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Out of the question

by
16 January 2015

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Your answers

What animals should be included in the nativity scene?

"The ox and ass and camel, which adore," became inextricably linked with the nativity scene, and without them it would be considered incomplete. Because there is no mention of the presence of animals at the manger in the biblical infancy narratives, it is unlikely that they figured in the crib that Pope Sixtus III constructed in the side chapel (ad Praesepe) at Santa Maria Maggiore in fifth-century Rome.

It was only from the eighth century onwards that an ox and donkey entered the scene. This was due to the pervasive influence of the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

In this, the anonymous Latin author brought animals to the manger, and quoted Old Testament testimonies fulfilled at Christ's birth: "Mary went out of the cave and entering a stable placed the child in the manger, and an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet [Isaiah 1.3], 'The ox knows its owner and the ass his master's crib.' Therefore the animals, the ox and ass, incessantly adore him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, 'Between two animals you are made manifest'" (Habakkuk 1.3, an old Latin translation of the Greek, but not Hebrew, text).

All this served as the model for St Francis, when, on Christmas Eve in 1223, at Greccio, he set up the crib as a tableau vivant, with these animals, and, no doubt, others, such as a lamb, commandeered for the occasion. In keeping with traditional iconography, camels will also be included when the Magi make their appearance at Epiphany. This popular scenario in mosaics and paintings of some of the great masters was inspired by pious imagination, to teach that Christ's birth brings a restoration of harmony throughout creation, in which the animal kingdom shares.

No less inspired is the proposed suggestion to extend the total picture by including other animals from around the world besides those of first-century Palestine. This is fully justifiable, and will not only add realism to the crib, but also make an important statement about Bethlehem: that the Christ-child's universal kingdom embraces, without exception, "all creatures great and small".

(Canon) Terry Palmer,  Magor, Monmouthshire 

Your questions

Where does the practice of using amber wine for communion come from, and why is it done? Do we not lose the symbolism of red wine?

F. S.

Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.

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