Ox and ass before him bow

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.

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Leave My Hymns Alone!

Sometime in the past decade or so, the Anglican Church of Canada decided to get a new hymn book; this item is called Common Praise.  In this new hymn book, a good number of the hymns have the little abbreviation next to the author’s name, “alt.”  So, you’ll see, “Charles Wesley, alt.”  This abbreviation means “altered.”  One usually imagines that “alt.” simply means, “We made human beings gender-neutral,” as though the ancient English word and suffix “man” only ever had one meaning, not two, and that one meaning was “male human being.”

We’re not going to argue about so-called “inclusive language”.  If that were all that hymn books such as Common Praise or Voices United did when the letters “alt.” appeared, I’d get over it eventually.  However, the hymn-book editors, having started to alter hymns in some ways to suit their tastes, have altered them in other ways, thus reducing the timelessness of many hymns and marring both their aesthetic beauty and theological truth.

One oddity is “Good Christians All, Rejoice!”  wherein the word ye has been removed.  Christmastide, as my wife was quick to point out, is one time when people are willing to be old fashioned.  Why get rid of a perfectly good word?  This removal forced them to mess around with the entire hymn, since every verse has ye in it.

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” was missing the third verse.  The loss of the third verse was very disturbing to me, for the original runs thus:

Those dear tokens of his Passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

It was on a cross our Saviour died.  By his scars we are healed.  There is no good reason why a Bible-believing theologically-orthodox Christian should shy away from these words.

They decided, as well, that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” an ancient Latin hymn by Prudentius, ought to be “Of Eternal Love Begotten.”  Not only is this avoiding the biblical and traditional Name of one Member of the Godhead, it is also not what Prudentius wrote.  Now we see that we are smarter not only than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but even those centuries that forged our very faith.

Common Praise seems to dislike the Godhead, in fact.  In “To God be the Glory,” they removed all the masculine pronouns and put in the word “God.”  Thus: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!  Let the earth hear God’s voice,” and so forth.  I understand the reasoning behind this move.  It is the same as that which caused the change in “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”:  God is beyond gender, beyond personality.  However, God is not less than a person.  Theologically speaking, God is three Persons, in fact.  If we are to speak about God, we should be able to use pronouns in reference to God.  Otherwise, I have a feeling God becomes less, not more, than a person.

I cannot help but think of C.S. Lewis in this moment:

A good many people nowadays say, ‘I believe in a God, but not in a personal God.’  They feel that the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person.  Now the Christians quite agree.  But the Christians are the only people who offer any idea of what a being that is beyond personality could be like.  All the other people, though they say that God is beyond personality, really think of Him as something impersonal: that is, as something less than personal.  If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas.  The Christian idea is the only one on the market. (Mere Christianity, near the beginning of “The Three-Personal God”)

I believe that the removal of pronouns in reference to God makes Him less, not more, than us.  The best compromise I have seen is Madeleine L’Engle’s use of El, but I find it unsatisfactory.  I will continue to use “He, Him, His,” about the Divine Being, knowing that God is not male, that the Triune God does not have a penis (well, not more than one, anyway)*, that He is not a man at all, for I am a man, and I am by no means near the same sort of being that God is.

In “Joyful, Joyful,” Common Praise has marred the beautiful line, “Thou our Father, Christ our Brother”, making it, “Thou our Father and our Mother.”  Now, theoretically, since God is beyond gender, and since God, being perfect, as our divine parent carries within Himself the best of both fathers and mothers and even more and even better than they, God is theoretically both Father and Mother to us.  However, this is not cause enough to change a line that is bringing two Persons of our three-personal God into play and forcing it to reflect a modern liberal sensibility about the divine and push out one of the Persons.  God the Son has been shoved out in favour of non-traditional language about God the Father.  “All who live in love are thine”, the following line, is about those who are the FatherMother God’s, not those who are the Father’s and Christ’s.

I do not believe that editorial boards should tamper with hymns in any way other than making references to the human race gender inclusive.  I don’t even think they should do that, but I know they will.  If they must tamper with hymns, they ought to leave the theological content of the hymns alone.

We find ourselves turning to C.S. Lewis again, and his Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  Here, Lewis tells us that we should read old books because they give us a point of view other than our own.  By reading only new books, we are trapped by the blinders of our own age.  By singing only new songs, we are similarly trapped.  By praying only new prayers, likewise.  By tampering with old hymns, by changing their theological content, by modifying their language of God, we are saying that we know better than 2000 years of Christian tradition; we are saying that our age is the only age that knows about God, and that we therefore have the right to change the words of our forebears.  We are depriving ourselves of wisdom that the hymn-writers have to offer us simply because their words do not fit with certain contemporary sensibilities.  We are turning aside from anything uncomfortable — yet isn’t God supposed to make us uncomfortable?

Thus, if you feel that we need to sing, “Thou our Father and our Mother,” and “Of Eternal Love Begotten,” do not tamper with someone else’s art, with someone else’s view of God, with a point of view that may have great wisdom behind it that we do not see.  Write a new hymn.

And if you cannot write a new hymn, wonder what on earth our culture has lost.

*Pretty sure Jesus has a penis.  I’m just sayin’.