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Animals Have Special Place, Play Role in Celebration of Christmas

December 21, 1991|From Associated Press

The least is needed by the loftiest. The high depends on the low, the great on the small. That's the way the world runs. That's a crux of Christmas.

It's also part of the warmth and merriment of the occasion, the big happening, in theological terms, along with the antic incidentals of it.

To believers it's when God, out of love for earthly life, identified with the common species and became one of the littlest of them--a new baby.

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us."

Other creatures also played a part--the animals, cattle, sheep, a donkey or two, apparently also camels, and along the way, a dove, birds, the beasts of the field.

"The first will be last, and the last first," Jesus later said, and he pointed out that God's care extended to animals. Not a sparrow falls, he said, without God's will. "Not one of them will be forgotten before God."

While some people rarely consider it, animals have a special place in the biblical account of creation, and are included in the vision of the ultimate future of peace and harmony.

"The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them," wrote the prophet Isaiah.

Although some influential thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas have disparaged animals as lacking humanity's rationality and immortal soul, others such as Methodist founder John Wesley have insisted animals will attain heaven.

He maintained that in the "general deliverance" from the world's pervasive wrongs and cruelty, animals would be given "vigor, strength and swiftness . . . to a far higher degree than they ever enjoyed."

St. Francis called them "brothers" and "sisters" and even preached to them. Physician-theologian Albert Schweitzer said that "to the truly ethical man, all life is sacred," including life regarded "less than ours."

In any case, it was probably a burro that carried Mary on that hard trip with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem where she gave birth in the only lodging they could find--a rock-hewn livestock stable.

The presence of animals in that cavern provided the warmth that protected the newborn infant that night.

"The lamb of God," he was called, indicating that his subsequent sacrifice to absorb the ravages of sin was sufficient to end the sacrificing of animals to God.

"It carried the idea that thereafter sacrifice of animals had less than a divine purpose," said philosopher Thomas H. Regan of North Carolina State University of Raleigh.

"Since there is no need to sacrifice them for divine purposes, there is certainly no need to sacrifice them for less-than-divine purposes."

Regan, a leader of the Culture and Animals Foundation, is among a growing number of animal-rights advocates in this country, many of them linking that cause to religious faith.

They, maintaining animals have divinely endowed worth and rights, work against all sorts of harshness toward animals--in experiments and sports.

"All religions in the world say wonderful things in their scriptures about animals, but people simply don't practice it," said Ginny Bee of Silver Springs, Md., founder of the international Network for Religion and Animals.

"We're trying to bring religious principles to bear on humanity's treatment of our animal kin."

Churches are barely beginning to consider it, she said, if at all. She said "our neighbor"--whom Jesus said to love as ourselves--"includes both animals and nature. We must learn to treat them with respect and dignity.

"God gave us the beautiful gift of animals but we abuse them, harm them, kill them."

Yet the first living creatures, as recounted in Genesis, were animals of sea, land and air, and God saw they were "good." From spreading corruption and flood on earth, he saved animals along with Noah's family in an ark.

"Behold, I establish my covenant with you," God told Noah, "and with every living creature that is with you." He set a rainbow in the sky, "a sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature."

Although little heeded by churches, animals are part of that divine compact, Scripture affirms. Regan says membership in animal-rights groups has grown in the last 10 years from 2 million to 10 million.

In the coming of Jesus, animals not only shared the stable, but camels likely brought the Magi with their gifts. Shepherds with flocks in the fields heard the angelic proclamation of "good news of a great joy."

"For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. . . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom he is pleased."

Later, that newcomer likened his love to that of a shepherd for his sheep, searching for a lost one, giving his life for them. He said Sabbath laws should be laid aside to take an animal to water or pull an ox from a pit.

"Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap . . . yet God feeds them," he said. And the Psalms say all nature proclaims God's glory, that "every beast of the forest" is his, "and the cattle on a thousand hills."

Are animals, too, destined for eternal redemption from wrongs of a disordered world? "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now," awaiting redemption, says Paul's letter to Romans.

"No where does the Bible say animals don't have souls," said David Barnes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Washington. "Certainly God's love is great enough to bring all he creates into afterlife without distracting one bit from his love for you and me or anyone else.

"We're not in competition with animals for God's love."

When that love became flesh on earth, Mary took the child, wrapped him in strips of cloth to brace his body, and laid him in the trough for animals--a manger.

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