Home > Uncategorized > The Ox, The Ass and the Passion of the Nativity

The Ox, The Ass and the Passion of the Nativity

Perhaps you know that Advent is a strongly eschatological season.  If not, I would encourage you to look at the Sunday lectionary and consider the readings.  But what about Christmas?  Are we all so happy about a newborn baby that we can simply forget all the cosmic travail we just heard about? 

Phew!  That John the Baptist guy is upsetting.  Glad we can leave him behind.

What were those Hebrew prophets talking about all through December?  That was confusing.  Oh well.  Look!  Jesus is so cute!

Not so fast.  If we look at examples of the Nativity from the visual arts, we can see that the general eschatological thrust of Advent becomes more focused, giving us a glimpse of Jesus’ passion already at the scene of this birth.   All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas.  This should not surprise us.  The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end.  In a nativity icon this is super concentrated.  Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements.  The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.

For a further example, I would draw our attention to the ox and the ass.  These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.  They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath.  Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.  (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)  Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as “king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal.  The red ox stands as a stark and basic  symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.  While the symbolism of the ass is quite rich, the ass is merely Jesus’ vehicle.  The ox is a figure of Jesus himself.  Consider the following example:

"Birth of Jesus" Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus"), an Ancient Roman christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century. It is preserved beneath the pulpit of Sant'Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy

In this very early nativity relief, the ox and the ass are present even when other figures, such are Mary, are absent.  Here’s why: the ox and the ass form a strong Christian typology based on the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:  “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” (Isaiah, 1:3).  While these two animals represent Jesus’ passion, their “recognition” of the messiah also shows that the natural world, created through the Word, knows Jesus from his very birth. 

(Aside:  Unfortunately, we can also see how this typology could have an anti-Semetic bent: even the ox and the ass recognize what “Israel does not know” and “has not understood.”  Let us note, at least, that such a reading would do violence to the Bible itself as Isaiah’s introductory lament sets the condition for Israel’s redemption, not condemnation.)

Based on this typology, the ox and the ass are the two earliest Nativity characters.  Before the 4th century, Epiphany images were dominant since the celebration of “Epiphany” was much more prominent than the celebration of the birth of Christ as we now know “Christmas”.  When nativity images begin to appear in early Christianity the scenes are simple.  Only a few figures are represented but the bare minimum are the child, the ox and the ass.  The appearance of Mary and Joseph (alway a conflicted figure) and the conflation of the adoration of angels and shepherds with the arrival of the magi occurs gradually over a couple of centuries.

Look at the child in the relief.  His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings.  In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi– upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers.  Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.

The following modern icon illustrates this nicely:

"Nativity" written by Peter Wilke

Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels.  In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box.  Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery?  Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two.  This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.

When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

"Nativity of the Lord" Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

(sorry for the long post!)
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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 17, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Breathtaking, Noel. Thank you.

  2. Megan
    December 18, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Noel, I really like this. Thanks for putting it together. Lately I’ve been particularly cranky about “the religious meaning of Christmas” being baby Jesus or Jesus’ birthday. You may have just saved the nativity for me.

  3. December 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    My first time on this site. Thank you so much!

  4. rachel
    February 9, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    hmm.. i understand it and loved it. but i must admit at first i had no idea what you were talikng about. maybe you should lighting up on the first part so that you dont lose your readers so soon.because it is beautiful knowledge.

    • Noel Terranova
      February 11, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, I’m glad you worked through the parts that weren’t so helpful and found some useful ideas.

  1. December 17, 2010 at 8:49 pm

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