Summary: Jesus was born among animals, and they play a more major role than we realize in the Bible.
CHRISTMAS ANIMALS based on Luke 2:1-20
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The angels, the shepherds, and the wise men, along with Mary and Joseph, dominate the scene around the Christ-child, who gave the world the gift of Christmas. But animals also play a role in the greatest story ever told. Being dumb, they could not sing of it or talk of it, and the result is their silence leaves them the most neglected creatures connected with the Incarnation. We usually look at the astronomical witness of the star, or the angelic witness of the heavenly host, but we seldom to never notice the animal witness to the advent of Christ.
There is no escaping the facts, however. In His birth our Lord Jesus identified with the animal kingdom. He was born in a stable meant for the shelter of animals. He was laid in a manger meant for the feeding of animals. The first sounds baby Jesus heard could have been the sound of animals. He was first announced to the shepherds whose whole life revolved around the care, feeding, and protection of animals. The wise men, who represented the Gentile world, made their journey to worship Him on animals. They were likely camels, although horses were not impossible. Mary likely made it to Bethlehem riding on a donkey. Later in His life, Jesus was in a context where He related both to the angels and animals. Mark 1:13 says, "He was with the wild animals, and angels attended Him." This was during His forty days in the wilderness. Angels and animals have this in common, they are both servants of God and man. They are both a part of the Christmas story.
The result of all these facts is a world of Christian art and poetry full of Christmas animals. The famous nativity scenes through the ages include the ox, donkey, sheep, camels, and often the dove. One of our most famous Christmas hymns, Away In A Manger, says, "The cattle are lowing the poor baby wakes but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes."
The emphasis on animals in the birth scene is not part of our contemporary life-style because the majority of people no longer live with animals. Back in the 12th century when everybody had a daily contact with their farm animals, they sang songs that stressed the role of the friendly beast in Christmas. They sang,
Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood.
This song, sung over 800 years ago by Christians, reveals just how carefully they had thought through the role of animals in the Christmas story. They had each animal tell of what they contributed-
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift He gave Immanuel.
I said the donkey shaggy and brown
Carried his mother uphill and down
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.
I said the cow all white and red
Gave her my manger for His bed.
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.
I said the sheep with curly horn
Gave Him my wool for His blanket warm.
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.
I said the dove, from the rafters high,
I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry.
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I.
I said the camel yellow and black
Over the desert upon my back.
I brought Him a gift in the wise man's pack.
All of this may seem superficial and sentimental to us as city people, but keep in mind God did not send His angels to announce Christ's birth to city people. He sent them to people who lived daily in relationship to animals. The Bible world was a very animal oriented world.
I think it is safe to say, every great leader of Israel, male or female, had a life strongly involved with the animal kingdom. Look at just a few highlights.
1. Adam and Eve dwelt in a perfect relationship with animals, and Adam even named them all.
2. All of the Patriarchs had animals for their wealth, and the story of their lives could not be told without reference to the animal kingdom.
3. Moses was a shepherd when God met him at the burning bush.
4. David was a shepherd when called to be the king of Israel.
5. Job was an owner of great herds of animals.
6. Most of the prophets used animal imagery constantly, to convey their message.
7. John the Baptist lived with the animals, wore camel skins, and ate locust.
The list could be greatly expanded, but the point is, Bible people were animal lovers. You would have a hard time finding any Bible hero who was not an animal lover. E.F. Schumacker went so far as to make this claim, "There have been no sages or holy men in our or anybody else's history who were cruel to animals or who looked upon them as nothing but utilities, and innumerable are the legends and stories which link sanctity as well as happiness with a loving kindness toward lower creatures."