One of the Advent traditions at our house is the purchasing of a Christmas-themed book for each child each year. As the girls have grown and the collection expanded, we have discovered a variety of little known stories. After all, you can only own so many versions of the Nutcracker.
Among the countless Christmas legends, there is one from the British Isles involving, of all things, a Christmas spider. According to this legend, when Joseph was warned in a dream to flee from King Herod, several animals from the manger decided to accompany the Holy Family on their journey. Each of the animals was determined to protect the baby Jesus, and each felt sure his or her particular talents would prove invaluable in that task. There also happened to be a spider who wanted to come. Yet none of the other animals felt the spider would be helpful. After all, she was only an insect. She had no keen ears or sharp teeth, no strong bones and no claws whatsoever. However, the spider persistently pleaded to be included, until at last the other animals agreed she could join them, provided she did not get in the way.
Unfortunately, as the journey unfolded, all of the other supposedly brave animals either were frightened off or else were distracted. They ended up returning home or embarking on a more appealing adventure of their own. With Herod’s troops on the march, and with the Holy Family growing more and more tired, Joseph and Mary had little choice but to try and hide. Finding a small and inconspicuous cave, they huddled inside, seeking shelter and rest, with the donkey and the spider their only remaining companions. Holding Jesus in her arms, Mary gently rocked him to sleep, and, for a while, it appeared everything would be fine. The only immediate problem was the chill in the air. Seeking to be of help in some small way, the spider carefully wove a web over the opening of the cave to try to keep the baby warm.
The spider had just finished her weaving when suddenly voices were heard outside the cave. The soldiers had caught up with the Holy Family, and they were diligently searching the entire area. When they came to the cave where the Holy Family was hidden, both Mary and Joseph held their breath, certain their doom was upon them. Yet the soldiers passed by the cave. One soldier said it was a waste of time to search it, since anyone who had entered the cave would have broken the spider’s web over the opening. Thus it was that the seemingly insignificant spider saved the day; and the legend goes on to say that this is why we hang tinsel on our Christmas trees … to remind us of the silver strands of the web which the little spider wove … and to remind us that no act of kindness, no act of courage, no act through which we seek peace with justice is ever wasted.
The legend also reminds us that someone once suggested we need not only to keep Christ in Christmas but also, Herod. Herod reminds us all that we do not live in an ideal world but one where we often face both the threat and the destructive reality of violence. For the followers of Jesus, then, to be alive in him—to be alive in the adventure the Christ Child calls us to—is to side with all those who are vulnerable, even as the Christ Child was vulnerable. It is to live in defiance of those who see the vulnerable as expendable. It is to refuse to bow to any and every Herod and to any and every ruthless regime. It is instead to kneel in the manger before the Prince of Peace and then to go out to weave whatever webs we can as we continue to commit ourselves to acting justly, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with God.