Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
Christians in the Indian state of Kerala are about 20% of the population. An amateur film recorded there shows some workers struggling with a power shovel to rescue a baby elephant from a ditch. I do not know if they were Christians, Hindus, Muslims or a mix, but they succeeded. The happy juvenile dashed back to its herd, and as the adult elephants formed a line to depart, they raised their trunks in salute to the rescuers. That was one example of their enigmatic sensibility. That they have long memories is no myth: they can remember watering holes from years back; they can communicate by subsonic rumbles along the ground faster than sound can travel through air; they have rituals for mourning their dead; and they peacefully spend sixteen hours a day eating, which is more than the average New Yorker.
Every creature has gifts that science is gradually discovering, such as the almost mathematically improbable migratory habits of penguins and the telescopic vision of hawks. These are prodigies of God’s extravagant love. The Christ Child arranged to be born in a makeshift menagerie rather than in a hotel where pets might not have been allowed. This Child “…is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature ... And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:15, 17). Animals at least could provide some body warmth, which in that fragile first moment of the Child’s exposed human nature was more important than any rhetoric, and more practical than the lofty song of angels.
It may not be too fanciful to think that, as a donkey can live up to forty years, God’s providence might have arranged for a donkey in that stable to be the one that the Child grown into manhood rode into Jerusalem. At least it was some donkey, that with its hellish bray and flapping ears looked like the “devil’s walking parody” as Chesterton said, but equipped for that final triumph with “a shout about my ears, / And palms before my feet.” In 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II entered Jerusalem on a white horse. In 1917 General Allenby pointedly entered on foot. A scraggly donkey was the most royal beast, for the rarest jewel of rulers is humility. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Perhaps at Christ’s coming, with their sensory gifts we cannot yet fully understand, the animals in the stable knew more about the Holy Child than humans realize. In that first Christmas moment, they were able to do what only saints in heaven can do, for they gazed upon the face of God.
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).