This time of year, many churches put up a nativity display, and I’ve noticed over the years that these scenes often include placing a dog before the manger, usually in the company of a shepherd. This suggests something important about dogs, why we love them, why they are so irresistible.
Dogs have no need of religion or philosophy. They didn’t need to write scriptures or wait for divine revelation or a messiah to learn how to treat people. Dogs are, unlike their owners, already fully aligned with what God wants all creatures to become: loyal, loving, unconditional, attentive and gentle. Dogs don’t discriminate or hate; they don’t build their self-esteem on the ruined reputations of others. They don’t invent weapons of mass destruction; they don’t kill the innocent or pursue policies of economic serfdom. They have neither concept nor vocabulary to describe race, religion or sexual orientation. Their task is to accept us all with total disregard to our flaws, to comfort without question, to love without duplicity. Dogs belong in nativity scenes precisely because they reveal Bethlehem to those who interact with them, helping us to witness firsthand what our lives might look like if we, too, were more wholly who we are called to be.
The name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread”, and this emphasis on bread as the sustaining food of everyday life was central to early Christians. Early Eucharistic liturgies incorporated bread into the worship service. Jesus himself names himself the Bread of Life, and this ties him directly to the city of his birth. Bethlehem is the place of nourishment beyond physical satiety; it is not the stomach that is satisfied there, it is the whole person, filled to capacity with glory and light, and all good things.
Jesus comes from Bethlehem to become Bethlehem for his followers, who are in turn called to transform themselves into Bethlehem for the whole world. No one is to be excluded from the House of Bread, no one rejected or turned away, no one left hungry or thirsty, no one left lonely or afraid. This is the essence of a humanity fully realized.
And so it came to pass one Christmas Eve, my friend Karl, himself a passionate advocate for dogs and all animals in need, was preparing to join his family for the annual holiday gathering. As he and his wife were preparing to leave the house on that cold, wintry night, the stars glittering above, Karl paused. He had worked as a volunteer at the Outagamie County Animal Shelter in Appleton, Wisconsin for many years. Although he had been at the shelter earlier in the day, something inside him stirred. He told his wife that she should go ahead to the party and that he thought he should check on the animals before joining the family.
Earlier that week, the family of an elderly woman had brought in an ancient, toothless dog, her only companion before her death a few days earlier. The family wasn’t inclined to care for a 20 year old dog who had no teeth and was nearly blind, much less feed the dog with a baby bottle since she had no way to chew.
Prior to that night, Karl told me he had been preoccupied with his impending 40th birthday, wondering if he had accomplished his life’s work, if he had done anything that really mattered over those four decades. Not religious, but spiritual, Karl had a gnawing fear that he had somehow lost his way in the busyness of life. This had occasioned the fear in the pit of his being that he had perhaps done nothing of value.
Karl arrived at the shelter and began checking on the animals: everything and everyone seemed fine. When he came to the cage containing the old, toothless dog, however, he stopped in his tracks. The old girl was looking him right in the eye with her melancholy, cloudy gaze. Foregoing the usual precaution of putting on heavy leather gloves, Karl opened her cage and crawled in to be with her. The dog stirred and moved closer, obviously eager for human contact. Karl took the dog in his arms, stroked her thinning mane and the dog, in a state of pure bliss, looked up adoringly into his eyes. It took a moment for Karl to realize that she had died in his arms. Having cared for the old woman all her life, the dog had needed the affection of one more generous human to midwife her into eternity.
Crystal stars pierced the crisp December night as Karl locked up the shelter and lit up a cigarette. Something about the flash of a distant star on this Christmas Eve brought a flash of insight. Although he and his wife had never had children of their own, he had been a parent to countless animals over the years. He had brought new puppies into the world and this very night he had brought joy to the heart of a faithful dog at the moment of her death. The love inside him was manifesting itself by his own selfless acts of love for God’s creatures. Suddenly, Karl knew without a doubt that his life had not been in vain, that he was doing the important work he had always been meant to do.
It always takes a star to bring people to Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is where Karl continues to live his life’s work, bringing wholeness to God’s animals who need it most.