BBUUC’s Animal Chaplain, Elizabeth DeCoux, is available for members seeking spiritual help related to animals, such as blessings, celebrations of life, prayers, attendance at euthanasia, and other services. BBUUC’s Animal Grief Support Group meets first and third Wednesdays, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the church. All are welcome, whether the loss is recent, long ago, or anticipated.
Of the two nativity stories in the New Testament, neither mentions an ox or donkey or any other animal. Some theologians, including Pope Benedict XVI, have concluded on the basis of these texts that there were no animals present at the birth of Jesus. But a persuasive argument can be made that the absence of animals in the Biblical nativity narrative does not establish their absence from the event itself. In fact, details of the gospel accounts give us reason to believe the newborn Jesus was in fact greeted by, in the words of the carol, “The Friendly Beasts.” Luke writes that Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” A manger is a feeding trough for animals, so it’s reasonable to conclude that this manger was in use, and that the animals who ordinarily ate from it witnessed the birth of Jesus, possibly puzzled when they looked for their food and found a human infant in its place. Additionally, given that Bethlehem was teeming with people who had come to be enrolled and taxed under the order of Caesar Augustus—so full in fact that there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn—a vacant stable is unlikely. Not only would innkeepers have needed plenty of milk and oxen-threshed grain to feed their many guests, but at least some of those guests would have ridden animals to Bethlehem or used them to carry their belongings. The travelers’ animals would have needed a place to stay, and a stable near the inn would be a natural place for them.
There’s every reason to think that Mary was among those who traveled to Bethlehem on a beast of burden. She was about to give birth, it was the rainy season in Judea, and the 90-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem took her and Joseph through rocky terrain into the mountains, a 1400-foot increase in elevation. When Luke writes that “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,” he is describing a literal ascent, up from Galilee. Whether Mary rode a camel or the donkey depicted in tradition, that animal would have been present at Jesus’s birth.
Would the shepherds who came to worship the infant Jesus have left their flocks in the field? We can’t be certain, of course. But leaving their sheep would have been a dereliction of their duty because it would have exposed the sheep to danger. So, it’s certainly plausible that the shepherds may have brought their sheep with them to the stable.
The earliest artist depiction of the nativity includes animals. A sarcophagus lid created around 400 A.D. shows an ox and a donkey as the figures nearest to the baby Jesus.
To you and to any animals who surround you this happy season, whether in the flesh or in spirit, a very merry Christmas and joyous holidays.