The Ox and Donkey’s Christmas

This reflection on St. Francis and the origins of the Christmas celebration by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was published the year he became Pope Benedict XVI, in the book Immagini di Speranza (Images of Hope):

In his first biography of St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), Tomasso da Celano (1200-c.1260) writes about the night of that first Christmas crèche in a manner that remains touching to any reader and which contributed decisively to the dissemination of the most beautiful of Christmas traditions, the crèche, or Nativity scene.

We can therefore rightly say that the night in Greccio gave back to Christianity the feast of Christmas, so that its authentic message, its particular warmth and humanity, the humanity of our God, could communicate itself to the souls of men and give our faith a new dimension. The feast of the Resurrection had focused our attention on the power of God who triumphed over death and teaches us to hope in the life to come. But what was now highlighted was the defenseless love of God, his humility and his goodness, which are manifested in this world in our midst to teach us a new way to live and to love.

It may be useful to pause a little at this point to ask: Where is this Greccio, which has assumed such significance for the story of the faith? It is a small town in Umbria, not far from Rome, to the northeast. Lakes and mountains have given the town its particular fascination and silent beauty, which succeeds in moving us even today, especially since it has hardly been touched by the confusion attendant to mass tourism.

The convent of Greccio, some 2,000 feet above sea level, has retained much of its original simplicity; it has remained modest, like the little town at the foot of its mountain. The forest surrounds it as in Francis’s time and invites us to pause and reflect. Celano recalls that Francis had a particular liking for the residents of the area because of their poverty and simplicity. That is why he went there often to rest, drawn by the idea of living in an extremely poor and simple cell, where he could dedicate himself undisturbed to the contemplation of celestial things.

Poverty, simplicity, silence and speaking to nature: These were surely the attractions that linked the Saint of Assisi to this place.

It became his Bethlehem and would inscribe the mystery of Bethlehem once again in the geography of our soul. But let us go back to the Christmas of 1223. Some land in Greccio had been placed at Francis’s disposition by a nobleman named Giovanni who, according to Celano, although he had noble lineage and high position, “gave no importance to nobility by blood but rather sought to gain nobility of the spirit,” such that he earned Francis’s affection. Celano writes that Giovanni had the grace of a marvelous vision, in which he saw a baby asleep in a manger, which awoke when Francis came near.

He adds: “This vision, in fact, coincided with what was really happening, because until then, the baby Jesus had effectively fallen into the sleep of oblivion in many hearts. Through his servant Francis, remembrance of him has been revived and impressed indelibly in memory.”

This picture describes with precision the new dimension that, through his vivid and passionate faith, Francis conferred on the Christian feast of Christmas: the discovery of God’s revelation embodied in the Baby Jesus.

In this way, God has really become Emmanuel, God with us, from whom no barrier of superiority or distance separates us: As a baby, he made himself so close to us that we can easily address him familiarly and reach his heart directly. In the Baby Jesus we see the defenselessness of God’s love: God comes to us unarmed, because he does not intend to conquer externally, but rather to win us over and transform us internally.

If anything is capable of winning over man, his despotism, his violence and his greed, it is the helplessness of a baby. God took on that defenselessness in order to win us over and lead us to our true selves. In this respect, let us not forget that the greatest title of Jesus Christ is that of “Son,” Son of God: His divinity is indicated by this term, which presents Jesus as a perennial baby. His condition as a child corresponds uniquely to his divinity, which is the divinity of the “Son.” Therefore, it is an indication of the way that we can reach God, the way to divinization.

It is in this light that we should understand his words: “Unless you repent and become as children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18: 3). Whoever has not understood the mystery of Christmas has not understood the decisive fact of Christianity. Whoever has not accepted it cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. It is of this that Francis wished to remind Christianity in his time and in all the times that followed. Following Francis’s instructions, on that Holy Night of 1223, an ox and a donkey were placed in the cave in Greccio.

In fact, he told Giovanni: “I would like to present the Baby born in Bethlehem, so that in some way, I will see with my own eyes the discomfort which he experienced, not having all the things necessary for a newborn baby, and how he was placed in a manger and lay on the hay between the ox and the donkey.”

From then on, the ox and the donkey have become part of all Nativity scenes.

But how did the idea itself originate? As we know, the Nativity accounts in the New Testament do not say a word about them. If we look deeper into the question, then we will discover something important both for Christmas tradition as well as for the liturgical and popular spirituality of Christmas and Easter for the Church.

The ox and the donkey are not simply products of popular piety and fantasy, but they have become ingredients of the Nativity because of the Church belief in the unity of the Old and New Testaments.

In Isaiah 1:3, we read: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey, his master’s manger; but Israel does not know, and my people do not understand.”

The Fathers of the Church saw in these words a prophecy which refers to the new people of God, the Church made of Jews and pagans. Before God, all men, Jews as well as pagans, were like oxen and donkeys, without intelligence and knowledge. But the baby in the manger opened their eyes, so that now they recognize the voice of the owner, the voice of their Lord. In the medieval representations of Christmas, we see that the two animals are given almost human faces, how they incline consciously and respectfully before the mystery of the baby.

This was perfectly logical, because they had the value of being prophetic symbols behind which is concealed the mystery of the Church, our mystery, according to which, before the eternal, we are all oxen and donkeys, who had our eyes opened on that Holy Night, so that now we can recognize the manger of Our Lord.

But do we really recognize it? When we place the ox and the donkey in our Christmas crèche, we must remember the words of Isaiah, which are not only Gospel — therefore, the promise of future knowledge — but also a judgment on our current blindness. The ox and the donkey recognize, but “Israel does not know, and my people do not understand.”

Who are the ox and the donkey today, who are “my people” who do not understand? How do we recognize the ox and the donkey, and how do we recognize “my people”?

How is it that beings without reason recognize, while reason is blind? To find answers to these questions, we should return once more with the Fathers of the Church to that first Christmas. Who recognized? And who did not? And why did this happen?

Well, someone who did not recognize was Herod.

He understood nothing when he was told of the Baby. On the contrary, he was blinded even more by his thirst for power and his consequent mania for persecution (Matthew 2:3). And “along with him, all Jerusalem” did not recognize. Neither did the educated, the scholars of Scripture, the specialists of interpretation who knew the exact and correct biblical passage and still understood nothing (Matthew 2:6). Instead, those who recognized were “the ox and the donkey” — that is, in comparison to those exalted persons: the shepherds, the Magi, Mary and Joseph.

Could it have been otherwise?

The cave stall, where the Baby lay, was not inhabited by refined persons; it was, in fact, the home of the ox and the donkey. And what is our position? Are we very far from that stall precisely because we are too refined and intelligent? Have we not lost ourselves in scholarly biblical exegesis in an attempt to demonstrate the historical authenticity, or lack of it, of a certain passage, to the point of becoming blind to the Baby and not to see anything more of him? Don’t we perhaps live too much in “Jerusalem,” closed in on ourselves, in our self-sufficiency, our fear of persecution, such that we are no longer able to perceive in the night the voices of angels so that we may join them in adoring him?

On the Holy Night, the faces of the ox and the donkey remind us of the question: My people do not understand; do you understand the voice of your Lord? When we place the figurines in our Christmas crèche, we should pray to God to grant to our hearts that simplicity that recognizes the Lord in the Baby, as Francis once did in Greccio.

Then we may experience what Tommaso da Celano — almost with the same words Luke used about the shepherds on that first Christmas (Luke 2:20) — said about the participants of that midnight Mass in Greccio: And everyone went home, filled with joy.