“The Nativity”, Lorenzo Monaco; 1409
First published December 27th, 2006
Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? —What Child Is This?, Christmas Carol
NO retinue of guards. No legion of angels. Not even the welcome mat of the High Priests. God, incarnate in the flesh, is greeted into the world by an ox and ass.
While the early Fathers interpreted these two creatures as symbolic of the Jews and pagans, and thus all of humanity, a further interpretation came to mind at Midnight Mass.
DUMB AS AN OX
It brings us pain. It leaves an emptiness. It induces a troubled conscience. And yet, we still return to it: the same old sin. Yes, sometimes we are as “dumb as an ox” when it comes to falling into the same traps over and over. We repent, but then fail to take the necessary steps to keep ourselves from falling again. We do not avoid the near occasion of sin, and so continually fall back into sin. Truly, we must confound the angels!
This is no more evident than in the collective sense. As we continue to discard from our nations God and the moral laws He has established, we see our population dwindling (in a “culture of death”), violence increasing, suicide increasing, greed and corruption rising, and global tensions heightening. But we don’t make the connection. We are as dumb as an ox.
Neither do we in this “intellectual” and “enlightened” era examine from a historical standpoint how Christianity has transformed civilization, from the times of the Roman Empire to this very day. It is a simple fact. But we soon forget—or most often—choose not to see. Dumb. Just plain dumb.
However, this ox is welcome in the stable of the Lord. Jesus didn’t come for the well, He came for the sick.
STUBBORN AS AN ASS
That donkey represents those of us who are “stubborn as an ass.” That hanging onto of old failures that we refuse to let go of, beating ourselves on the head with a tired old two-by-four.
Today, Jesus says,
Let go. I have already forgiven you for that sin. Trust in my Mercy. I love you. This is the purpose of my coming: to take your sins away forever. Why do you bring them back to the stable?
It is also that stubbornness to let God love us. I recall the words of a friend who once said to me, “Let God love you.” Yes, we run about doing this deed or that, but never let God do a deed for us. And the deed He wishes to do is to love us right now, as we are. “But I am unworthy. I am a disappointment. I am sinful,” we reply.
And Jesus says,
Yes, you are unworthy, and you are sinful. But you are not a disappointment! Are you disappointed when you see a baby learning to walk, but then falling down? Or when you see a newborn who cannot feed himself? Or a little one who cries in the dark? You are that child. You expect more than I expect! For only I can teach you to walk. I will feed you. I will comfort you in the dark. I will make you worthy. But you must let me love you!
The worst stubbornness is the unwillingness to see ourselves in the Divine light of truth that reveals sin in order to liberate; to recognize our poverty in spirit, our need for a Savior. Just about everyone has a share in this kind of stubbornness which goes by another name: Pride. But these hearts too, Christ welcomes to His stable.
No, it was not a free and soaring eagle nor a powerful and mighty lion, but an ox and ass whom God admitted to the stable of His birth.
Aye, there is hope for me yet.
God became man. He came to dwell among us. God is not distant: he is ‘Emmanuel,’ God-with-us. He is no stranger: he has a face, the face of Jesus. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Christmas message “Urbi et Orbi“, December 25th, 2010