I was trying to work out why the media seem to have focussed on the Pope’s thoughts about the appropriateness of the ox and the ass in the nativity scene. It really is something of a non-story, although when I was interviewed about this earlier today, the presenter seemed to believe that the Holy Father had broken controversial new ground, by ‘re-dating’ the birth of Christ and claiming that by highlighting the lack of cattle in the manger, the Holy Father is trying to remind us that the nativity story is simply a myth, not to be taken literally.
I’m not sure how well I managed to get my points across (unfortunately one of the children had a meltdown towards the end of the phone interview) but one of the things that I did point out was that though Joseph Ratzinger is an acclaimed theologian and biblical scholar, whilst his book does not undermine anything in the Magisterium, neither is it infallible doctrine, it’s a book written under his own name and Catholics are free to disagree. There’s no need to consign the donkey figurines to the knackers yard just yet. The Pope may think that they have no place but as he said, he can’t see that changing any time soon. There were no accounts of cats or peacocks in the Gospels, but they often feature in nativity scenes, the peacock symbolising immortality and there is a legend about a cat giving birth to a litter of kittens in the stable. In some parts of the world you might also find a St Francis figure anachronistically kneeling at the crib, Mary’s midwife or representations of local townspeople and tradesmen, although I think the lobster in the film Love Actually, might be stretching things too far.
We know that there are no mentions of cattle in either Luke or Matthew’s account of the Nativity stories. This won’t come as news to anyone who is au fait with their Bible and neither will the Pope’s clarification that the dating of Christ’s birth is out by a few years, I remember being taught the controversy over twenty years ago in school.
It is thought that the tradition of Nativity scenes were introduced by St Francis of Assisi. The basic elements comprise Mary (on Christ’s right), St Joseph (on Christ’s left), at least one shepherd, at least one angel, the three magi (who make their way to the crib in time for Epiphany), a lamb to symbolise not only the shepherd’s gift but also the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the ubiquitous ox and ass. The reason for the presence of the cattle is in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy,Isaias 1:3
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.
The donkey also prefigures the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is a rather endearing tradition that a cross was marked on the donkey’s back as a reward for using its breath to warm the infant Christ in order to mark out its offspring precisely so Jesus would recognise it for his entry into Jerusalem. I remember searching for this mark every time I encountered a donkey as a child, just in case!
What stands out for me, from the limited extracts that I have read, is what Pope Benedict is emphasising with his interpretation of the infancy narratives. Rather than suggesting that the nativity is a fable, he is grounding Christianity firmly in historical fact by going back to the primary written sources. That there may have been no donkey in the inn is something of a minor detail, our Pope is an incredibly thoughtful and precise man, his reflections are typically very careful. I would suggest he was focusing on the way in which the Gospels were written and what they can tell us. Benedict argues that the Evangelists set out to write real history, that had actually happened and he seeks to contextualise this.
The media have focused in upon the donkey detail for a number of reasons; firstly it makes a sensational story and is an easy way to get in a dig at the Pope and casts him in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Secondly, in a post-Christian era that subverts the message of Christmas in a grotesque orgy of consumerism and self-indulgence, casting doubt upon the nativity justifies the distortion. The Nativity isn’t real anyway, look even the Pope says so. Thirdly and probably the most overriding reason is that journalists are not theologically literate enough to pick out the compelling points from the Vatican’s press release, so go for the easy story.
More compelling than the lack of cattle, or that the angels may have spoken rather than singing, is what the Holy Father confirms for us, such as the Star of Bethleham was an actual celestial event. One of the things that struck me was the comparison of Pax Christi to Pax Augusti and the discussion of the political realm. These words seem especially prescient in the light of the vociferous opposition and vilification of those who defend life and marriage.
The political realm has “its own sphere of competence and responsibility;” it oversteps those bounds when it “claims divine status and divine attributes” and makes promises it cannot deliver.
The other extreme comes with forms of religious persecution when rulers “tolerate no other kingdom but their own,”
Any sign God announces “is given not for a specific political situation, but concerns the whole history of humanity.
It would be marvellous if the negative publicity whetted appetites and aroused public curiosity to make the book hit the best seller lists, so that people could experience precisely what the Pope has to say for themselves. Perhaps the headlines should have emphasised that it’s an uncharacteristically short tome, only numbering 132 pages.
There should be controversy around the book, it reaffirms the cornerstones of Christianity, namely the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. As Pope Benedict says, Jesus’ life was full of contradiction, paradox and mystery and remains a contradiction today.
Benedict describes Christ’s life as a scandal against the spirit of the modern age; God does not restrict himself to the ethereal or spiritual but demonstrates his power in the material world. The true scandal is not the omission of the Ox and the Ass, but that God humbled himself in order to redeem mankind. That’s what the headlines should have been screaming.