Dear Donkeys and Sheep and Camels and Oxen and Other Animals in the Stable:
From my earliest years, I have known you as part of the larger Christmastime nativity scene, as portrayed in paintings and sculptures and in so many other ways, down through all the years. Jesus lays in an animal feeding trough, surrounded by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and wise men, and you are there too. You surround him with your animal warmth and a chorus of sounds: hee haws and baas and rrrrruuuuuuuuus and others.
Perhaps that is why his little arms are waving and his hands reach out—perhaps the sounds intrigue him and he is reaching out to you…..
It’s a scene I have known my whole life. However, the spiritual focus has seemed to mainly be on the humans involved. Oh, of course, every church Christmas pageant has its share of animals. In one church I served, the welcome was wide open to children showing up as their favorite animal—forget about whether the animals were indigenous to the geographical region. Celebrating Jesus’ birth in the Middle East, I have seen: koalas, kangaroos, chipmunks, polar bears, walruses, dolphins, sharks, whatever the fish was in the Disney movie Finding Nemo, and on and on. Sweet and cute, of course, but not true.
Above all and again: where is the focus that is spiritual?
And so, I am writing this letter, across thousands of years and miles. I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, after all; it means that I believe Truth comes in proportion to the passion by which I search for it and the freedom and honesty I give this search. Truth comes, and it can come from the most unexpected places.
Which made me think of you: the animals that really were in the stable.
I sense that you have something important to teach me.
I sense this because, to me, your presence in the stable sticks out like a sore thumb. It really does. And I say this fully aware of how strange it might sound. There are, after all, several easy reasons for linking you to the nativity scene. One of them is the simple fact of the manger. The earliest Gospel stories talk about Jesus being laid in a manger, even if they don’t mention any animals explicitly. And where there is a manger, there must be animals.
There’s this, and there’s also long history. For almost two thousand years, people have portrayed animals as directly involved in the nativity story. Religious carvings from the second and third centuries show you oxen kneeling down reverentially before the Child. I mean, you are not shown as standing around unmindful of the sacredness unfolding in your midst. You aren’t portrayed as oblivious to what Christian tradition calls the Incarnation, or God’s taking on human flesh and form. No. You are shown as positively responsive to it. Painters and poets and preachers describe you oxen and donkeys and camels and sheep as pausing from your regular animal doings and gazing soulfully at the Christ Child. When his little waving arms and fingers reach out to you, you don’t bite.
You let those little arms and fingers be.
Here’s an even more radical example of this. It comes from a Gospel that isn’t included in our standard Christian Bible (called the Gospel of Infancy) which scholars attribute to an anonymous writer who styled himself after the writer of the better known Gospel of Matthew. In this Infancy Gospel, it’s not just you oxen and donkeys and camels and sheep that revere the baby Jesus. Far fiercer and more dangerous creatures come as well: dragons and lions and leopards and wolves and asps. They also come to admire the sacred Child; they fly and race and slink their way to the stable and take their place beside you other animals and the humans, and no one is afraid, no one is going for anyone else’s throat. There’s no “nature red in tooth and claw” to be seen, no “fight or flight.” It’s as if evolution has been put on hold for this one night—or at least that aspect of evolution according to which animal species relate to each other through food chains. All put on hold, for at least one holy night.
All together adore the holiness of the Child before them, in perfect peace.
That’s how the story has been told, for two thousand years. Animals are shown as directly involved. And what only emphasizes this—what seals the deal—is related to a piece of old European folklore according to which you animals come to possess the capacity of human speech on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve comes around, and suddenly you can talk like humans do!
And so, there are stories told about you, like this one from a children’s picture book from my time that draws from the old European folklore. It goes like this: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have not yet arrived at the stable. It’s filled with animals, though, and they are speaking to each other like humans. It’s the Christmas Eve miracle, right? Actually, not talking so much as complaining. Oxen, you guys are greedy and hog all the food, and you’re bullies towards the donkeys. Donkeys, you’re passive and sad. You allow yourselves to be bullied. But when Mary and Joseph come, and the baby Jesus is born, you donkeys are besides yourselves with joy. You can’t help but speak human words of joy, and the words are so eloquent that they soften the hearts of you oxen. You oxen, in turn, apologize for being so mean. Just like that, everyone becomes fast friends. It’s all happening through the medium of human language. Complex relationships form, discover themselves to be broken, but the birth of the Savior heals them, and all is right with the world.
Did that really happen? Is the old European myth true, and you really do get the gift of human speech on Christmas Eve?
