Nativity scenes have always fascinated me. Even as a child, my mother had to protect the small baby Jesus in her nativity set from my chubby little hands. I was known to take Jesus from his manger and carry him about the house. I could sense that the baby was the star of the show. The angel above, his parents and visitors, and the animals all turned with adoration and awe towards the promised God Incarnate. My fascination continued into adulthood. I made it a practice to collect nativities from each country I visited and gift them to my mother. She has nativity sets from places like Tanzania, Argentina, and France. Every set has a unique cultural style of its own, yet all have almost the exact same pieces. If one of these famous pieces were missing, the Nativity narrative would not be the one we know today. Without Mary, where would be our Blessed Virgin? Without the star, who would guide the way? And without the animals, who would open their home to a baby king?
Nativities tell us a story. When we take them down from the attic and lift them from their boxes, we’re giving them a chance to breathe again. As we assemble their pieces in a familiar display, they begin to move. The figures show us life’s first meeting place. The heavens (the star and the angel) and the earth (humans and animals) convene and the kingdom of God is no longer distant. Even as a child, I knew the loving gaze of the ox and donkey was a living part of Christ’s birth story. The animals remind us of God’s creation, a “divine miracle…laid bare in each atom, each galaxy, each tree, bird, fish, dog, flower, star, rock, and human” (Rev. Matthew Fox).
The nativity animals are the teachers of our faith story. Nativities usually have sheep, which are noted throughout scripture (Christ the Lamb, Jesus our Shepard-to name a few). The camel symbolizes temperance and is a sign of royalty and dignity. John the Baptist was said to have dressed in a camel’s- hair garment (Matt. 3:4). The ox is a universally benevolent symbol of strength, patience, submissiveness, and steady toil. The donkey has largely been associated with humility and peace. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the humble donkey, not a horse. While a horse is used in war, you can’t go to battle riding a donkey.
Not everyone is so smitten by the friendly beasts. Surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVI attributes the presence of the animals to symbol or myth. Because there aren’t scriptural references to the animals in the Gospels, Benedict claims they weren’t present. He also admits no one would do away with the animals; even the Vatican’s nativity will continue to display them. So what if the animals are just a myth? Does that discount their significance? For many, the term “myth” is a sort of make-believe play. To others, “myth” reminds them of deliberate deceit. But for some, including myself, myth is not merely a story, but a force at work across time. The story of the hospitable and awestruck animals still informs us today.
Animals were not “added” to the Nativity in the 21st century! The very first live nativity in 1223, put on by Saint Francis of Assisi, featured the ox and donkey pair. Nativity icons, dating back to the 4th century, always included the ox and donkey surrounding the newborn Christ. Some of the earliest nativity images do not even include Mary and Joseph. Isaiah 1:3,“The ox knows his master, and the donkey his owner’s manger,” probably served as inspiration for the reliable appearance of the two. Traditional Middle Eastern Christianity says Jesus’ birth took place in the “stable room” of a home built into a cave. The tradition describes Mary as alone during the birth, but as she lay Jesus in the manger with fresh hay, we know the animals must have been close by. The animal “myth” has saturated the nativity narrative for thousands of years!
This Advent, I choose to include all of creation. From the smallest crab to the greatest sky, the entire universe participates in the birth of its creator. Joseph Campbell, perhaps the greatest teacher of myth in our time, says the first function of myth is to instill wonder, an opening of mystery. As we eagerly await the birth of our creator during this expectant season, may we also share in the wonder and mystery the hospitable beasts surely felt as they gazed upon the sleeping baby Christ. May we see the “I am” in each of God’s creatures, celebrating how commonplace and omnipresent divinity can be!
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. pp. 33-34.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. p. 38
Ferguson, George. Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. p.13
Fox, Matthew. The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance. p. 154
Sarcofago di Stilicone, 4th century, Milan.
Werness, Hope B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. p. 21, 308.
Meredith Griffin writes from her home in Galveston Island, Texas. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and two young children. She holds a Bachelors degree in English Literature and a Masters in Counseling from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.