This morning at Mass the time of the childrens' Christmas play was announced. While further announcements were being made, I inquired with the two altar children if they were in the play. They said no. So then I asked, if they were in the play, who would they want to be? The little boy shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn't know or was indifferent to it. The little girl, however, answered directly. She would be one of the sheep.
Her answer took me a little by surprise; I guess I was thinking of the human roles when I asked and expected her to say that she would be a shepherd or even Mary herself. No, she was going to be a sheep.
I was reminded of St. Francis and his own desire to celebrate with a live nativity scene at the famous Christmas at Greccio in 1223. As related by Thomas of Celano, Francis desired to contemplate and behold with his bodily eyes, as much as was possible (utcumque corporeis oculis pervidere) the humble circumstances of the Lord's birth. It was important to him that things be real. Real hay, real cold, real animals, and real people. The animals, provided by Francis's mysterious friend John, with all of their noise and probably even their smells, mattered to Francis because it all spoke to the humility of the incarnation, and to see this humility as much as he could was Francis's great desire.
So, as my young friend reminded me this morning, the animals who witnessed the Lord's birth were not there accidentally, and nor are they there just to make our own nativity scenes look cute and fun. The animals have christological signifance, and speak to the humility of the incarnation and the renovation of the whole creation which it brings.