Rev Mary Bowden, 25 December 2017, 9.30 St Bartholomew’s and 11.00 St Christopher’s
Once upon a time – a very particular time – and in a very particular place – there was a small, thin, hungry cat. She was mainly white, with tabby patches on her back, her front legs and her nose, and she lived in a stable underneath a house – a house in Bethlehem, as it happened. Right at the back of the stable, where the roof came down to meet the floor, there was a warm dark place, and the cat had made it cosy with straw. About four weeks before this story begins she had become the mother of five tiny kittens, three tabby and white like her and two magnificently ginger ones, the image of their father.
She had planned well for her family. The stable was quiet and safe, and mice were plentiful so she didn’t have to leave her kittens for long. They had spent hours curled together in the warm darkness, the kittens lined up like so many small furry sausages along her tummy as they suckled. At first heir eyes hadn’t been open, they couldn’t walk, only wriggle and squirm over each other, occasionally losing their way and needing to be retrieved and put firmly back with their brothers and sisters. About a week before our story begins they had learn to purr…..
The little cat was looking forward to the time when they would be able to walk and run and jump. She would teach them all she knew – how to find warm safe places to sleep, how to hunt, how to know which humans and animals were friendly….. and soon they would be able to look after themselves and she might get a little plumper and have a little more rest.
Then, on this particular night, everything changed. The kittens had grown brave by now and were beginning to venture out into the open, investigating the stalls where the cattle lived, scrambling around the bales of hay and straw, setting up a desperate squeaking to be rescued when they couldn’t get down again. The little cat was worried now about leaving them when she needed to hunt. She would pick them up in her mouth by the scruffs of their tabby and ginger necks and dump them none too gently back in the nest, cuffing them with her paw when they tried to escape, but the minute her back was turned you can guess what happened – they were off again.
And just at this time – the worst time possible, thought the little cat – the quiet stable was suddenly busy with people, and animals and there was coming and going and light and noise and she was so frightened that her kittens would get trampled on or lost or even stolen…… It had started with just two tired people arriving at night, settling down in the stall in the warm corner nearest to her nest, and then suddenly there were three of them, and something very familiar about the sounds and smells. That was alright, just about. This new little family didn’t seem to be much of a threat to her older one…. obviously they would all need to keep well clear of the baby – its straw bed might be warm but what self respecting cat would get near so unpredictable a small creature….?
So our little cat was just beginning to relax…. and then suddenly light and noise and trampling feet were everywhere. Starlight mixed with smoky lantern light, and men’s voices with the bleating of a lamb. The sleepy cattle and the exhausted donkey woke up and added their lowing and braying to the noise – and the baby, startled from sleep, began to cry, then settled again, reassured by his mother’s arms around him.
The little cat shrank back into her dark corner and checked anxiously for her kittens. Two tabby ones, a ginger, another tabby – where was the fat, ginger one, the greediest, the bravest, the most foolhardy one, the one most likely to need rescuing from high places and tight corners…..? There he was, a few feet away, busily investigating the donkey’s saddle bags. She darted out, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and brought him swiftly back to the others, scolding through a mouthful of fur, ignoring his squeaks of protest. She pushed him back amongst the others and lay down across the entrance to the nest, quivering with relief. They were all safe, and surely the commotion and business couldn’t last long. She and the kittens would be soon hungry, and she would need to hunt so that she could feed them….. but to do that she needed to be able to leave them safely, knowing that even if they wandered out of the nest they wouldn’t come to harm.
The little cat and her kittens dozed together, a tumbled, furry, quietly purring bundle. While they slept the shepherds went away to wake the town and spread their news as they returned to the hillside. In the restored silence Mary and Joseph slept too. Only the baby was awake, eyes as wide as any kitten’s as he gazed around at this new world. His fingers waved gently as he felt the small currents of air moving in the stable. All of a sudden his eyes widened yet more as his fingers curled around something – something soft and warm but firm, Something inquisitive and questing, wriggling slightly in his tight baby grip – a small ginger paw that had been patting at his small fist and now lay trustingly inside it…..
The little cat woke with a start. Something was wrong. A cold place on her tummy told her a kitten was missing – bold little ginger – nowhere to be seen. And now the stable was filling up with people once again, there were strange foreign smells, the rustling of rich fabrics and the creaky groans of camels, whose big flat hooves seemed to be everywhere. She was hungry now, and distraught about her missing ginger boy.
The newcomers were kneeling around the manger where the baby lay, and there was a moment of silence as they gazed. In that moment a new sound could be heard in the stable – a tiny purr. The little cat pricked up her ears…. wherever he was, he was happy about it. She crept form her nest, following the sound… following it towards the bright crowd of people around the manger. Surely he couldn’t be there…. she nosed carefully a round a sandalled foot and brushed past a damask cloak. The purring was loder now and – yes – it was coming from the manger itself. She stretched up to look, paws on the rough wooden plank as far from the lantern light as she could be. The baby seemed to be watching as her anxious face and whiskers appeared from the shadows. His gurgled welcome mingled with the purring of the ginger kitten now curled at his feet, the two of them watched by Mary and Joseph, three bearded men, their servants, an ox, an ass, a donkey and several camels, still moaning gently.
The little cat became suddenly busy – and a few minutes later there was not one kitten in the straw but a heap of five, relaxed and purring, being stroked ever so gently by one of the page boys, watched over by Mary, Joseph and of course, the baby himself, Jesus…. The little cat spoke sternly to the kittens, warning them to stay safely with the baby, and then before she jumped down onto the stable floor she stretched, arching her back and tail, her head bowed down to her paws, her nose against Jesus’ tiny perfect feet. Finally she padded away to find food, knowing that she could trust her precious kittens to the care of the baby Jesus. They would be safe and contented until she returned.
Our little cat had learned to trust – she left the most precious things in her life there in the hay, with Jesus. What are your most precious things – and what would it take, what would it mean, for you to entrust them to a loving God? That’s what God did – he entrusted his son to us, taking a risk much greater than any we can even begin to imagine….. a risk that seems insane by any reckoning, except that of love.
While I was having breakfast this morning I idly picked up one of the books on the coffee table – by Michael Mayne, one of my spiritual heroes – and it opened at this passage. It speaks so clearly to this question of trust that it can only be meant for us this morning.
fade in purring – continue until I get back to my stall, fade out
With the little cat, let’s say that this morning. Let’s say yes to God’s gift and love, the word made flesh in the tiny body of a baby.