Witnesses Around the Manger

            Our Christmas Day was wonderful but the day after Christmas was both hard and sad.

            Our dog, Jasmine, was diagnosed with bone cancer a few weeks before Christmas. Nearing her 12th birthday our family felt that we didn’t want her to endure a course of treatment that would have required the loss of her leg. We did our best to keep her comfortable until the time came to put her down. That time was the evening of the day after Christmas.

            My oldest son Sam and I drove her to our vet’s office. The staff and doctor were incredibly kind. We were quickly ushered into a private room where we petted Jasmine and told her how much we loved her as the tears flowed like rain down a window. Sam and I joined the doctor on the floor—Sam sat in front of her and I sat behind her. She fell asleep and then passed. It was quick and quiet and heart-breaking.

            All through Christmas Eve Day, when I made the arrangements with the vet’s office until Monday, the day after the holiday, I thought about the story of Jesus’ birth in a new way. Scholars of the New Testament believe that Jesus was born not in a stable or barn but in the home of a distant relative. He was placed in a manger, which was a carved stone trough from which animals ate. Here’s an overheard view of a typical home in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. Note the far left section, the stable. That’s where the family’s animals were housed at night

 

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            Dogs like Jasmine would not have been kept in a stable. Two thousand years ago, dogs were considered unclean and unsafe. Probably the kinds of animals who would have been in the home that night were sheep or goats or maybe a donkey. Animals were there that night, make no mistake. I was moved that Jesus was born near animals. I have no idea what that means theologically but I found that comforting as we held Jasmine for the last time.

            A Presbyterian minister named Barrie Shepherd once wrote a lovely poem, a reflective upon what the presence of animals prefigured about the death that awaited Jesus.

           

Of all the witnesses around the manger

Perhaps it was the animals saw best what lay ahead

For they had paced the aching roads

Slept in the wet and hungry fields

Known the sharp sting of sticks and thorns and curses

Endured constant bruise of burdens not their own

The tendency of man to use and then discard rather than meet

And pay a debt of gratitude.

For them the future also held a knacker’s rope, the flayer’s blade

The tearing of their bodies for the sparing of a race.

In shadows of that stable

Might it be that his warmest welcome

Lay within their quiet comprehending gaze?

 

Silent Seers by J. Barrie Shepherd