The ox and the ass
Among the important elements — not decorations — of the Christmas season is the Crèche or the Nativity scene. In other countries, this representation of the Birth of Jesus is called “the Mystery” because it reminds us of God’s greatest initiatives for mankind’s salvation: God became man, so that man may become God.
This is why the manger scene cannot be considered as one more decorative or ornamental design of Christmas. Every home or place that wants to celebrate this season cannot truly commemorate this joyous moment without the presence of the crèche. Such a tradition is neither offensive or discriminating of anyone’s beliefs or convictions since Christmas is celebrated universally and has clear historical and spiritual roots for every man and woman.
The manger scene at its simplest composition is made up of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. One, however, may add other secondary but also essential figures based on Scripture: the Shepherds and their sheep, the Three Kings and the angels. These make up the complete Christmas representation.
What about the ox and the ass? Of the latter, being the most common mode of transport for Mary and Joseph, we could certainly conclude that it was present. What about the ox? We cannot really tell. So where did this beastly composition in the manger come from?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his Christmas considerations, would say that this idea was most probably drawn from Isaiah who said: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its mater’s crib.” He adds that the tradition of including both the ox and the ass was later on reinforced by St. Francis of Assisi.
Celano, St. Francis’ biographer, writes how God’s beggar fell in love with the Child Jesus on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his veneration of Jesus’ Crib kept in St. Mary Major in Rome. Back his home town, the saint took the initiative to have a visual remembrance of Jesus’ birth. The belen was born!
Celano records how St Francis said: “I wish in full reality to awaken the remembrance of the child as he was born in Bethlehem and of all the hardship he had to endure in his childhood. I wish to see with bodily eyes what it meant to lie in a manger and sleep on hay, between an ox and an ass.” Here we have the origins of our animal occupants in the manger.
Benedict XVI, however, continues with Isaiah’s verse which continues as follows: “But Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” He then asked: “Who are those who failed to know Him?” He answers: Herod, the whole of Jerusalem with him, and the learned masters of Jerusalem.
“What about us?” Benedict XVI asked. As we contemplate each of the figures in our household mangers, let us not take for granted the ox and ass. Could it be, as Benedict implies, they are more attentive to their “master” and “owner” than we are.
Are we perhaps, sadly distracted by power and fame like Herod, by our attachments to our professional engagements and leisurely entertainment of comfort like “all of Jerusalem,” and by our intellectual pride and presumption like “the teachers of Israel?”
May we follow the example of our manger’s beasts of burden who never leave Jesus’ side. May we draw the lessons of humility, simplicity and meekness from them, so that like the shepherds we will also be filled with the Child’s presence in our hearts and we shall “return home” filled with His peace and joy.