What a witness it would be to the birth of the Prince of Peace if all Christians were to desist from colluding in the slaughter of millions of fellow sentient creatures - and replace the 'Christmas' turkey/goose/duck with a perfectly delicious vegetarian alternative. It does not seem likely, alas, for even such a small, yet significant, gesture on behalf of animals - as Christians are still largely unaware of many of their own traditions and teachings.
One major tradition is based on the biblical account of creation, redemption and the new creation. The first few chapters of Genesis relate how all creation was loved into being by God who intended it to exist in perfect love and harmony. As is well known, all the creatures, including people, were given vegetation to eat, so that there was no killing in nature at all. It was only when the sins of humanity (Adam and Eve) brought death and disorder into the world that creation then experienced the suffering involved in killing. Even after Noah, when people were given a second chance, sin and violence were repeated time after time - to our own day.
But the Bible has to be seen in its entirety. It has been put together as a collection of writings with a beginning, a middle and an end. Creation and the Garden of Eden mark the beginning; the coming of Christ on earth is the central event; and finally, there is the revelation of a new creation, when Christ will come again at the end of time. The natural world, so damaged by sin and destruction, is to be wonderfully renewed and the original harmony restored 'at the end of time'. This new creation, the kingdom of God in its fullness, is to be one of justice, love and peace.
From the brokenness of the beginning to the wonderful wholeness of the end is achieved only by God acting in a remarkable way: by coming into the world as a vulnerable baby. In the words of one of the Blessings of Christmastide, 'When God became man, heaven joined to earth.' Christ's life of love overcame the selfish sinfulness of our first parents, and in his death and resurrection he conquered death and restored life. Christ is like the hinge of a great door between the past and the future, between heaven and earth, opening for creation the potential for future wholeness.
A sign of that kingdom to come is to live as if it were already here - in other words, to live lives of justice, love and peace. To take part in the deliberate killing of any part of creation, especially for the excuse of simply 'liking the taste' of a dead animal or bird, is a sign, not of the Kingdom, but of this fallen, sinful world.
One principle which most people, Christian or not, would support is that we should try to ensure that the least harm is committed in the world, the least violence inflicted and the least stress and pain suffered as possible. So it is consistent to propose that, where plants can serve human need, plants, not animals, should be destroyed for food.
The refusal to kill and eat animals has a long Christian tradition. The early monastic movement embraced total abstinence from meat. The monks modelled their lifestyle on Jesus' forty day sojourn in the wilderness, which he spent peaceably in the company of 'the wild beasts'. As Athanasius said of Antony of Egypt: 'His food was bread and salt, and for drinking he took only water. There is no reason even to speak of meat and wine, when indeed such a thing was not found among the other zealous men.' St Ambrose's homilies on Genesis included the following exhortation: 'We ought to be content to live on simple herbs, on cheap vegetables and fruits such as nature has presented to us and the generosity of God has offered to us.' Such a modest life-style would also be good for the environment and for enabling more of the world's poor to have enough to eat. It would even benefit the health service, as the over-consumption of meat, dairy and fatty products is one source of poor health in the prosperous West.
In terms of rights, I propose that the right to choose to eat animals simply for pleasure, for taste or by convention should give way to the duty to preserve the life of animals; and the right to produce animals for meat should give way to the duty to provide sufficient healthy food for the world's entire human population. For anyone who does claim the right to kill animals for food, Dr Marie Hendrickx, a leading Vatican theologian, asks:
"Does the right to use animals for food imply the right to raise chickens in tiny cages where they live in a space smaller than a notebook? Or calves in compartments where they can never move about or see the light? Or to keep sows pinned by iron rings in a feeding position to allow a series of piglets to suck milk constantly and thus grow faster?"
The birth of the Christ-child at Bethlehem inaugurated a whole new creation: the Kingdom of God to be experienced in its fullness by the whole of creation. In acts of loving-kindness, in gentleness, in beauty, in compassion, we can glimpse facets of this new creation. Let us celebrate Christ's birth in a manner consonant with the values of the Kingdom; let it not be the cause of yet more suffering, more blood shed, more cruelty. Let this year see a bloodless, happy Christmas for all God's creatures. We can pray that this is so.