From the manger to the cross . . .
Legends bring descendents of some of the Nativity animals full circle to witness and participate in Christ's death and resurrection. Throughout Christ's life, the donkey, rooster, dove and lamb played background roles leading to the events of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Legends add mystery to the biblical accounts of these animals..
The Christ Bearer
The lowly donkey earned the noble title of Christ Bearer because it physically carried Christ to His destiny throughout His life. Because of its even, steady pace, the donkey was the perfect transportation for a very pregnant Mary on her trip to Bethleham. To thank it for its kindness and gentle, safe journey, Mary gave the donkey a special blessing: a cross of dark hair along its shoulders that extends down its spine. Most donkeys carry this special symbol of its dedication to Christ throughout His life.
The donkey also carried Mary and the infant Jesus on their travels to escape Herod's soldiers.
Jesus chose to ride a donkey into Jerusalem on the day we now commemorate as Palm Sunday. The cross marking on the donkey identified it as the colt of the donkey that had carried Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys symbolize peace, the mission of Jesus, while horses symbolize war. Jesus is often referred to as the Prince of Peace.
The cross on the donkey's back also foreshadowed the cross of the Crucifixion awaiting Jesus at the end of His Jersusalem journey. From the joy of His birth to the sorrow of His death, the donkey earned the title of Christ Bearer with quiet dignity, devotion and courage.
Messenger to the World
The rooster used its distinctive voice to announce both the birth and impending death of Jesus. Legends claim the Nativity is the only time in history when the rooster crowed at midnight. To honor this legend, Spain and Latin American countries celebrate a traditional Christmas Eve mass at midnight known as Misa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster).
The rooster also played a role in the events leading to the Crucifixion. At the Last Supper, Jesus shared the news of His impending death with his disciples and told Peter he would deny Him three times before the cock crowed. Although Peter vehemently claimed he would not disown his friend, that's exactly what he did, He denied knowing Jesus three times just before the rooster crowed.
The rooster served as a messsenger at the two most important events in Christ's life and the history of the Christian world: it announced His birth and warned of His death. Paradoxically, both events were good news for the world.
Peace from the Manger to Beyond the Grave
The dove, the universal symbol of peace, made multiple appearances in the life of Christ. It first appeared in a dream to Mary's parents before her birth. The dove represented the important role she would play in religious history. A second dove later perched on Joseph's staff, a sign to him that Mary would become his wife.
The soft coos of the doves at the Nativity soothed the baby Jesus to sleep with a birdsong lullaby. Later, when the infant Jesus received the traditional, ritual blessings at the temple, Joseph brought two white doves as an offering to the priests.
At Jesus' baptism, the Spirit of God descended from the heavens like a dove. And, doves appeared at Jesus's resurrection to symbolize the love and peace that HIs life bring to all who believe in Him.
Agnus Dei - Lamb of God
Hundreds of references to sheep and shepherds appear in the Bible; some are parables, some are metaphors. Christ is frequently referred to as the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei in Latin. His cousin, John the Baptist, gave Him this name. Agnus Dei is a resurrection symbol of a lamb carrying a banner. Crucifixes in the early church carried the image of a lamb, a symbol of sacrifice, instead of the figure of the crucified Christ.
At the Nativity, the sheep in the stable formed a woolly wall of warmth to block the cold night air from the baby Jesus. Some sheep gave their thick fleece to provide a blanket for the shivering baby. Were the sheep sheared, or did they shed their wool some other way? Legends don't explain this mystery. As a gift of thanks, the Christ Child blessed them with soft wool instead of the coarse, stringy strands they originally wore.
Sheep at the manger worshiping the Christ Child on the Nativity night - how could they know they would become symbolic of Christ, often referred to as The Good Shepherd, from His birth to HIs death?
Final Moments with the Robin
A touching folk legend tells about the robin's presence at the Crucifixion. On Good Friday, a robin was feasting on morsels dropped by travelers and traders near the gates of Jerusalem. A strange commotion attracted its curiosity. A throng of soldiers and common people were shouting and throwing stones at three men carrying crosses.
The curious robin followed the crowd to Calvary, where it saw two of the men strapped to crosses. The third man was nailed to a cross. The kind, weary eyes of this man caught the robin’s attention.
The robin flew to the man with the kind eyes and tried to pull the nails out of His bleeding hands. The little bird tugged and tugged, but even with all its might, its beak was not strong enough to loosen the nails. Unwilling to give up, the little bird flew to the man’s head and began pulling out the thorns piercing His forehead.
Some soldiers tried to kill the robin with stones, but a centurion warned them not to harm the little bird. The robin stayed with Christ until His death. Shortly before His last breath, Christ blessed the robin with a red breast. The bird’s breast feathers, stained with Christ’s blood would always remain red as a sign that people would forever remember the bird’s compassion, courage, and love.
For more legends and stories about the Nativity animals, read Menagerie at the Manger.