Here’s another story about this, which is far older. The story starts with a rooster. It stands on a rooftop somewhere nearby Bethlehem, and it declares (in Latin no less), Christus natus est, or “Christ is born.” A raven happens to hear this, and so it asks, again in Latin, When? All of a sudden, a big gossipy conversation among all sorts of you animals erupts. A rook replies to the raven by saying This night! An ox then wonders, Where? Then sheep chime in, bleating Bethlehem! And then a donkey cries out, Let’s go!
That’s the story—and apparently a lot of humans used to like this story because the Latin phrasing for each statement mimics the sound each of you animals naturally makes.
Do you see what I mean, then? Animals have been woven into the fabric of the Nativity scene. Humans have told the story in all sorts of ways to make you belong.
And yet, to me you still stick out like a sore thumb. It’s because I know that, despite all the wonderful Christmas stories and Christian art, your status in Western societies as moral and spiritual beings is shaky. You aren’t treated with much dignity. We treat you like mere things. Ironically enough, this fact is reflected in that ancient legend about you animals possessing the gift of human speech on Christmas Eve. The legend suggests that regular people don’t want to hear what you animals have to say, because what you have to say about how you are treated is generally not very kind. You are frustrated. You are angry. And we humans don’t want to hear it.
Thus, the soreness. You stick out like a sore thumb. Humans weave you into the nativity story, but then they turn right around and say that God became a human being in order to save human beings, suggesting that you animals are not really in the picture. That, maybe, you are completely irrelevant.
Mostly I’m thinking about dominant voices coming from traditional Christianity. Not all voices, now. There are some, like that of St. Francis, who saw you animals as fully sacred and even teachers of the sacred. Episcopal priest Matthew Fox and his creation spirituality also comes to mind. But up to this point, such voices have not led the way. They are not characteristic of the majority Christian view. Most Christian leaders have described you as beings without souls—beings that exist solely for the sake of satisfying human needs: if not for food, then for entertainment, or medical experimentation, or our yearning for beauty and wildness.
You are tools to be used as humans see fit.
The nativity story—and related tales—suggest as much. That children’s story I told earlier, in which you oxen and you donkeys were portrayed as having the gift of human speech, and you were squabbling? As sweet as this picture book story is, it really has no relevance for you. It’s like an Aesop’s tale, an allegory that’s only about human relationships. You’re just a blank screen upon which we write human concerns, and once again we aren’t seeing you or hearing you.
This is also true with regard to why you oxen and you donkeys in particular were selected to be the stars of the nativity story. The list of animal participants has varied over time, but you two are the only two constants. You are always there. Why is that? To find out, I looked into the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and he reminded me about the larger historical and cultural context of the formation of the Christ myth. It was happening in competition with the other god figures of the time, including two Egyptian gods, Set and Osiris. Set represented the powers of evil; Osiris represented the powers of good; and it just so happened that you donkeys were commonly used to symbolize Set, and you oxen were commonly used to symbolize Osiris. What it all means is this: When you donkeys and you oxen are shown kneeling before the Christ child, it’s a way of saying to the people of the early Christian era that the gods Set and Osiris both acknowledged Christ’s greater authority and conceded their power to him. From this perspective, the nativity story is more about religious politics than it is about you.
You are tools to be used as humans see fit. And in the past 200 years or so, it’s an idea that has taken on a life of its own. People who are absolutely nonreligious, either out of apathy or ambivalence or outright hostility, have carried forward this idea of “animals as tools” as effectively as the religious. Here, I’m talking about “speciesism.” It’s like racism and classism. It’s about bumping you animals out of the circle of moral and spiritual concern because you don’t measure up in some way. You are seen to lack important things, like rationality, or compassion, or a comprehension of the meaning of death. The reason is no longer explicitly tied to religion, but the result is the same. You’re on the outside. You are seen as mechanical and nonthinking. Your pleasures and your pains don’t matter very much. You are tools to be used as humans see fit.
