This week we again present our popular Christmas story, first issued December 20, 2004, as told to Deborah by Upozugion the donkey.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
There was nothing usual, to begin with. That day my master and I had traveled a long distance on the muddy roads. We had been caught in a rainstorm and some of the rugs I was carrying got quite wet. My master, always quick of temper, was outraged, "Damnable weather! These will have to be sold at half-price, now!" Hurrying along toward the town, I stumbled under the heavy load and my master began to beat me with that hateful stick. He carried it always, and used it often — as the scars on my flanks attest.
We were fortunate to find an inn on the outskirts of town. As I recall, it was here that things began to change. First, my master paid extra that I might be sheltered in the stable — a thing he rarely did. My burdens were lifted: all of the merchandise I carried was removed, and the reins that held me were loosed. I was truly free for the first time in many weeks. A blanket was laid across my back to keep me warm, water had been brought in from the nearby well, and there was a whole manger-ful of sweet hay — it was a heavenly place!
I was comfortable in the cozy stable, surrounded by the nose-twitching fragrance of the other animals — a cow, two horses, a ewe and her lamb, some pigs in a pen on the far corner, and a flock of chickens. It was peaceful there; the only sounds the soft cooing of a pair of doves in the rafters, and the rustle of mice as they gathered seeds from within the hay. Before long I began to doze in the warming silence.
The silent night was disturbed by the innkeeper, carrying a lamp. I was surprised to see that he was leading a young couple out to share our quarters. So little room here! Someone will need to be cast out into the cold. I turned my eyes away, so that I would not be noticed and so become the sacrifice. But nothing happened. No harsh words were uttered, and no creature was sent away.
Ears itching with curiosity, I looked again, and my heart leapt within me. The man had the kindest eyes I had ever seen, and such a gentle way about him. His attention was focused on the young woman, who moved slowly and carefully, as though carrying a heavy burden.
The innkeeper looked anxiously at the woman, and then shrugged his shoulders, "It's all I have..." Joseph gave the man a reassuring nod, "We will be well looked-after, I am certain," and he raised his hands toward the heavens.
Humans hold a fascination for animals: with your gift of language, your strong and clever fingers, and brains ever-busy with plans and schemes. And so we watched, to see what these people would do. Joseph gathered together some of the straw, and covered it with two blankets from his pack.
One of the doves swooped down with a feather in her mouth, and dropped it nearby. The gentle man smiled, "Are you helping me build a nest, my friend?" He handed the feather to Mary, who blessed the bird: "Peaceful one, peace be with you."
That is how it began: gently, and peacefully. And it was during that holy night that The Baby was born. I've been present at a couple of other human births, and this one was very much the same. Except: there was a strange noise — musical, like the chanting of many voices, but it appeared to come from the roof of the stable!
Mary and Joseph did not seem to notice — busy, as they were, with the newborn Child. They wrapped him in soft cloths, and laid him in the manger. But that was not enough! Surely there ought to be gifts for the Baby.
As the beautiful Mother knelt adoringly over her child, I pushed my way forward and tossed my head. "Look at that donkey," said Joseph, "I believe he wants something. What is it, old fellow?" Stretching my neck, I reached back and grabbed the blanket from my back in my teeth.
Joseph stood still for a moment, and then took it from my mouth. "Thank you, my friend, for this blanket for the baby Jesus." Old as I am, I have never forgotten that moment, nor joy that swelled my heart as I watched him gently drape my blanket over the tiny child.
Then there came the contingent of shepherds: ill-smelling — even to an unwashed donkey's nose, poorly dressed, with dirty feet. They arrived with a flapping of their raggedy clothes, in much excitement over a wild story about angels. I paid no attention, remembering the time I ate some peculiar-tasting thistles that made me behave like that. But the gentle man and compassionate Lady — with the newborn Child at her breast, listened patiently, and blessed them as they departed.
In the morning my master rose early; the skies had cleared during the night and the sun shone brightly. The little family had moved outside and were warming themselves at a fire.
Preparing to load me down with his wares, my master noticed the missing blanket. "What have you done with your blanket, you vile creature?!" he demanded, kicking at my heels. Joseph arose at once, and bowed to my master, "Sir, please do not beat this animal for my sin. Our child was born in the stable, and I borrowed the donkey's blanket to keep him warm."
His voice seemed to calm my master who said, "Never mind. It is not important. I have other blankets." Joseph bowed again and said, "Thank you." Although my master was the one who answered — "It is nothing," I am nearly certain Joseph was talking to me.
There was something about that place: even my master, ever-anxious to set out on a journey, seemed unwilling to depart. He returned to the inn twice: once for a skein of wine, and again for a bit of rope to fasten the already-secure packages on my back.
We needed to arrive early to get a good location at the market in the center of the town, still a mile or so distant. And so we set out, leaving the family behind. As we departed, Mary gently patted my neck, and the child — the astonishing child — looked at me with wise and gentle eyes.
The lightness of my spirit was not enough to overcome the heaviness of the rugs — some still weighted down with rainwater. This weight, combined with the sticky mud of the roads made lifting each foot a struggle. Before long I was exhausted: sweating and thirsty.
Then I noticed a fragrance in the air: somewhere, quite nearby was water. I turned off the main road and toward the refreshing promise. At once my master began shouting and running after me. I knew what would happen next: he would begin beating me, and I would bite at him, and shake off what part of the burden I could. We would both be filled with violence and hatred.
In an instant, something changed. I saw again the faces of that dear family: gentle Joseph, kind Mary, and the precious baby. I turned toward my master, remembering the Child. Our eyes met, and he stepped back — the evil stick dropped from his hand. There was stillness for a moment — a holy peace seemed to descend upon us.
My master shook his head, as though awaking from a dream. Then he said, "There's a well not far from here, it will only take a moment from our journey, and we could both use a drink of water."
Later, as we sat by the well, a woman came collect some water. Bowing to my master, she asked, "Do you bring any news? The shepherds are saying that the Messiah has been born!"
An odd expression came over my master's face and he looked at me, as though seeing me for the first time. He said, "We've seen a lot together, haven't we, old friend?"
Things have been very different between us, since that day. The vile stick is gone — never to be replaced, my loads are lighter, my heart is gentler. And, as for my master — he often says that there is no question as to which of us is the bigger donkey.
Perhaps we'll see the family again some day. My master has heard that they live in Nazareth. I'd like to go there, and give the little boy a ride on my back. It would be such a joy to carry him with me, even for a little way — although, as my master says, we carry Him in our hearts wherever we go.
Upozugion the donkey
May this donkey's tale bring you joy,
and may you carry
the beauty and peace of Christ
in your heart
today and always!