I noticed something surprising this morning. As I contemplated a bloggy meditation on Mary’s having ridden a donkey the 80 miles or so of dirt roads between Nazareth and Bethlehem, I re-read the story, for perhaps the thousandth time. And what I noticed, because I was looking for it, is that there’s no donkey.

Luke 2 makes no mention of Mary riding a donkey to Bethlehem. It says only that Joseph “went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child” (v. 5). Matthew 1-2 make no mention of the journey to Bethlehem at all, though there are several references to Joseph and Mary moving from place to place after Jesus’ birth.

Yet, it’s hard to visualize the journey to Bethlehem without imagining a very pregnant Mary sitting on the back of a donkey — another case in which popular art has impacted our image of the Bible story more than the Bible itself.

There’s a very good chance that Mary walked the entire distance, pregnant as she was. And, having had the experience of riding on a stubborn donkey, I can imagine that she might have preferred it that way. Pregnant women who are “overdue” are sometimes advised to go for a walk in hopes of encouraging labor to begin. After 80 miles, it’s no wonder that Mary was ready to deliver when they arrived in Bethlehem.

Thinking of donkeys and other livestock that may (or may not) have been in or near the stable when Jesus was born, I’m reminded that millions of people across the globe have no donkey in their stable or chicken in their pot. Often, however, a brace of hens or ducks, a couple of goats, a heifer or a draft animal could go a long way toward lifting people from the edge of starvation.

If you need to grab a last-minute gift — or if you’re just inspired to do so — you can honor a friend or loved one by giving a pig, a goat, or even a water buffalo in their honor by visiting Heifer International’s website. There, you can browse a gift catalog, send a donation that could save hungry lives, and print out an instant gift card or send an e-message to the person you want to honor.

For the same price as a nice box of chocolates, you could fund a flock of ducks, geese, or chicks. For $120, you could buy someone a pig or a goat that could really make a difference.

Let’s see, another sausage and cheese gift basket, or the knowledge that a poor family will have eggs or milk in my honor — I know which one I’d rather receive.

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