Secrets of the Crèche

Perhaps like our family you have recently set up a nativity to help celebrate Advent.

It is a wonderful thing.

The different pieces are set carefully into place. We remember young Mary, full of faith and Joseph, full of fear. Angels blow trumpets and wise men bear gifts.

But there is another lesson that most people are not aware of.

Any good set worth its salt, includes two figures meant to teach us the most important lesson of all. A lesson we must take to heart if we believe Jesus is God incarnate, sent to save us.

So see if you can spot these overlooked nativity participants in these paintings.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Nativity,” 1308.

These teachers are always close to one another.

Bartolo Fredi, “Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds,” 1383.
Giotto, “Nativity,” 1311.

They are often very close to the baby.

Munir Alawi, “Nativity Story at Shepherds Field.”

They are focused and gaze upon the new king.

Filippo Lippi, “Nativity,” 1467-1469.

Have you spotted them yet? You can’t hardly miss them!

Gentile da Fabriano, “Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece,” 1423.

I’m talking about the ox and the donkey.

Look back. They are an ever-present duo, often painted with human characteristics – kneeling, praying, gazing at the Lord – right along with Mary, Joseph and the rest.

Have you ever noticed them before? Have you ever wondered why they are there?

Is it simply because Jesus was born in a stable? But other animals are rarely highlighted. Why the ox and donkey?

The answer is found in the book of Isaiah chapter 1 verse three. Read it slowly:

The ox knows its owner,
And a donkey knows its master’s manager.
But Israel does not know,
My people do not understand.
Isaiah 1:3

This was a rebuke to rebellious Israel, and an absurd comparison!

And so as early as the 2nd century – church theologians made the connection of the ox, donkey and the manger. And from that time on – painters (and nativity sets) often include them as worshipers of the Christ child, as a silent rebuke of Israel who missed Jesus’ birth, because of their sin.

They remind us of the high value of a simple faith that believes Jesus is Lord.

That is the true meaning of the advent of Christ.

It is not enough to feel sentimental or nostalgic about the birth of Christ. We must experience the awe that one would feel coming before a sovereign. Born a child and yet a king. We must know who our master is – just as the ox and donkey teach us in Isaiah chapter one.

God desires that you would have His hope. His peace. His love and His joy. But those gifts only come to those who recognize Jesus as their master and king.

And so as you set up your nativity figures this year, don’t relegate the donkey and the ox to the back row.

Move them front and center.

They are our role models.

Good Christian men, rejoice with heart and soul, and voice
Give ye heed to what we say:
News! News! Jesus Christ is born today;
Ox and ass before Him bow;
and He is in the manger now.
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

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