This week’s Advent reflection is a guest post by Joe Casad, a member of the church I serve. He shared these thoughts in worship on Sunday, and I wanted to pass along the humor and the tenderness of what he shared. Much thanks to Joe for allowing me to post this!
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Christmas is not a single event or tradition but a whole collection of traditions. I guess we all know that it isn’t just presents–people do all kinds of other things to create the mood for the Christmas season. Some are well known, like decorating the house or singing carols. Others are wholly original traditions created at the family level that have no relation to anything else. In between are a class of ancient but obscure traditions that are adopted and interpreted by exceptionally strange families with little perspective on the original context but an overabundance of sincerity.
In this last category was a tradition maintained in my family when I was growing up. This tradition centered around the ancient speculation–dating to medieval times, that, at midnight on Christmas eve, animals are given the power of speech. This tradition had its basis in the nativity story, and was originally intended to apply to the kinds of animals that were present before the manger, so that they might give praise and witness to the birth of Jesus: cattle, sheep–farm animals, basically, plus camels, and any birds that might have been overhead.
However, the legend itself places no limitation on species. It just says “animals,” and in our contemporary household, the only animal was our patient and long-suffering border collie Keighie, who became the focus of extensive efforts from my brothers and myself to experience this legend.
We would make our plans to wake up at midnight and listen for it. This was possibly an attempt to return to a simpler era–because we were no longer kindergarteners at this time; or maybe there was a bit of competitiveness between my brothers and myself.
While other children would stay up late into the night to watch for Santa Claus, we would stay up to watch for evidence of our dog talking.
This tradition continued for many years, often with exceptional effects. One year, when we were invited down to spend Christmas Eve with our cousins in Wichita, my parents, intimidated by the intensity of this observance, brought the dog with us, so that we might listen from the road. My aunt and uncle, concerned that Keighie might be an unwelcomed presence to their cat, put her out to sleep in the garage. To everyone’s amazement, by brothers and I slept out in the garage also so that we might listen for Keighie’s long-awaited soliloquy.
Through all those years, we never did hear Keighie speak–at least I never did. I think one of my brothers claimed he heard her mumble something once while everyone else was asleep, although without any additional witnesses, we were never sure.
But as is often the case with such things, the true miracles are not always what you set out to find. I remember listening in the night, through the silence. Listening for something unexpected, with a concentration that let me hear other things I wouldn’t have heard. I remember looking into the eyes of a beloved pet, feeling the presence of another being, and feeling a connection to a very pure and uncomplicated form of love. I remember this quirky, unique, enchanting way of bonding with my brothers–something that wouldn’t have worked for anyone else, but was strangely compatible with all three of our personalities in a way that still brings us closer.
And of course, I remember Keighie in the middle of this enduring ritual, playing her part, and somehow, teaching us a lesson about love and trust and the beauty of creation that was much deeper and more mysterious than if she had just opened up and started yapping about it.