By Father Dylan James.
For my Christmas homily this year I’d like to drawn your attention (c.f. Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narratives, p.69) to two of the figures in our nativity set, in the Christmas crib here. Because the statues in the traditional Christmas crib are not random, rather, they are full of great meaning –meaning that lets you and me see various things about what Christmas is all about.
The two statues I want to mention are probably the two figures you’d think, at first glance, are the least important. The ox and the ass, which for those of you who don’t know your farm animals, is basically a cow and a donkey.
These two figures are in every nativity set. But, let me note a curious detail: the Gospels them don’t mention them. The Gospel says that the baby Jesus was “laid in a manger” (Ml 2:7) because there was “no room in the inn” (Lk 2:7) and so He was born in a stable. But the Gospels don’t tell us which animals were in that stable. A manger would have been full of soft hay, for the animals to eat, and the Christian tradition has obviously imagined what sort of animals would have been there. And the choice of an ox and an ass is not random –it symbolises something.
On one level, the fact that ANY animals are pictured with the baby Jesus is deeply significant: it tells us what this child is all about. This child is the Lord God Almighty entering His creation. It is about the restoration and union of that damaged creation with its Creator. The baby Jesus started His human existence in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, but He existed before her, He existed before all His creation. Thus Scripture calls Him, the eternal Son, “the first-born of all creation”(Col 1:15).
We all experience the fact that we live in a broken and suffering world. Thus the importance of the promise of the Old Testament that a child would be born who would bring about the RESTORATION of His creation. The prophecy of Isaiah thus pictures a child leading harmony between the lion and the lamb, the wolf and the goat, with the child able to put His hand into the snake’s lair (Isa 11). Another prophecy pictures the Lord being recognised between two living creatures (Hab 3:2) while Isaiah himself refers to the “ox” and the “ass” knowing “it’s master’s crib”(Isa 1:3).
As Scripture says elsewhere, all creation is yearning for this revelation with groaning and “eager longing”(Rom 8:19). And so the statue of the ox and ass here in our crib set symbolise this.
But there is another symbolism too. A symbolism that relates to humanity. Because pious tradition has identified the ox and the ass as symbolising both the Jew and the Gentile coming to same one Lord God. It is not just one human race, or just one type of animal, that Jesus has been born for, but for ALL of us –for you and for me.
Let me offer one final piece of symbolism. St Augustine notes that the manger is what the ox and the ass EAT from, where they get their hay. The fact that the baby Jesus was laid in the manger is symbol of Him coming to be the new food, “the Bread of Life”(Jn 6:35) as He would later say of Himself.
He has come among us, He has been born as one of us, that He might feed us. All of humanity has a SPIRITUAL hunger, a longing for more than this world’s material order. Today many fill our stomachs with turkey, and our trees may have a multitude of worldly possessions under them as presents. But there is more to us that such things.
We are made for love. Made to love, and made to be loved. And to be loved in the most solid and dependable manner by the Creator God come among us. And He HAS come and been born and been laid in the manger.
What the ox and the ass in the manger set signify is the fulfilment of such a need. We long for the Creator to come and enter His creation, to teach us, to heal us, to feed us, to love us. The animals, the ox and ass, symbolises that all creation has come to recognise and be at peace with the Creator born as one of us. “Today a saviour has been born to us, Christ the Lord”(Lk 2:11).