Nativity Mystery: Does that really belong here?

As a youngster I watched in wonderment as Kevin McCallister eluded the grasp of Harry and Marv by covertly finding refuge within a life-size nativity scene. It was not only Kevin’s cunning that captured my imagination, but the idea of the nativity itself – one of very few three-dimensional, tactile images of Jesus in protestant free-churches (and homes). The nativity was categorically different for me than flannel board depictions of Jesus or that weird blonde portrait that hung in Sunday school rooms. I studied those scenes. I rolled the figures around in my hands feeling their weight and texture – intuitively aware of its sacred value.

In recent years, however, a peculiar fascination has grown up alongside my reverent intrigue for the nativity. I am fascinated by the persistent appearance of the features, portrayed in both the miniature scenes and the stories, that are simply not part of the original story. How did they get there? And why are they still there?

It is a common refrain that the Scriptural account of Jesus’ birth does not include many of the details that tradition has attached to it. No rude inn-keeper; no barn; no specification regarding the number of Magi. And, most importantly, no ox and ass lowing. It’s the animals that intrigue me the most. Especially because this particular tradition is explicitly apocryphal, which makes the animals the most ancient and scandalous of the nativity add-ons.

The ox and ass first appear in literature in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This work is part of the New Testament Apocrypha. Like its (more familiar) Old Testament counterpart, the NT apocrypha is a collection of writings resembling the form of its canonical parent, but often quite different in content, which was written chronologically after the 27 books in the NT (2nd century AD and later) though it recounts events from the same period as the NT. I don’t have the space to explain why and how these books were not included in the New Testament canon. For now, understand that many of these works fall into the category of “Infancy Narratives,” which re-tell and expand (often in fantastic fashion) the birth and early childhood of Jesus. In fact, there were a proliferation of infancy narratives circulating in different communities the first thousand years of Christian history, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is one of them (not the earliest, but one of the most popular). Some Christians and heretical groups were so fascinated with these stories that they continued to survive even though church officials repeatedly condemned and expunged them.

The presence of the animals in Pseudo-Matthew is an interesting case in itself. The ox and ass actually appear in art (e.g. on a 4th century sarcophagus in Milan) well before the earliest manuscript of Pseudo-Matthew. It’s possible that an oral version of the apocryphal tradition is early enough to be the source for the art, but because of the lack of manuscript evidence, the opposite is also possible (in case you’re interested, “art generating text” would be a unique ancient phenomenon). More complicated still, in ancient depictions of the nativity, the ox and ass are (nearly) always present with Jesus – appearing even when Mary is absent. This begs the question both for the NT Apocrypha and for our front yards, “How did they get there?”

The short answer is that it’s hard to say. Throughout the centuries Christians have used Old Testament texts like Isaiah 1:3 in order to explain their presence and significance. Isaiah mentions the beasts in the context of Israel’s ignorance. The implication is the ox and ass would be symbols of judgment against the Jews who do not perceive Jesus as God’s messiah: i.e. the animals get it but some of God’s chosen people don’t. This explanation makes sense, but neither Matthew nor Luke allude to the Isaiah passage. And although the author of Pseudo-Matthew uses the ox and ass as a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:3 (and the Septuagint’s translation of Habakkuk 3:2), the beasts certainly do not serve to highlight lack of perception in the apocryphal story. They’re just there – like a vital feature of the landscape.

And they’re still there – carved out of wood, fashioned out of a plastic mold, and sung in our carols. This is ironic to me – especially as it appears among Scripture-alone Protestant types (like myself). I wonder how they deal with that tension (assuming an awareness of it)? All those extras are reasonable deductions from the story, they might argue. Maybe. But why didn’t Matthew or Luke include those details? I would argue that they did not include the details, whatever they really are, on purpose. We often forget that authors say a lot in what they choose not to say. And we short circuit what can emerge from that silent space when we rush to fill in the gaps. We miss the significance of what is already there.

I encourage you this advent and Christmastide to dwell in the mystery of the nativity by taking a look at what’s there. Look at the art (animals and all) – read the Text(s) – and take it in. Don’t fill in either space too quickly and wait to see what emerges. Be drawn in by real-ness of Incarnation and be shaped by it. Listen. Emmanuel.


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