By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Sunday 25 December, 2016
St Ninians & St Chads Church, Maylands
Because of its association with peace, goodness, giving and receiving, Christmas has become more important than Easter in the eyes of non-Christians. In his book, Images of Hope, Pope Benedict reflects on the Christmas manger scene and I would like to share his thoughts with you.
On 25 December 164 BC, Judas Maccabeus inaugurated the Jewish feast of the Dedication of the Temple, and as Jesus is the true Temple of God – God with us, the Church considered Dec 25 as the date of God’s arrival in the world.
It was in the 4th century AD that the pagan Roman festival of the unconquered sun god observed on December 25th, was replaced by the birth of the true Son of God, the Light of the World. But it was in the Middle Ages that Christmas really connected with Christians when St Francis of Assisi embraced the images of the child Jesus in the manger. Francis wanted to replicate in Italy this image of the vulnerable God who is ‘with us’.
A pious Umbrian nobleman named John had a dream of a motionless child sleeping in a manger who was awakened by the nearness of Francis of Assisi. In the Middle Ages, the Christian people had forgotten Jesus and God had commissioned Francis ministry to reinvigorate the Church. John gave Francis the land around Greccio in Umbria north east of Rome, and so he recreated the manger scene in a cave there.
Francis preached that Emmanuel, God with us, was in our midst and as available, accessible and approachable as a little baby. In the nativity scene, the defenceless God hasn’t come to conquer the world by external force, but to transform people from within. It is as a defenceless, trusting child that we must approach God if we are to be true disciples and inherit the Kingdom of God.
This is what Francis wanted to bring to the attention of the sleeping Christian Church both in his day and ever since. It was St Francis who made the ox and the ass part of the crib scene even though they are not mentioned in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Why would he do that? Jewish Law did not allow an ox and an ass to be yoked together. They walked in different ways, so could not work together. Jewish dietary law regarded the ox as a clean animal, but the ass was an unclean one, and clean and unclean must not be mixed.
So why did Francis put them in the stable together? The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand (Isaiah 1:3). The Early Church Fathers interpreted this text as pointing to a new people of God, namely the Church, in which the clean, the Jews, and the unclean, the Gentiles co-existed in harmony. The Fathers were making the point that the ox and the ass knew more than God’s people about who their Lord and Master is. So there they are in the manger, reminding us who it is in the crib. These animals are not only a sign of the good news, but are also a judgment on those who are blind to the truth of the Christmas story.
So who are the ox and the ass in the Church of today, and who aren’t?
Pope Benedict asks us to revisit the bible story of the first Christmas. Who didn’t recognise who Jesus really is? King Herod didn’t. He was an evil man intent on destroying any challenge to his own power. The modern day Herod’s are those who are intent on destroying Christians through bombing, massacre, vilification, ridicule and whatever legal weapons they can use. Scripture also tells us that ‘all Jerusalem were with him,’ and these were the upper echelons of religious and secular society namely the academics, the intelligentsia, the wealthy, the religious traditional and liberal fanatics, and those who had an opinion about everything, but knew little, understood less and believed in nothing but themselves.
The ones who did recognise the identity of the child were the human equivalents of the ox and the ass, namely Mary & Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men. Their modern equivalents are those who also recognise his identity and know that they need to deepen their relationship with God whether they live in the so-called post Christian West or in the rapidly growing Christian presence in Africa, Asia, especially China, and Latin America.
It is too easy to fall into the trap of not looking deeper into the biblical narratives. We can be caught up in arguing about the details of the Christmas story – was Jesus born in a stable or a house? Did it happen on December 25th? Which animals were there? Did Jesus never cry like the children’s carol tells us? Preoccupation with tearing apart the biblical account or treating it like a nice fairy story makes us blind to the identity of the child at the centre of the story, and we become dumber than the ox and the ass who at least know who their master is.
So focus on the child. Is he the one who is to come? Is he ‘God with us?’ Or do we think that the only saviour we need is ourselves?
Only one answer will fill you with joy.