By Jim Perkinson, from Political Spirituality in an Age of Eco-Apocalypse (2015)
Undoubtedly anxious, perhaps even terrified, Mary breaks water under the bureaucratic duress. Motel 6 is filled, as is the local youth hostel. Tradition has it she camps out in a cave—likely one of the rocky caverns around Bethlehem that shepherds used as corrals. In short order, she has her newborn in a “manger,” feeding trough for domesticated livestock, enslaved creatures whose own wildlands grazing has been reduced to slopping beheaded grain from a wood or stone container.
Meanwhile local herding folk, out on the hills with their flocks, reading the stars and weather, tending to the night cacophony for any hint of danger, schooled, not in texts of Torah but in the sensuous spells of the wild holiness that is their “bible,” are struck with an apparition, an emergent power of the outback, taking shape on the rocks, whispering omens, filtering light into a strange miasma of significance. They hear, are terrified, then comforted. Offered “good news.” An event has taken place.
There is a sign. A child, offered up in a feeding trough for animals. And of course, good city-dwellers that we are, well-schooled in empire’s delirium, we are sure the trough is ancillary to the meaning; it just means “humble birth.” But what if it actually meant what it signifies—a newborn presented as divine offering in a food tray for animals—only one of which is our own species. That child will later say, “Eat my flesh…” Indigenous folk across the globe have everywhere understood food as god and vice versa—living flesh given and circulating up and down the food chain. Typically they would trace ancestry not to a human progenitor but to that plant or animal that most enabled their metabolic survival in their ecology. They might be Corn-people or Whale-Beings or Agave-Humans. Or in the Mideastern desert, Camel-Folk.
In any case, here the exchange is a bare hint, under imperial duress: human child and grain bin held together in new life. Indeed, the adult-to-come will later say of himself, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” Subsequent church history will cite Isaiah to the effect that the ox and the ass know the score here in a way that humans don’t and depict them as the first real consorts of Jesus, interacting with him in their feeding bin (Is 1:3). And many nativity scenes will also throw in camels. How indigenously dare we read?