As a young boy, one of my favorite traditions was to help my grandmother set out her porcelain Nativity set on top of her mammoth tv credenza. I especially liked to play with the animals. There was a small lamb, a little cow (ox) and an observant donkey (ass). I’ve never paid much attention to why those particular animals are ubiquitous in every nativity scene.
Re-reading the Gospel stories, no animals are mentioned (but the presence of a feeding trough, the manger of our last reflection, makes it a near certainty animals were nearby). The presence of a lamb is a no-brainer, I suppose. Bethlehem was known for its shepherds. The Holy Family is very likely taking shelter in one of the shepherd’s caves that dot the hillsides of Bethlehem even today. It is also a foreshadowing of Jesus’s sacrificial offering as the Lamb of God. But why the ox and ass?
Over the last year and a half, my head and heart has been deep in the Old Testament prophets as part of our new study. While re-reading the Prophet Isaiah (which many early Christians called the Fifth Gospel), my attention was drawn to Isaiah 1:3. One of the images Isaiah uses to show the people’s utter ignorance of God is this, “The ox knows it’s owner and the ass its master’s crib, but Israel does not know me, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3). Early Christian commentators linked this verse to the Nativity.
A writing from the early 600s, sometimes called The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, says that after the birth, “the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” It continues its reflection on this event by connecting it to another Old Testament prophet, “The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having 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” (Hab. 3:2).
If you look in your English bibles you won’t find that animal language, but it is found among the Greek manuscripts (LXX) of Habakkuk. The two animals were interpreted by the Church Fathers to be the ox and the ass of Isaiah 1:3 and/or the two criminals that flanked Jesus at the Crucifixion. All that to say, it’s no accident an ox and ass are in most Nativity sets. Now, to me, this is all fascinating Bible fun facts, but how may it speak directly into our lives during these upcoming seasons of Advent and Christmas?
Let me propose two simple ways:
“The ox and the ass…incessantly adored Him”
In all the busyness of this time, one of the most beautiful gifts we can offer Jesus is a time of dedicated adoration before the Blessed Sacrament or in your private devotions. Use this time to reflect specifically on how all of Creation is called to worship the Lord, signified by the Nativity animals. Prayerfully read Psalm 19, 97-98, 148, the Song of the Hebrew boys in the fire (Daniel 3), Rev. 5:13 or St. Francis’s Canticle of Creation during your adoration time.
“Israel does not know me, my people do not understand”
The great irony of Isaiah is non-rational animals (the ox and the ass) know their Creator (a term of personal intimacy) and understand who He is, namely their God and Creator but his own people do not. Ask the Lord for the grace to know Him better through these seasons and recognize and discern him more clearly in the ordinary circumstances, conversations and events you will experience. Echo the cry of the blind men in the Gospels “Lord, let our eyes be opened!” (Mt. 20:33).
Photograph via Wikimedia Commons