But, some theologians and philosophers and scientists today are actually starting to break out of the speciesism prejudice. They are starting to really pay attention. It’s from them we hear stories like that of Koko the gorilla. Koko was the focus of the world’s longest ongoing ape language study. Back in 1984, Koko asked her trainer for a cat, and when she was given one, she called it All Ball. Koko was very gentle with the kitten and treated him much like a baby gorilla, carrying him on her back and nursing him. When she was in a playful mood, she would dress up All Ball in napkins or sign to him suggesting that they tickle each other, her favorite game. But one night All Ball escaped from Koko’s cage and was accidentally killed by a car. When Koko was told about the accident, at first she acted as if she didn’t hear or understand. Then a few minutes later she started to cry with high-pitched sobs. Later on, when she was shown a picture of All Ball, she’d sign “cry/sad/frown” and “sleep/cat.” For nearly a week after the loss, Koko cried when the subject of cats came up. Koko missed All Ball terribly. But how much did she truly understand about what had happened? How much did she truly comprehend the great mystery of death? One of her human teachers asked her, “Where do gorillas go when they die?” and Koko replied with the sign for kissing a person good-bye. Then she was asked, “When do gorillas die?” Koko’s reply: trouble/old.” “How do gorillas feel when they die: happy, sad, afraid?” Koko’s reply: “Sleep.”
I hear a story like this, and you know what? It amazes me, and it also makes me upset that we aren’t listening to you animals more. I completely understand why, if the Christmas Eve legend were true and you were given the gift of human language on this one miraculous night, you’d probably spend it cussing us humans out.
Dear donkeys and oxen and camels and sheep and other animals in the stable, please know that I do not write this letter to debunk the nativity story, nor its beauty, nor the truth that it may have. That’s not my purpose. It’s just that recently it struck me that you stuck out like a sore thumb, and I wanted to articulate that. It’s been troubling me. It just seemed to me that you had things to say, different from the words put into your mouths.
So what would you say? That is, AFTER you’d had the chance to sufficiently vent your frustration, and anger, and sense of hurt?
Perhaps you would gather around Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and you would say something like this: Good for you. Good for you humans. This baby Jesus will grow up to be a truly compassionate, Spirit-filled man—an example for many, a way to follow that can lead other humans into realizing their full spiritual potentials. Good for you. But remember this. Whatever these amazing potentials happen to be, remember, ultimately they are rooted in who we are. We animals. You possess amazing abilities for intelligence and compassion and resilience and wisdom and hope—for some people Jesus is the highest representation of this—but all of this has roots. It doesn’t emerge out of nothing. It’s all ultimately rooted in what we animals have given you. Our evolutionary gift of a basic capacity of feeling. All of nature has it, in some form or fashion, and the more complex the being, the greater the capacity and complexity of feeling. From the mere feeling for repetition, to irritability, to sensation, to perception, to impulse, to emotion, to rudimentary thought, to conceptual thought, and so on. Amoeba reacting to being poked; leaves turning towards the light; the perception of the round eyes of fish; the emotions of love in a dog; the thoughts of gorillas like Koko, or of dolphins. At bottom, everything manifests primitive feeling—that is the seed—and through evolution, it grows, it branches out into finer and finer developments until humans like you arrive on the scene, and because you use spoken language 24/7 and not just one night out of the year, you get to experience a wonderful feedback loop between language and thinking, which just keeps on boosting and boosting your own sense of self-awareness and your capacity to think.
This is what I imagine you animals saying, truly saying—and here is more:
We animals recognize how, within the human community, the dominant thought is that humans came to have minds and souls out of some kind of miracle. Either some supernatural God inserted supernatural mind-stuff and soul-stuff directly into human bodies; or, minds and mentality emerged purely out of evolutionary randomness. Either way, humanity came from a miracle. But from our animal perspective, it sounds like a Shakespearean “The lady doth protest too much.” You humans spend so much energy trying to prove that what’s so special about you is in no way thoroughly rooted in the natural world. Yes, it guarantees your specialness, very definitely, but it also guarantees your sense of complete alienation from the rest of nature.
Your glory is at the same time your suffering and your estrangement.
Let’s not go there. Mary and Joseph, on this special night, let’s celebrate the birth of Christ as a sign that our gift of feeling to the human species and to you has taken on an added dimension, through the birth of Jesus. Jesus and beings like him represent the future evolution of humanity. The tree of life is growing, and we are so proud to be the branch that humanity has flowered out of.
Joy to the world, indeed.
Dear animals in the stable, this is what I imagine you saying with your gift of human speech. Maybe this. Maybe something else. But what I do know for certain is that all things are connected in one great web of life. I know that the circle of life is sacred, and I thank you for how you give your lives so that humans may eat and live, and I know that one day I will give my life back to the earth so that the circle of life may remain unbroken. I honor you, and I bow to you.
From now on, when I see images of you in the nativity scene, looking upon the baby Jesus so reverently, I’ll imagine you differently. I’ll imagine you as great great grandparents to the baby Jesus, proud as proud can be. The tree of life is growing, and you are the branch that humanity has flowered out of. The holy family is absolutely incomplete without you.
Blessings to you in this holiday season,
I am yours, sincerely,