Christmas Animals


I remember being fascinated by my grandparents' Nativity scene when I was growing up. It was a complex arrangement with a beautiful background and all sorts of interesting figures, including animals. I wanted to play with them, but they were not to be touched.

Most Nativity scenes have animals, especially sheep. Though sheep are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, it seems natural to include a few with the shepherds who were the first to visit the newborn infant. Nativity scenes, like the one in the main chapel of my Jesuit community, usually have two other animals--an ox and a donkey--which are also not to be found in the Gospel but which were probably the residents of the stable where Jesus was born. A few days ago I ran across a Scriptural reference to them: Isaiah 1: 3.

An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master's manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood.

When I was growing up and we set up the Nativity figures, my mother told me to put the animals close to the manger where they could breathe on the baby Jesus to keep Him warm. This passage from Isaiah is another reason to place the ox and donkey close to the crib. They recognize their Creator.

Pope Benedict's Mission Intention for December has been: "That the peoples of the earth may open their doors to Christ and to his gospel of peace, brotherhood, and justice." When someone knocks on our door we are reluctant to open it unless we first recognize and feel safe with the person knocking.

According to Isaiah, while the animals recognized their Master, Israel (and we could add, the world) has not recognized and welcomed Him. Is it fear that keeps us from opening the door and letting Him in?

Shortly after his election as pope, in the homily at his inaugural Mass, Pope Benedict XVI used this image of opening doors, an image that Pope John Paul II also used frequently. Pope Benedict said:

At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” ... Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you...: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

We have spent Advent preparing to open the doors of our hearts to Christ this year. As we now celebrate His birth, let us recognize our Maker as we draw near to His manger.