24 December 2016

Homily - 25 December 2016 - The Nativity of the Lord - Do you know what the ox and ass know?

The Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We come today heeding the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing,” of course, is what the choir of angels announced to them as they watched their sheep, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and the Son of Mary.

Centuries later, but many centuries before us, Saint Jerome made the cry of the shepherds his own and moved to Bethlehem to be near the place where the Lord Jesus was born. Being so near the place where Mary placed the Christ Child, Saint Jerome once cried out in frustration, “Oh, if only I could see that manger in which the Lord was laid!”[1] Jerome was a very good grumbler, though a holy one, and went on to explain his frustration, complaining:

As a tribute of honor, we Christians have now removed the mud-baked [reliquary] and replaced it with a silver one; but the one that has been removed is more precious to me! Silver and gold are appropriate for the pagan world.[2]

This tendency to improve upon the circumstances of the Lord’s Birth, to make them more appealing to our own standards, remains with us today as we sentimentalize Christmas. Even now, pilgrims who visit the relic of the manger housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome know something of what Jerome complained as they attempt to peer through the sparkle and glitz of the silver and gold of the reliquary to look upon the humble wood of the manger itself.

Centuries after Saint Jerome, and yet still centuries before us, Saint Francis of Assisi also desired to heed the cry of the shepherds and see the place where the Lord Jesus was born and the manger in which Mary placed him. Moreover, he wanted to help others do the same. This is why in 1223 he asked Pope Honorius III for permission “to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.”[3]

Nearly eight centuries later, we still erect Nativities in our homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might also say with the shepherds, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem” and see the manger in which the Lord Jesus was laid. Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds beheld that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

It is curious to note that Saint Francis requested two particular additions to our Nativity displays that neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark mention in their accounts of Jesus’ Birth, two additions without which our Nativities would seem incomplete. These, of course, are the ox and the ass.

A few days ago, I asked our Kindergartners what they could tell me about Christmas. As might be expected, they were quick to mention the presence of the animals. When I asked why the animals were there, one of them told me they brought gifts for Baby Jesus, a detail I must surely have known at one point and have since, sadly, forgotten. She told me the sheep kept the Holy Infant warm, the cows gave him milk, and the donkey brought him to Bethlehem. Perhaps this is why Charles Dickens once said it “is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when the mighty Founder was a child himself.”[4] Even so, this is not quite what Saint Francis had in mind. Why, then, did the little poor man of Assisi want the ox and the ass included?

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While Saint Francis is the first person to portray the Nativity without painting or carving, he is not the first to include the ox and the ass in depictions of the Birth of Jesus. Many illuminations from the medieval manuscripts portray the ox and the ass closer to the manger than Saint Joseph, and sometimes even closer than the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ox and the ass tend to gaze upon the Christ Child with looks of warm affection and a sublime wisdom. These artists knew that many centuries before Saint Francis, Saint Jerome, and well before the Birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold, “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

If we study the expression of the ox who looks upon his owner, what do we find he knows? The ox knows, firstly, that he gazes upon a great mystery, “an infinitely greater thing than anything” J.R.R. Tolkien said he “would dare to write.”[5] The ox knows that when he looks upon that Child, he looks upon the invisible God made unexpectedly visible. Of all of the Lord’s wonders, this is the most incomprehensible of all, that the omnipotent God would take unto himself a human face, that the Creator of all things would lower himself to become one of his creatures. The ox knows that he gazes upon “the firstborn of all creation,” “whom angels fall down before” (Colossians 1:15).[6]

The ox knew, secondly, that this invisible God made suddenly visible looks out upon his creation with his human face, with eyes full of compassion, knowledge, power, and tenderness. He looks upon all he has made and calls out to men and women with a word of love and of command. “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you” (John15:14). “Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “Be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “These things I have spoken to you,” he says, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

The ox knew, thirdly, that this Divine Child, who takes the risk of our refusing to love him, came to lead us out of our self-absorption and show us how to love fully and authentically. One manuscript depicts this in a striking manner. It shows the Child Jesus flying down from heaven already carrying his Cross. Truly, he has come this day “not to be served, but to serve,” to love us to the end (Matthew 20:28; cf. John 13:1). He calls us to set aside our own self-interest and imitate his selflessness.

All this we see in the ox’s face, but what do we find in the expression of the ass? We sing each year in that beloved carol by an unknown author, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” The ass knew that the crib of his master is the ass’ own manger. Yes, the crib of the Holy Child is nothing more than a feeding trough for the animals, but in this is contained a great mystery. This Child grew and called himself “the bread of life” and told us quite emphatically, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:35, 53). The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, a village whose name means “the house of bread” and was placed in a manger, not as food for the animals, but as food for those he came to save, as food for you and me.

The ox and the ass bellow and bray to us today, beckoning us to approach their manger so we might look upon the face of the invisible God made visible and know what they know. They call us to pause in silence and consider their questions: “Do you know your Master and his crib? Do you understand and know his mercy and love? Will you eat of him and be nourished by him to love as he loves?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love God displays in his Incarnation, to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”[7]

This Christmas, let us resolve to know the heart of our Master, to allow ourselves to be touched by and understand his love, to imitate his selflessness and allow it to work through us in all we say and do. If we open ourselves in this way to love and to be loved by this Child, then our lives will proclaim peace and good will to all we meet, bringing joy and gladness wherever we go. If we welcome the Birth of the Lord Jesus in this way, then we will have a very merry and blessed Christmas indeed. Amen!

[1] Saint Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord, 31. In Advent and Christmas with the Church Fathers. Marco Pappalardo, ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), 52.
[2] Ibid.
[3] In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
[4] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 3. In Stories for Christmas by Charles Dickens (New York: Platinum Press, Inc., 2003), 69.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Michael Straight, 1956. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 237.
[6] Christina Georgina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.

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