Word of the Day
When St. Francis of Assisi re-enacted the birth of Christ on a hillside in Italy almost 800 years ago, he included two live animals — an ox and a donkey. His biographers tell us that Francis believed all creatures should be included in Christmas celebrations —domestic and farm animals should be given a large meal, he said, and he wanted citizens to scatter grain and rub building walls with food so that birds and wildlife also could eat.
Animals have had a large role in stories and legends about the night Jesus was born. More than just lovely stories, however, these pieces were used through the centuries to teach children about the Divine born man, a miracle so wondrous that even the animals paid Christ homage.
The robin’s red breast: There are several legends that connect the robin’s red breast feathers to Christ. This one says the fire in the stable where Mary had just given birth to Jesus was about to go out. Rather than leave the baby and his mother in the cold, a small brown bird pulled twigs from his nest, dropped them into the embers and began to fan the flames with his wings. When a stray ember made the bird’s breast feathers glow red, Mary noticed and declared that all robins should then have red breasts in honor of the selfless service to Jesus of this little bird.
The tabby cat’s M: there are several varieties of the cats we generically call ‘tabbies,’ differentiated by the patterns on their coats. There is one mark that all tabbies share, however; the shape of an M on their foreheads. The story says that Mary struggled to settle a fussy baby Jesus, uncomforted even after feeding, a diaper change and an extra blanket. A little tabby came out from a corner of the stable, leaped into the manger, curled up next to the baby and began to purr. The sound soothed the baby who soon fell asleep. A grateful Mary stroked the forehead of the little cat, leaving behind her initial that marks all tabbies to this day.
The talking animals: It is said that Jesus was born at the stroke of midnight, just as Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. A fifth-century Christian poet is given credit for creating the legend that at that time, animals are able to speak like humans so that they, too, can join in proclaiming the arrival of the Christ child. Don’t eavesdrop, however; Eastern Europeans believe its bad luck to hear the animals’ conversation.
The donkey’s cross: No nativity scene is without a donkey. The story is that a donkey carried the heavily-pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, then warmed the stable with his breath following Jesus’ birth. Later, a donkey would carry Jesus on his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion in fulfillment of the prophecy of the Messiah. The black stripe that some donkeys have along their spines and another across their shoulders to form the shape of a cross is said to be Christ’s thanks for the service of this humble beast.
Do I act as Francis did, treating creatures with kindness and using our earth’s air and water and other resources wisely in recognition that they were created by God and are part of the gifts he has given us?