THE ox and the ass are familiar figures in the crib set accompanying the infant Jesus, but what exactly was the “stable” where Jesus was born, and who were his companions there?
MATTHEW says nothing about where Jesus was born, apart from naming Bethlehem. Luke, however, is much more specific. It is Luke who specifies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during a census, which, according to him, required all the descendants of David to return to the town.
When the baby was born, Luke writes, his mother “wrapped him in swaddling clothes”, and “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn” (Luke 2.7). The use of the manger is repeated no less than three times — in the original description, again in the message of the angel, and again when the shepherds actually arrive. We are told that this is where the shepherds found the infant: lying in a manger.
This has been understood to mean that Jesus was born in a stable, although no further details are added, and there is no mention of the presence of any animals.
THERE has been great discussion by theologians about what the presence of the manger might imply. Traditionally, this has been received by the Church as Jesus being born in a stable, and artists down through the centuries have been happy to illustrate exactly that. However, recent analysis of the text has reflected on the words used.
The word for “inn” in the original Greek text means something more like a “guest room” than a “hotel”. It is the same word as is used for the “upper room” in which Jesus held the Last Supper. If this was the case, then it reflects the design of many smaller houses in Palestine in New Testament times, where the household animals were brought in at winter to the downstairs area, while the family lived upstairs — with the heat of the animals downstairs providing, I suppose, an early form of central heating!
In these circumstances, Joseph and Mary should be seen as seeking out their relatives in Bethlehem, but because there were so many guests, there was no room for them in “the family room”, and they had to move into the downstairs room, usually reserved for animals, complete with “manger”.
This might actually fit with tradition, in which — as we have discovered — it is actually a cave that is identified as the birthplace of Jesus. It is entirely possible that the cave served as a sort of cellar for the family home on top of it, and was normally reserved for the use of animals.
SO, WHERE do the ox and the ass come from? As the ancient Christian theologians read their Bibles, they were keen to cross-reference the work of God. The entire Old Testament was seen as preparing for the divine revelation of God’s love in Christ. The story of Jesus’s life could therefore be predicted in enormous detail by reference to Old Testament prophecy.
As scholars combed the scriptures, two in particular stood out. In the book of the prophet Habakkuk, there is an obscure verse, the Hebrew of which is unclear. It is usually translated as: “Through all generations you have made yourself known” (Habakkuk 3.2).
Greek was the language of the Early Church, however, and a Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (after the seventy translators who worked on it), was the text most commonly referred to. There, the verse (in English translation) reads something like: “In the middle of two living creatures you shall be known.” The living creatures are even more obscure, but then there is the verse in Isaiah (1.3) which reads: “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s stall; but Israel lacks all knowledge, my people has no discernment.”
For the theologians of ancient times, this was game, set, and match. Clearly, when Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger, and was recognised as master by an ox and an ass, two living creatures, between whom he was laid.
Very quickly icons of the nativity took up the theme, the ox and the ass becoming ubiquitous in the Orthodox tradition, where the image was theologised even more: the ox (a clean animal in Leviticus) clearly represented the Jewish people, and the ass (an unclean animal) the nations not chosen by God, and yet Jesus came as Saviour to both.
This is just a taste of a way of reading scripture which was once quite common, but quite different from the literal and plain reading preferred today. This tradition passed into Western painting. I have reproduced my version of the ox and the ass from a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio of the nativity scene, in which the ox and the ass are depicted as waiting for the infant Christ to be placed by his mother into the crib.
FOR animal-lovers, all the theology may be swept aside. It is just fitting that the animals were the first to be on hand to greet the Saviour of the world.
Yet there is a serious theological point here. Even if we do not read the scriptures in a symbolic way, the presence of the ox and the ass is a reminder of the physicality of the birth of Jesus, and the universal dimensions of his incarnation.
Jesus comes to us as Lord of all creation, and as “even the winds and waves obey him,” so also the animal world is part of God’s good creation, and caught up in the pattern of redemption. “The created universe is waiting with eager expectation,” wrote St Paul (Romans 8.19). Although there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that there will be animals — or pets — in heaven, a holistic view of God’s work means that animals and the natural world are sacred also.
Let us pause and think of the beauty of all creation, of the way in which God speaks to us through seasons and weather, through plant and animal life.
Creator God, you are the Lord of all creation. Give us a healthy respect for all that your hand has made, and teach us to be good stewards of all the earth. Amen.
The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.
This is an edited extract from his An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the characters of Christmas, published by Canterbury Press at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99).