Ok, I know that the donkey is possibly a pious fiction (though not a ridiculous one -- the poor woman was 9 months pregnant after all!) and there's no mention of other animals in the biblical narrative -- but sometimes a little creative licence gives us a fresh perspective.
THE DONKEY REMEMBERS
I never minded the weight. She was such a slight, young thing, even though she was swollen with the child inside. She seemed barely old enough to become a mother, but I guess that’s the way of it, isn’t it? She swayed with me as I walked, and never grabbed or pulled. He was different, older, had obviously knocked around the world a bit, and knew his hay from his thistles, as they say. But when they looked at each other, softly, shyly, there was something so delicate and tender between them that it was almost enough to warm me in the frosty air. And when they looked at each other like that it was as if the years flowed off him and onto her, he seemed awkward, uncertain, as if he wasn’t quite sure what she wanted from him, and she seemed completely at rest, as if all the clamour on the road around them never touched her at all.
The journey itself was uneventful, except it was rather slow, there were so many people going hither and yon, as if the whole world was moving house at once. And it was obvious that, for all her quiet ways, the lady couldn’t travel very fast. But he took good care of her, and of me, and every time he helped her back up onto my back he would look me in the eye and tell me to take care, because I was carrying the most precious thing in the world. I supposed that was what every father says – now I wonder ..
It was when we reached the town (and such a little town to be worth the bother of such a journey!) that things became less ordinary. Apparently there was some problem with where they were going to stay; several times the man knocked on doors, had a short, disappointing conversation and came back sadly. We would move to another street, another door, and the same thing would happen again. The lady had grown very quiet, very still, and I could almost feel her pain as her body tensed in silence. After several such conversations, he turned back, looked at her face and then asked, almost whispering, “Is it time?” She nodded, scarce able to speak, and he took her hand and held it for a long moment, then returned to the door that had just closed behind him and knocked again. This time I could hear an extra note of pleading that had not been in his voice before, and apparently the other person heard it too, for a long conversation followed. This time we did not set off down the street again, but went around the back of the building into a room. There were beasts stalled there, and clean straw, and hay in the manger. Everything I needed at the end of a long, hard day. I slept, ignoring the sounds of human bustle.
Hours later, in the cold quietness, the still-point of the night, I was woken by a new sound: the thin, sharp cry of a newborn human baby. The man was holding the child and a long strip of cloth and looking very awkward. “Here, let me do it,” said the woman softly, and proceeded to wrap the child firmly.
But something else was tugging at my senses and confusing me –a soft, faint sound of music. It seemed to be coming from the sky. “That’s ridiculous,” I thought to myself, but I was wrong. Ridiculous or not, it was happening. Soon it was beyond doubtful, every note came with silver clarity. It was the moment when I discovered that even a poor man’s donkey is capable of tears. And in bad moments since then, I have recalled the beauty of that music and found my way back to peace. To know that such music exists, and that it broke through into the world that night, is an incredible gift.
Just as the music was fading away, several men appeared – shepherds by the look of them. It was amazing enough to get any visitors in the cold, pre-dawn darkness, that shepherds should leave their sheep at such an hour, the hour of the wolf, was even more surprising. They were out of breath, and from the look of them they had probably run all the way from the fields.
The man and the woman looked up startled, and the man moved defensively in front of his wife and child. “What do you want?” he asked, grasping for his walking staff.
“We mean no harm,” said the foremost shepherd, still breathing hard.”We have come to see the child.” The man still looked defensive, but I was watching the woman’s face at that moment, and I saw her look up with wonder and sudden understanding. The shepherd, seeing the man still hesitate, went on talking, his tongue almost falling over itself in his eagerness to explain, as if the mere retelling of events would make new sense of them. It was a confusing story, full of angels, and God and someone called David, but one thing was obvious, this was no ordinary baby. Most babies do not have messengers coming down out of heaven to announce their birth. I felt a great wonder, but also a great fear, and as the lady lifted up the child to show them, I found myself kneeling down before the child. It was only some minutes later, when the moment had passed, that I realised that the other creatures there had done the same.
There is much I don’t fully understand, but that chilly night, in that dark little room, in such an ordinary, almost pathetic place, was the greatest moment of my life. I have seen holiness, and I was forever changed by the experience.