Page 6 - Michael Journal March 2020
P. 6

Why There Is an Ox and Ass in the Nativity Scene

            When creating the first living crèche in Greccio in   they  now  recognize  the  voice  of  their  Master,  the
        1223, Saint Francis of Assisi added an ox and ass al-  voice of their Lord.
        though the presence of these creatures was not men-      When we place the ox and ass beside the crib,
        tioned in the Gospels. Pope Benedict XVI explained in   we  must  remember  the  whole  passage  in  Isaiah,
        his third book on the life of Christ, “Jesus of Nazareth:   which is not only good news — in the sense of the
        The Infancy Narratives,” released in 2012, that the ox   promise of a future knowledge - but also a judgment
        and ass appear in other parts of the Bible (Isaiah 1:3).   pronounced on contemporary blindness. The ox and
        These references could have been the inspiration for   ass have knowledge, “but Israel does not know, my
        Christians to use them in representations of the birth   people [do] not understand.”
        of Jesus and that today “no representation of the
        manger is complete without the ox and donkey.” In        Who  is  the  ox  and  ass  today,  and  who  is  “my
        the book “The Blessing of Christmas”, published by   people”  without  understanding?  How  can  we  rec-
        Ignatius Press, and written before he became pope,   ognize  the  ox  and  the  ass?  How  can  we  recognize
        Cardinal Ratzinger elaborated on the topic:          “my people”? And why does the lack of reason rec-
                                                                                ognize, while reason is blind? In
            Francis directed that an ox                                         order to discover the answer, we
        and an ass should be present in                                         must return with the Fathers of
        the cave of Greccio on Christmas                                        the Church to the first Christmas.
        night. He had told the nobleman                                         Who recognized him? And who
        John:  “I  wish  in  full  reality  to                                  failed to recognize him? And
        awaken the remembrance of the                                           why was this so?
        child as he was born in Bethle-                                             The one who failed to recog-
        hem and of all the hardship he                                          nize him was Herod, who did not
        had to endure in his childhood. I                                       even understand when they told
        wish to see with my bodily eyes                                         him about the child: instead, he
        what it meant to lie in a manger                                        was blinded all the more deeply
        and sleep on hay, between an ox                                         by his lust for power and the ac-
        and an ass.”                                                            companying paranoia (Mt 2:3).
            From then on, the ox and
        ass have had their place in every                                           Those  who  failed  to  recog-
        crib scene — but where do they                                          nize  him  were  “all  Jerusalem
        actually  come  from?  It  is  well                                     with  him”  (ibid.).  Those  who
        known  that  the  Christmas  nar-                                       failed to recognize him were the
        ratives  of  the  New  Testament                                        “people in soft garments” - those
        do not mention them. When we                                            with  a  high  social  position  (Mt
        investigate  this  question,  we                                        11: 8).
        discover an important factor in                                             Those  who  failed  to  recog-
        all the customs associated with                                         nize him were the learned mas-
        Christmas and, indeed, in all the        Saint Francis of Assisi        ters  who  were  experts  in  the
        Christmas and Easter piety of the       and the first living crèche     Bible,  the  specialists  in  biblical
        Church in both liturgy and popu-                                        interpretation  who  admittedly
        lar customs.                                         knew the correct passage in Scripture but still failed
            The ox and ass are not simply products of the    to understand anything (Mt 2:6).
        pious imagination: the Church’s faith in the unity of    Those who recognized him were the “ox and the
        the Old and New Testaments has given them their      ass” (in comparison to these men of prestige): the
        role as an accompaniment of the Christmas event.     shepherds, the Magi, Mary and Joseph. But could
        We read in Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the   things have been otherwise?
        ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my      In this night, then, the faces of the ox and the ass
        people [do] not understand” (1:3).                   look at us with a question: My people do not under-
             The Fathers of the Church saw in these words    stand, but do you perceive the voice of your Lord?
        a prophecy that pointed ahead to the new people of   When we place the familiar figures in the crib scene,
        God, the Church consisting of both Jews and Gen-     we ought to ask God to give our hearts the simplicity
        tiles. Before God, all men, Jews and Gentiles, were   that discovers the Lord in the child - just as Francis
        like the ox and ass, without reason or knowledge. But   once did in Greccio. v
        the child in the crib has opened their eyes so that                                  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

        8      MICHAEL  January/February 2020                                 
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