The crocodile at the crib

POST BY DPreston

crib with crocodile

It was childish, I know, but…

Many moons ago I worked in an office where the construction of a small, simple crib, placed on a narrow mantle-piece, was one of the marks of the upcoming Christmas. It was a traditional scene – Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus etc… You can probably visualise the regular cast of characters.

But somewhere in its journey this particular crib had become home to a small plastic crocodile. The Crocodile – a small toy – had its origins in some long-forgotten game or display, but for want of a home, it had found a shelter and company in the Crib box.

Before I arrived, the Crocodile tended to stay in the box when the crib was constructed, but I was rather taken with the lonely Crocodile and, as it was about the same size as the Ox and the Ass of the crib-set (they were both crouched and provided the same profile as the low-slung Crocodile), with the assistance of Sister Mary, our stalwart crib builder, the Crocodile now entered the Nativity scene.

At first I admit I did it for the eyebrow-raising effect it would have on the casual pious passer-by, but when the Superior of our community saw it nestling in the scene, he went ballistic. Whether his aesthetic sense was traumatised or whether he was scandalised, I was never quite sure, but whenever he spied the Crocodile, the poor thing was ejected unceremoniously (often with great violence) and either flung across the room with great force or showily carried off to be thrown in a distant bin.

Luckily the Crocodile was tough & resilient and survived many such unprovoked attacks by the Superior. Sr Mary proved to be made of the same stuff as those US Huey Helicopter pilots who bravely steered into the Vietnam combat-zone to airlift wounded Marines and she, on the disappearance of the Superior, would always be able to seek out and rescue the poor Crocodile from whichever bin it had been deposited and would return it quietly to me. After a slight cooling-off period, when the Superior was not around, the Crocodile would return to the crib, nestling quietly between the Ox and the Ass.

At first the championing of the Crocodile gave me the simple satisfaction of annoying the Superior, (childish, I know); but after a while it became more of a point of principle and Biblical scholarship – why shouldn’t a crocodile have a place at the crib? Certainly, he looked rather fearsome, (don’t all crocodiles look fearsome, even when asleep?) but like all the rest of the nativity characters, he crouched reverently and attentively before the Christ Child; he never threatened any of the angels or even looked remotely likely to chew the leg of a shepherd.
It is always interesting to catch a glimpse of our inner prejudices and how we bring them to bear on the world around us. For example, who is to say who should or should not be in a crib scene?

In scriptural terms, the Holy Family are on solid ground as both Matthew and Luke name all three; according the St Luke, the Shepherds also came to visit the Infant (but Luke doesn’t say that the Angels came too… that is dramatic licence as they are shown to hover in wondering adoration over the stable); and then according St Matthew, The Magi came from the East, but he doesn’t say they were Kings, or even how many there were – we assume three, but that is only because there were three gifts. Perhaps there were 15 Wise Men…?and women??  (Actually my Jesuit colleague, Fr Nick King, tells me that there are no fewer than 14 grammatical indications that the Magi are masculine in the Greek text. “However,” he adds, “that is a bit of a cheat, because if one or more women were included in the group, that would still be the case.” )

With regards animals in Bethlehem, perhaps the Shepherds brought some lambs when they came to worship – did a dog bounce alongside them as they came from the fields? – but the Ox and the Ass are just creative guesswork because they are not mentioned in the Infancy Narratives. Scripture says that Jesus was ‘born in a stable’ and was ‘laid in a manger’, so people assume such animals were there: the New Testament does not say that.

It is important to our understanding of Christianity that we realise that Christ was not born into some pastel-coloured, generalised, timeless, homogenised, politically-correct idyll watched over by dieticians and Health-&-Safety consultants; instead Jesus became incarnate into a specific time and place, in a fragile and tense country, under martial law - where poverty was rife, life was cheap, and reality had sharp edges which were painted in harsh abrasive colours. Welcome to 1st Century Palestine.

So the Crib should not remain anodyne: it must be incarnate and creative. All of God’s creatures are welcome to gather at the crib because they are all created by God. Thus Crocodiles should be able to rub shoulders/claws/hooves/tentacles, without apology; the Ox and the Ass can be joined by rattle-snakes, Afghan hounds, tarantulas and Venus fly-traps.

People are there too. Who would be there from the cast of characters from 2015? Pope Francis would want to be there certainly and he has led many to gather around the Manger. Few would also question an Angelic place of honour for 3-year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish coast: his death galvanised a cynical world.

But The Year of Mercy reminds us that all people, no matter what their history, creed and colour are loved by God. So, there is room at the manger for the dubious and the downright unpleasant… Thus if you approach the Crib in reverence or in peace or from mere curiosity, step forward and seek the key to Life. Step forward Donald Trump, welcome Jihadi John, draw close Sepp Blatter: if your hearts are open, so are the arms of the Christ Child. 

Such is the Scandal of the Crib.

Dermot Preston SJ