If it’s part of your family’s tradition to put figures of the Holy Family into the crèche scene during the Christmas season, it’s worth considering which figures belong there, according to the biblical accounts in Luke and Matthew, and which are “only” part of the tradition.
The former: Mary and Joseph, the infant Jesus, the shepherds, and the Magi — not necessarily three but there were three gifts.
The latter: the animals. The shepherds may very well have brought along some sheep and a sheep dog or even a lamb as a present for the family, and the Magi may have made their journey on camels or on horses, so including them is plausible. And, if Mary gave birth somewhere where animals were kept and fed from a manger, then it is plausible that common domestic animals such as an ox and an ass were there too. We often think of pregnant Mary riding on a donkey, as a matter of fact, all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and, for the flight to Egypt, a donkey would be welcome. But from the earliest days of Christian iconography the ox and ass are almost always there with the Holy Family, usually looking down at the baby Jesus lying in their manger on clean, fresh straw. You will not find any mention of them, however, in either gospel account or anywhere in the New Testament.
The prophet Isaiah, however, begins his vision with these words from the LORD:
Sons I have reared and brought up,
But they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
And the ass its master’s crib;
But Israel does not know, my people do not understand (Isaiah 1:2–3).
We may be tempted to say that the tradition got Isaiah all mixed up with the Gospel stories, but maybe our Christian ancestors were wise indeed to include them. The ox and the ass are put in the picture (and in the words of the carols ) to show us that even animals could comprehend in some way the wonderful miracle that was taking place in their presence. They know their master, one might say, “instinctively.”
Furthermore, the ox and the ass are often represented in early icons as having almost human faces. They also represent all the “other” people of the world, who eventually will hear the glad tidings of great joy.
Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, makes the point that houses in first-century Palestine often had a large downstairs living room that was divided at one end with a ledge, into which were placed mangers for the domestic animals that were brought into that part of the house at night to keep them safe from theft and to provide warmth for the whole house in cold weather. That may be what was meant by “no room in the inn.” Mary and Joseph had to bed down on the animal side of the room because the guest room was filled. But, be that as it may, the ox and the ass gladly shared their “space” and their manger with the Christ Child who came to redeem all of heaven and earth — not just people.
“O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord!”
The featured image was supplied by the author.