Years ago, when I first got married, I inherited a couple of cats, and I hated them. I was raised with dogs and always thought of cats as sort of a fake pet, not really worthy of attention. I’m embarrassed to say it now because they eventually grew on me, but in those days I spent a lot of time just making fun of them and putting them down in front of our friends and family. (Did you know that there are whole book collections of jokes about cats? I have some of them.)
One Christmas Eve about 10 years ago, our family came to visit, and among them was my little niece, Rachel. That night we had an early dinner (because I had to do the Christmas Eve service) and while we ate, I remember saying a little too much about the useless felines that inhabited the house. Rachel was aghast. She had kittens of her own and she loved our cats, and here I was rudely telling stories about them.
After dinner we all went over to the church for the service, which was lovely. We sang and prayed and welcomed the Christ child into Bethlehem and into our hearts. I spoke of how amazing it was that God would choose Mary and Joseph for this miracle: two nearly-homeless, unmarried kids, from south Israel who were just coming through town to pay their taxes. Neither came from good families and neither ever amounted to much (Joseph probably died young because we never hear much about him again). But God chooses the outcast, the denigrated, and the lowly to be the bearers of his Good News, and there you have it.
Paul, I told them, says that the wisdom of the crucifixion is completely lost on the smart, the rich and the powerful. They just don’t get it. Those who do get it tend to be the ordinary people: fishermen, tax collectors, beggars, blind, lepers, or, as we used to say, “the lame, the least and the lost.”
That was my sermon. I’ve done better, but I thought it was pretty good.
The next day when we were all gathered around the tree, giving out presents in the name of the one who gave his all for us, I noticed something different about the lovely crèche on the side board in the living room that two of my parishioners had made for us. It just didn’t look right somehow. We were busy all morning opening gifts and drinking coffee, but I kept looking back over to the side board because something just seemed… different. Finally I realized that all of the animals had been turned around. “Now what?” I thought.
Finally, when we broke for a late morning brunch, I went over to take a closer look and realized that everything had been turned around. The donkeys and camels were now looking up and around into the room. The wise men were standing next to them pondering the sky or a star or whatever. Even the shepherds were now out at the edges of the manger peering intently away from the crib that should have been the center of attention. But when I looked more closely, I saw that not only had some things been moved, new things had been added. There, right next to the crib full of straw and the baby Jesus, were two little clay cats that we received as a gift years earlier, which are normally kept in another room on a dresser. Someone had moved them into the manger and made them look right into the crib, with their little kitty noses almost touching the baby. What on earth had happened? I looked around for the culprit and caught little Rachel staring at me and giggling uncontrollably.
“What have you done,” I yelled in my most ominous-sounding voice.
“I was just doing what you said,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that in the Bible the meaning of Jesus was hidden from the smart people. That the big people don’t understand him and the little ones do.”
“Uh, well that’s sort of right...” I said, not knowing exactly where this was going.
“So, that’s why I turned all of your people and animals away from the baby Jesus.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Everybody but the cats.”
“Well,” she said. “If they are as bad as you say they are, that means that God wants only that cats will get it.”
And last week, that little conversation was again on my mind as we were preparing for the day of the manger and the visit of the so-called “Wise” men. The wise people of the world seem increasingly dismissive of the wisdom of the cross. They – we, actually – often just don’t get it. All of us who claim to be Christian, love to praise the baby in the manger and then go about the business of lifting up the powerful and putting down the weak, of making the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We’ve been doing it for decades and it’s beginning to come back and haunt us. Maybe we can pray this year, as we never have before, that the wisdom of the lame, the weak and the cats might come into our lives and guide us forever.