A Reflection on Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
You might be familiar with the fact that Saint Francis famously introduced the Church to what we now think of as a Nativity scene at Greccio, Italy in 1223. However, the imagery of Christ among the animals goes much further back in history, The ox and donkey, along with sheep, have been staple (or stable) images in Nativity scenes during Advent and Christmas since ancient times. In fact, some of the earliest depictions of Christ’s birth featured only animals worshipping the infant Jesus. An ornamented detail from the late-fourth century marble Sarcophagus of Stilicho, which today is kept under the pulpit of Sant'Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy, shows Christ in his manger flanked by the familiar ox and donkey.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated in his book Jesus of Nazareth, the Infancy Narratives: “Christian iconography adopted this motif at an early stage. No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass.” (pg. 104).
But why animals in the first place? After all, the New Testament doesn't mention them at Christ's crib.
Born in a Barn
Well, we know Jesus wasn’t born in a pristine maternity ward at a local St. Luke’s hospital. St. Luke himself tells us Mary placed her newborn son in a manger, a feeding trough for farm animals (the word "manger", from Old French and Late Latin, means "to chew" and traces back to the Biblical Greek "phatne" or "stall for feeding" - see Luke 2:7,12,16. If you're familiar with the Italian command "Mangia!" or "eat up!" you'll notice the same root). The presence of the manger is a clue indicating the Holy Family took shelter in one of the many rocky caves that served as an animal stable or granary in ancient Bethlehem (a town whose name means "House of Bread" in Hebrew because of its wheat production and "House of Flesh" in Arabic because of its animal husbandry). In the second century, St. Justin Martyr spoke of the Lord's cave-stable as a holy site of pilgrimage (today the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem graces the ancient spot). So naturally, there were probably farm animals there when Jesus was born, even though neither Matthew's nor Luke's infancy narratives mention any specific creatures being present. Why then are oxen, donkeys, and sheep included in our own artful depictions and front yard displays?
'Feed My Lambs' (Jn 21:1)
It’s no mystery why sheep would probably be at Christ’s crib. They were the most common animal kept in caves and sheepfolds in Bethlehem, the ancestral capital of the Shepherd-King David, which served as an important center for the year-round work of shepherds. This included the rearing of lambs for Passover sacrifices in Jerusalem. Shepherds keeping watch on the night of the Lord’s birth were the first to hear the angelic call to come and behold the Messiah (Lk. 2:8-12), and it’s probable they brought some of their flocks with them to the manger. The Christological symbolism is clear: shepherds come to behold the Good Shepherd who gathers and tends to his people, and who is at the same time the pure paschal Lamb of God, who will offer himself as sacrifice and food in Jerusalem, bringing to fulfillment the full significance of the Passover at his Last Supper and on the Cross.
The Ox and Donkey Find True Food
More mysterious though is the presence of the ox and the donkey in Christian art. Yes, they were common farm animals in Israel which logically would have been near a manger waiting for a bite to eat, but why have they always been so essential to recreations of the Nativity if neither is mentioned in the Gospels? Are they just rural decor? To understand their inclusion and symbolism, we have to read Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and hear what other ancient historical sources had to say as well.
Isaiah 1:3 states: "An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood." The Church always connected this Old Testament verse with Luke 2:12: "And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Thus, Isaiah compared Israel's obstinance with animals known for their own stubbornness, yet still have enough sense to know who takes care of them (hence, in English we get phrases like "stubborn as a mule", "mulish", and "bull-headed" to describe people who act that way, and we all know a few). But the prophet also foretold where the true Messiah would one day be physically found and recognized -- not in an elaborate public palace surrounded by elites and their flatterers but rather in an out-of-way stable surrounded by the poor, outsiders, and beasts of burden.
In Nativity art, these beasts seem to relinquish their stubborn nature and humbly kneel before their true Master who presents Himself as their food - the "Bread which came down from Heaven" (John 6:41) in a feeding container. One can see where this is going: the animals are really a picture of prideful, foolish, and impoverished humanity transformed by true Meekness, Wisdom, and Divine Sustenance found in the least likely of places. Pope Benedict XVI again relates the full significance:
Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God. From the poverty of Jesus' birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished. The manger, as we have seen, indicates animals, who come to it for their food (ibid. 103-104).
See all the connections yet? Although the Last Supper wouldn't happen for another 33 years, already we have a picture of the Mass in the Nativity (after all the word Christmas means "Mass of Christ"). Jesus came down in the House of Bread not only to be with us, but to remain in us as our supernatural nourishment:
Whoever chews my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (John 6:54-57)
Just as animals received nourishment from grain at the manger, so too Christians find sustenance in Christ, the Bread of Life, at his table. It is a Eucharistic image:
"Thus he is born and lies in a manger, so that all the faithful (that is, the holy animals) may be refreshed by the grain that is his flesh" - Pope St. Gregory the Great (Migne, Pat. Lat. LXXVI, 1104, 6th century).
