One of the great delights that many people like myself have at Christmastide is using our knowledge of history and the Bible to ruin everyone’s fun. So my biblical studies friends will post a yearly thing about what exactly we can really say about the events of Luke’s Gospel based either solely on the text or with supporting knowledge from ancient history and archaeology.
All those things like numbering your wise men or even that the manger in question was in a stable — that’s all silly fluff, added by ahistorical medieval people who had no appreciation for a dry discussion of the social history of first-century Judaea.
I’m at a point where, while I enjoyed these things for a while, I’m not so into it anymore.
Take the beasts in the title of this post: ox and ass. One year during his run as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the midst of other matters of interest, mentioned that the beasts alongside the manger are really just legendary. No such mention comes in the Bible. And, indeed, they are an extrapolation by poor, ignorant late antique and medieval Christians who (logically enough) assume that, since mangers are usually found in stables, Jesus was born in a stable.
Not that Lord Williams of Oystermouth put it that way, thankfully.
Anyway, that ox and ass we all have with our Nativity sets, that are in Christmas pageants since the days of St Francis, that appear in Christmas carols (such as ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’) have been around for a while. I’m sure someone out there knows better than I do, but the earliest I’ve met them is carved into a fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Museo nazionale romano at Palazzo Massimo:
Now, even if the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is not on the site of Jesus’ birth, even if Jesus was not born in a stable or if the Greek word doesn’t mean in, I think there is a fittingness to the ox and ass. And the more I learn about late antique and mediaeval Christianity, the more their world intersects mine, the more I read of their texts, the more I like this ox and ass.
The ox and ass are not just a potentially mistaken (but possibly true) historical detail.
I think they are theological.
The line from ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ gets it:
Ox and ass before Him bow, for He is in the manger now
You see, when we’re not being pendantic about the historical details in the Bible, today we (especially the heirs of the Reformation) tend to collapse the entire significance of Jesus into his salvific substitutionary sacrifice on Calvary — even when we look upon the little town of Bethlehem.
But there is something powerful and dramatic and startling about Christmas. God demonstrates to us that he is not aloof. He is not a Platonic untouchable unmoved mover. He is not so transcendent that we will never encounter him. His holiness is not so delicate that he cannot mingle with us.
Fulfilling Isaiah 64:1, God has rent the heavens and come down amongst men. And, wonder of wonders, he has arrived not as the White Rider of Revelation, not as the suffering servant of Isaiah 54 (and the later chapters of the Gospels), but as a helpless, tiny infant. He who created Mary (reminds St Ephrem the Syrian) is fed by Mary’s milk.
God is Jesus.
God is the ruler of all creation. His coming to Earth as a human, the creator taking on the form of a creature, has cosmic implications. All of creation groans in expectation of the salvation being wrought through the power of the Incarnation. God has become a baby. The ox and ass in the pictures, the Nativity sets, the church plays, and the hymn — they represent creation. We all too often forget that we are part of the same creation as the beasts. But God is king of the beasts.
And so the beasts bow before him, lying in a manger.