A couple years ago as I was hauling Christmas decorations up from the basement, Eddie offered to assist. I knew this wasn't about being helpful as much as it was about being the first to claim the favorite seasonal toys - a Polar Express compass and stuffed Rudolph that sings and dances - but I took him up on it anyway.
The first storage bin he opened had a nativity set in it, as did the second and third. When he opened a fourth bin and discovered yet another he slammed the lid down and said, "Whyyyyy do you have so much Jesus stuff??"
It was not our finest moment.
This year he was once again at my side, opening bins. We rummaged for the toys first to avoid a repeat of his sacrilege, then I put him in charge of setting up the nativities.
He took quite a bit of creative liberty as he did, placing the African wisemen in the Pilipino stable, and giving a couple of the Josephs a break from paternal duties to hang out with the shepherds.
He also gathered all the sheep into one place.
After he went to bed I rearranged things to my Type-A liking, but left the sheep as they were. I liked the sight of them all gathered together, and it inspired me to think about the symbolism and significance of the lamb.
Over the next couple weeks I read and learned more about sheep than I ever cared to, sharing the most interesting finds with my kids. Their favorite so far has been the story of Chris, an Australian sheep who went viral in 2015 when he was found suffering under the weight of 90 pounds of wool, because he had been lost and forgotten. There's a lesson in that, isn't there?
But my personal favorite discovery has been this.
According to sheep industry websites (seriously, that's how far down the rabbit hole I got), ewes will occasionally give birth to a lamb, then immediately kick it away and reject it, refusing to meet its needs. This can be for various reasons. Occasionally the lamb will be one of twins and the mother is incapable of feeding both. She may also detect a birth defect or sign of weakness, or perhaps is just old and sick of this whole baby business.
Lambs that are rejected like this are referred to as bummer lambs, and unless a farmer or shepherd intervenes, they will die.
The sites I browsed explained in detail how to care for bummer lambs. They have to be bottle fed, for instance, and kept warm, usually by being wrapped in a blanket and held, or placed near a fire. When they are finally strong enough to survive on their own, they will be returned to the field to join the others.
It's said that when a farmer or shepherd calls his flock to gather, the first to come running are the bummer lambs. To them, his voice is the familiar. They know him from experience, and they trust him.
This is Christmas.
Someday when I meet Jesus Christ, I want it to be as a bummer lamb. I want to have lived a life with enough pain, rejection and helplessness that when I hear His voice it's familiar to me, and I recognize Him as the only one capable of rescuing me from death, suffering and everything I don't understand, when I'm not capable of rescuing myself.
"To him the porter openeth, and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice." John 10:3-4
This is not a scripture I've ever associated with the Christmas story, but I do now. I've also never thought to arrange the nativity sheep into a single flock, but it appears Eddie has started a new tradition.