The ox and ass come to see what's in their feeding trough. Detail, lid of the Adelphia Sarcophagus, mid 4th century AD. Rome, Relief, Marble. Museo Pio Christiano
A New Holy of Holies
The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament - LXX) version of Habakuk 3:2 also suggests the location of Christ's birth: “In the midst of two living creatures you will be recognized … when the time has come, you will appear” or even, "Between two animals you are made manifest." The apocryphal The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, a popular early-medieval retelling of the Nativity from the 7th-8th centuries, also references these Scripture verses:
On the third day after the Lord’s birth, Mary left the cave and came into a stable, and she placed the child in a manger. And an ox and an ass bent their knees and worshiped him. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, who said, “The ox has recognized its owner and the ass the manger of its lord.” Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.” (Ch 14)
But the ox and donkey serve as more than just sign-posts pointing to Christ's specific location. Pope Benedict XVI highlights the LXX translation of Habakuk "between two living creatures" to suggest a subtle new image of the Ark of the Covenant, the ancient container upon which two angels, often called living creatures, flanked the Mercy-seat of God:
The two living creatures would appear to refer to the two cherubs on the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Ex 25:18–20), who both reveal and conceal the mysterious presence of God. So the manger has in some sense become the Ark of the Covenant, in which God is mysteriously hidden among men, and before which the time has come for “ox and ass”—humanity made up of Jews and Gentiles—to acknowledge God (ibid. 103-104).
The fact that the ancient Church also called Mary the "Ark of the New Covenant" (since she carried the Word of God not in stone but in the flesh and not a pot of manna, but the living Bread - Heb. 9:4; Rev. 11:19; 12:1) and also the "Seat of Wisdom" (whose maternal lap God-incarnate rested upon - 1 Kgs. 10:18) further drives home the point that our Nativity scenes featuring living creatures, men, angels, and beasts, kneeling in adoration at the new Seat of Mercy (Mary & crib) depict for us a new Holy of Holies, the tabernacle (tent) where the Lord comes to meet his people in a sacred space.
Did the animals at Christ's crib actually have an instinctive sense of the presence of their Creator? Did the shepherds realize the full symbolic import of what glory they beheld that night? Probably not. But this encounter with the Lord in His Nativity not only reminds us of the Jerusalem Temple as a former point of special contact with the divine, but also calls upon us to recognize Christ's ongoing physical presence in the sanctuaries and tabernacles of Catholic churches, where He awaits for living creatures, human souls, to come and visit Him in the Blessed Sacrament. His supernatural presence is assessable anywhere at any time of course to anyone who opens the door to him.
A large monstrance at St. Stanislaus in Chicago, Illinois depicts Mary as the new Ark of the New Covenant who carries the Blessed Sacrament (the hidden manna- Rev. 2:17) within her.
Salvation for All People
But the symbolism of ox and donkey does not stop there. As Pope Benedict XVI mentioned, the ox and ass not only represent human beings in general but specifically "Jews and Gentiles". How so? According to Jewish law, the Ox was considered a "clean" animal, fit for sacrifice, consumption, and labor. For them, the ox could represent the Chosen People - the Hebrews. The donkey on the other hand was "unclean" -- fit for travel and labor, but not for offerings to the Lord. The donkey thus represented the Gentiles. In Deuteronomy 22:12 we find the command, "You shall not plow with an ox and an ass harnessed together".
Aside from the practical wisdom of not unequally yoking together two disparate animals who will only make the work harder (or not happen at all), the symbolic reference is also apparent: don't mix God's people (Israel) with the other nations (the Gentiles). At one time in Israel's history, this was important practice, as it kept Israel's divinely instituted religion safeguarded from incompatible errors found within pagan religions. But at the Nativity, we find both ox and donkey, "yoked" together (the word "religion" means to "bind back again" or "yoke" like a "ligament", as through a vow or covenant) in the same sacred space at the same feeding trough, gathered to adore their true Master and receive nourishment and strength from His gentle presence. Israel's role as a preparation for God's divine plan of salvation, to unite all, not just some, peoples to himself is manifested in a unique subtle way at the Lord's birth.
"The ass, (interpreted as the Gentiles) and the ox (interpreted as the Jews) are led by faith to eat the body of Christ." - Honorius Augustodunensis, (Speculum Ecclesiae, 818)
Here's a final thought on the matter from Pope Francis' On the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene #2 (2019):
Coming into this world, the Son of God was laid in the place where animals feed. Hay became the first bed of the One who would reveal himself as “the bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). Saint Augustine, with other Church Fathers, was impressed by this symbolism: “Laid in a manger, he became our food” (Sermon 189, 4). Indeed, the nativity scene evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and brings them close to our own daily lives.
Click to view the two minute video.
© Written by Joe Aboumoussa