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The Ox, The Ass and the Passion of the Nativity

December 17, 2010 6 comments
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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Manna is a Hermeneutic

February 21, 2010 15 comments

In the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, God gives manna to the Israelites who, upon seeing the frost-like substance covering the ground, ask “what is this?” (Ex. 16:15) This question, transliterated “man hu” becomes the name for this sustaining substance.  Its very name is the question that gives rise to hermeneutics; it is the question that hermeneutics asks.

Odo Marquard has a pithy essay titled “The Question, To What Question is Hermeneutics the Answer?” in Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies.  In this piece Marquard poses hermeneutics both as questioning and as the interpretive movement which attempts to answer questions. He offers several “questions” as the provocations of hermeneutics.  These include 1) finitude 2) derivativeness and 3) transitoriness.  Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship), adroitly illuminates these hermeneutical provocations.  For the sake of brevity, let me say that Marquard poses hermeneutics as the human attempt to deal with our contingency.

Manna has everything to do with contingency.  It emphasizes our finitude: the Israelites receive it from the graciousness of God’s divine plenitude in their situation of lack, need, and hunger.  It shows us our derivativeness: the Israelites might have liked to return to the fleshpots of their former masters where—ironically and retrospectively—they felt more in control of their lives than during their desert sojourn, but they had to interpret their existence as a nation based on what appeared within their horizon of experience.  It emphasizes our transitoriness: the Israelites could gather up the manna only for one day (except before the Sabbath day), any surplus kept to the following day would become rotten and wormy.  And such it the fate of interpretation: (meta)narratives that become so self-satisfied with their universality and Truth that they forget to renew themselves daily in their own context will become rotten and wormy.

Hermeneutics will always be an attempt to place ourselves in a bearable relationship to our own contingency.  Manna, as a hermeneutic, shows us that our contingency is very real, it cannot be reduced or overcome, but our contingency exists in a dynamic relationship with God’s grace.

There is perhaps one more aspect of manna that commends it as a hermeneutic: it is placed in the ark of the covenant with the Law.  The Law and the stuff of interpretation, placed “before the LORD in safekeeping for your descendants.” (Ex. 16:33)  A constant sign unto the generations that as we remember that we have the presence of the LORD—as the Law, the Word, the Bread of Life –we must always ask, “man hu, what is this?”

Counterfeit Bread

January 19, 2010 9 comments

What sort of bread is the Eucharist?  This is the kind of question we are discouraged from asking by an over emphasis on the “accidental” character of the Eucharistic species.  But I often find that when I lose my way in Eucharistic wondering and wandering I find my way back through the material elements, not the philosophical distinctions (trails of breadcrumbs I’ve been leaving since I was a boy, some leading to my grandmother’s kitchen, some to the altar…)  So when I hear the dry popping sound of the fraction rite I raise my eyebrows over closed eyes and I suspect that someone is foisting a counterfeit bread. 

(I must say that I am thinking of the general ritual practice of Roman Catholics in the United States and I leave out of my consideration the more ancient and more tasty custom of using leavened bread as practiced, for example, by our Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Further, the Catholic use of the unleavened loaf has good theological legs; it just doesn’t have to be so bad.)

I will resist here, the temptation to make a purely gastronomical point rather than a theological one but I must insist that, when it comes to bread, the two are connected.  Despite the best efforts of liturgical rubricians, sacramental bread cannot be separated from daily bread.  No matter how quotidian a meager loaf in Christian hands appears, it cannot be extricated from a history of effects that ties it back to John 6.  The Lord’s prayer reminds us that “daily” bread is epiousios and even these morsels are saturated with meaning.  So what is the result of offering the ritual bread of Eucharistic celebration which is so far removed from, well, actual bread?

The result is that we are counterfeiting our symbols.  Symbols are supposed to “throw-together” things that are not, on the surface, alike.  Bread is polyvalent, and its entire semantic range is meant to be thrown together with the body of Christ.  This is not the case.  The host is a victim of a serious reduction: the breadliness of bread is legislated down to a bare minimum.  I’m loath to point this out, but here’s the liturgical principle: the more rarified, the more sacred; the more dissimilar something is to everyday objects the more suited it is to liturgical use.  Liturgical norms titrate these counterfeits, certify them as authentic, and mandate them (guarding against coeliacs and cultures without wheat).  The real danger of the counterfeit is that it gives us a lesser value of bread.  It rends bread from its totality of involvements. 

 Cash.  Cash stands in the place of value and obligation.  Am I against the market economy? Not completely.  What I am against is the cash value of the Eucharist, not in dollars and cents, but as the currency of Sunday obligation.  The Eucharist becomes the receipt of an obligation fulfilled and the pre-packaged, not-for-resale, single serving of a spiritual product that my hour’s time purchases.  Am I exaggerating?   God, I hope so.  But when we no longer realize the ethical imperative of the Eucharist which forms us as a community and calls us to action, the Eucharist becomes transactional.  If it is food at all, it is fast food at best.

Posted by Noel Terranova

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