In his account of Jesus' birth, Luke informs readers more than once, that the new born Jesus was placed in a manger because there was no room at the inn [Luke 2:7; 12; 16]. Given that a manger is a long open box where food is put for cattle or other animals to eat, we can understand how a tradition soon grew concerning Jesus being born in a 'stable' or 'cattle-shed'. Indeed, these same two words both appear in the opening verses of the carol 'Once in Royal David's City'. Although Nativity scenes on Christmas cards are becoming increasingly hard to find on supermarket and High Street shop shelves, such pictures frequently depict a range of animals, with cows, sheep, oxen and horses regularly featured. Yet might a dog have also been present in the Bethlehem stable/cattle-shed when Jesus was born there? We do not know of course but there is certainly evidence from the Gospels suggesting that dogs were sometimes kept as pets [Matt. 15:27].
While many children grow up in a home with a dog, this has not been part of my own childhood or adult experience. Nevertheless, I'm genuinely impressed whenever reading the remarkable accounts of the two-way friendship and loyalty which sometimes emerge. If travelling north by train to Carlisle you will go through Garsdale Station, where a bronze statue of 14 year old border collie Ruswarp stands on the platform. When owner Graham Nutall was out walking with Ruswarp on the nearby mountains in January 1990, he suddenly collapsed and died - prompting a vigil by the loyal dog that lasted for 11 whole weeks until eventually found by another walker. What devotion the distraught dog had for his master! It is widely accepted that a visit from a well-trained dog can give a huge confidence boost to people who find relationships hard or have low morale. The value of dogs like Finn [often featured in past Contact Magazine articles] that can contribute to the well-being of people who are feeling lonely, upset or depressed ... cannot be underestimated.
For many years, 'Guide Dogs for the Blind Association' has trained dogs for people with very limited or no sight while the police and Army have also used dogs to help them with their detective work. Yet we also now recognise that some dogs, properly trained, have the ability to detect some illnesses and disease at a very early stage in their development. Prostate cancer, malaria, urological cancers and Parkinson's ... are examples of disease that cause biochemical body changes, leading to different smells that are excreted. With each disease having its own distinctive odour, dogs can be trained to recognise and detect very low disease levels using their noses which are about 60 times more sensitive than a human nose! How wonderful that a trained medical detection dog can offer such quick, accurate and relatively cheap diagnosis.
Long ago, Greek story writer Aesop told the tale of a dog who stood beside a manger full of hay and deterred a hungry horse [a hungry ox features in older versions!] from feeding there by its aggressive barking. From that story we have got the 'dog in a manger' phrase that has come to describe a person who prevents somebody else from making use of something which they themselves have no use for. In effect, it describes those who are utterly selfish in their attitude towards the welfare of others.
One of David Attenborough's recent Blue Planet 2 TV programmes focused on the very dangerous levels of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. National leaders have the choice of either selfishly ignoring this growing blight in our seas or taking radical steps to act. It is at least heartening to learn that over 100 nations are pledging to commit themselves to supporting a UN resolution to do more to stop plastic waste from entering the world's oceans. Given that about 200 plastic water bottles were found on every mile of Britain's coastline last year and as it takes around 450 years for just one of them to completely break up in the sea ... the need for decisive action is surely beyond dispute! It would be extremely selfish and somewhat irresponsible for us to simply ignore the problem of plastic waste which will so greatly impact future generations. There is surely also a Christian obligation for us to do everything that we can to preserve the natural environment around us, having arguably been given a God-given role and duty of care as stewards of His creation [Gen. 1: 28; 2: 19 - 20].
From this side of Heaven, we will never know if a dog may have been amongst the first animals to have witnessed the birth of Jesus. In one sense, it does not really matter either. Yet as we have recently celebrated Christmas and Epiphany, may we do all we can as individuals to protect God's creation. Let us appreciate that dogs can enrich people's lives through their company/friendship and be grateful for the work of other dogs that help and can save lives through their remarkable medical detection abilities. Let us also thank God for Jesus coming into our world. Placed in a manger soon after birth, this was God's Son Himself who one day, as the Messiah, 'would save his people from their sins' [Matt. 1: 21].
Your Friend – Martyn.
Your Friend – Martyn.