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Barn Hospitality – 12/18/2011

When Wilbur came to Zuckerman’s farm, it was a difficult adjustment. From the time that he was born he had been raised by a young human girl named Fern, and she had treated him as something between a baby and a pet. Sold to Homer Zuckerman, Wilbur found himself in a new world, leading a new life with very different rules. Life in the barn was harsh and uncomfortable for a pig who was used to having a warm, soft place to sleep. But most of all, without Fern as his constant companion, Wilbur was lonely. That was until the day when a tiny little spider called out to him from the barn rafters: “Salutations!”

There would be no story to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web without the kindness and hospitality of barnyard animals. And it is a theme shared in common with the Christmas story, as the Gospel according to Luke seems to describe Mary, Joseph and their newborn spending the night in a place normally reserved for livestock. No animals are mentioned in that version of the story, but for hundreds of years it has been common depict creatures of every sort in nativity scenes, including our own.

St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for his love of animals as spiritual beings, is sometimes credited with popularizing the presence of live animals in Christmas pageants. In major annual productions put on by any number of European cities, you might find live camels or even elephants to help make the setting of the story seem exotic and foreign, and to increase the impressive and expensive nature of the display. But the first direct reference to specific animals in the company of Mary and her family comes from the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, a book written centuries after the more popular Gospels, to try to fill in some gaps in their accounts. In it, the author describes the infant Jesus being set down between an ox and a donkey. The two large animals, rather than ignoring the child or endangering him with their heavy bodies, immediately show signs of love for him, and look after the child with care and adoration.

If we are to learn anything at all from this small episode in this otherwise very familiar story, we must consider the place of a donkey and an ox. It is much the same today as it would have been two thousand years ago. To be a non-human animal, a work animal, is to be a thing devoid of rights. Powerless in a way that many of us humans would struggle to imagine. But in the moment when Mary lays her child between a donkey and an ox, so much power lies with them. Ignore for the moment the physical risk, however great it

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is. Imagine being the parents of a newborn – some of us do not need to imagine very hard here – all either of these two creatures has to do is bray or low, or make any other sort of sudden noise, and Mary and Joseph will have a wailing little son keeping them awake again. The sleepless nights spent caring for a newborn Jesus are a subject sorely neglected by all of the Gospel writers.

But none of that happens. Instead, the ox and the donkey, these two creatures that live at the mercy of human beings to be used by them for work or for food, they both turn with kindness towards the little one between them. They welcome him in, and show him love. No matter what we have or do not have, no matter the wealth or the power that we possess or do not possess, the opportunity to practice love persists.

Near the end of the novel, after his life has been nearly lost and then saved by Charlotte the spider, Wilbur asks her why she has done all that she has for him. She answers, “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” May each of us seize every opportunity we can to lift up our own lives a trifle by helping those we can. And when we are in need of help ourselves, may it come to us from the corner of the rafters where we least expect it.


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