The ox and the ass

Cebu Daily News - - OPINION - Fr.an­[email protected]­al­box.com

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.

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