do that for them?
Let me tell you about the gifts from the animals.
These are not gifts that the animals went out and bought because, of course, animals don't have any money.
There was a donkey whose gift was to carry Jesus’ mother up hill and down so she could get Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
And a cow whose gift was hay for a pillow; and a sheep with a curly horn who gave Jesus a blanket. And a dove who watched and cooed to help Jesus go to sleep.
And there were many more animals too. On that first night, the animals stayed with Jesus, and his parents, Mary and Joseph.
All the animals simply gave Jesus the best of who they were. They gave freely and happily just because they loved this special baby who was God's gift to the world.
The animals understood who this baby was long before the Wise Men came.
Maybe animals are smarter than people sometimes. What do you think?
All the animals are with us tonight to teach us a lesson. They know that Christmas Eve is very special because we all get a very special gift from God that last forever.
On Christmas Night, the animals teach us we are all blessed by God's Son, and they know they are loved by God forever.
If the animals know they are loved, maybe we can learn this too.
We are all loved by God – that is the real meaning of Christmas for all of God's creatures – you and me and all the animals.
In a minute, we are going to stand up, and we are going to march around the church to bring our animals to Jesus.
You are going to help the animals by bringing them to the manger, representing the first gifts on that first Christmas night.
And when we start marching, I hope you will stand up and sing for our children, and sing like you never have before. If you miss a few notes, who cares?
So let’s get started…
[SINGING FRIENDLY BEASTS]
Tonight, I as our children brought the animals to the manger, I am reminded once again what a gift our children are to us.
Our children are reminders that we are all loved by God, no matter our age, our station in life, or what we have done right or wrong in life.
God loves our children unconditionally, and God loves you. No strings attached.
The voices of the Angels declare this love in the starry night, in the carols we sing, in the beauty of creation, in the glow of candles, in the joy we find even in the midst of sorrow and troubles.
And inside all this is the mystery of God's great boundless love that reaches out to embrace you and me.
This love heals and makes possible new beginnings. This love can transform you, and bring joy to the very heart of your life.
This is the truest gift of Christmas; the gift of Jesus brings into our world on a dark winter night. Hold that in your heart this night.
The angel tells us “Do not be afraid,” so don’t be.
To hold Christmas in your heart is to set aside fear, and see that God loves us enough to dwell among us as one of us, to knit us together as one community with many members.
We don’t think alike, talk alike, look alike, or vote alike. None of that is important tonight.
What is important is we are all loved by God no matter who we are or where we come from.
In a short while we will do something to show ourselves as one community, knit together by Christ as the people of God who are loved by God.
We will come together to share in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I hope you will stay for this, our first meal of Christmas, the first Christmas present given to us.
Whether you have been to Communion a hundred times or this is your first venture into this sacred shared meal, I hope you will take the opportunity tonight to see and taste this bread and wine in a new way.
I hope you experience this Communion tonight as part of your deepest connection to each other and to the God who brought you here, and your connection to a baby born long ago.
So please don’t be shy in coming; all are invited tonight to share in this wonderful communion with each other and the Christ child who comes to us this night.
And don’t let this Christmas communion end for you when you leave tonight. Make tonight a new beginning.
Leave here with new eyes and new ears – for you are Christmas people, and you can see the world in a new way – just as the animals saw the Christ child for the first time on a starry night long ago.
This Christmas season, I would invite you to find ways to deepen your faith, to set aside a regular time each day for prayer, and to join a community of faith if you don’t have one.
If you live here in Charlottesville, and if this experience tonight speaks to you, join us here at St. Paul’s. If you have been away from this church for a while, come back. We want you here with us.
Join us and let’s explore this way of faith together.
May each of you, young and old alike, again know the presence of Christ's blessing and love in your life on this night and forever more. Amen.