Tuesday, 25 December 2007

The Ox and the Ass and the Manger Stall

I wonder when the change came? I rather suspect (without running to my books) that it may well have been at the first crib of all, that of St Francis of Assisi, that (Western) Christianity began to focus on the actual circumstances of the birth of our Lord. I mean the manger, and the ox and the ass and all that stuff.
Ever since 7.7.7, I have been using the Extraordinary form of the breviary, and utterly loving it. I say it all, and rarely have I had the sense of weariness ('oh, let's get it over with') that I used to get when having to say the other form. The seven hours each day ('seven times will I praise thee, O Lord') of Matins+Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline mark out the day beautifully, and saying the whole 150 psalms in a week is wonderful; much better than saying 148 of them over 4 weeks.
But I'm straying off the point. The breviary takes a different line on Christmas—I suspect, older. The accent is on Christ the heroic bridegroom leaving his chamber to go to that of his wife. The analogy is that of heaven being wedded to earth; man reconciled with God; God's almighty Word leaping down from heaven as the world's Redeemer.
Against this cosmic and dramatic background, the ox and the ass hardly get a look in: they are taken for granted. There is one solitary antiphon that occurs to me, but it's a good one;
O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in præsepio. O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum. Alleluia!
O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the Lord born and lying in a manger. O Blessed Virgin, whose womb is worthy to carry the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!
A happy and blessed Christmas, everybody.

The picture is from an early Christian sarcophagus, unidentified.
Which goes to show that even the early Christians
thought at least a little bit about the ox and the ass.


Anonymous said...

Lovely post thankyou..

ADV said...

You have it so right Father! Thank-you. If only that sense of depth and mystery are restored, moving people beyond the literal and sentimental back to an understanding of the Incarnation and why it happened. Comments here in Ireland on the radio in the last few days summed up the sad fact that Christmas and its meaning is so lost. Adults when asked about the meaning of Christmas to them said,'it is just for the children.'

WhiteStoneNameSeeker said...

Merry Christmas Father.
Fascinating post. I had always thought, like you, that St Francis came up with the ox and ass symbols, but they are obviously far older.

Auricularius said...

Fr J

I do agree with you about the old Breviary. It just goes to prove that something which has evolved over the centuries is superior to something which is composed de novo, even, or perhaps especially, if the composition is planned on logical and rational principles.
The old Breviary:

(i) differentiates between Lauds and Prime, rather than conflating them and lumping them together under the amorphous title of “Morning Prayer” (or “Ad Laudes Matutinas” in the Latin). The older tradition recognised Lauds as the prayer which ended the Night Vigil, rather than “Morning” prayer as such. Only a culture which is insensitive to the natural rhythm of the day would not see this as important.

(ii) doesn’t emasculate the Psalter in the interests of political correctness. Ps 136:7 (dashing Babylonian babies against the rock) refers to the battle against sin and is explicitly used in this (typological) sense in the Rule of St Benedict. (I think the Latin of the Pian Psalter helps to emphasise this very vivid imagery to a much greater degree than the Gallican Psalter and prefer it on those grounds. But I recognise that this is a minority view!)

(iii) recognises the need of preparing for, and giving thanks after, the recitation of the Office. The “Aperi Domine” and “Sacrosanctae” prayers really do convey the sense of something which is just as solemn and sacred in its own way as Mass. This serves to emphasise the character of the Office as liturgical, rather than personal, prayer.

(iv)has in each office versicles and responses which emphasises the communal character of the prayer to a far greater degree than in the Liturgia Horarum. Even in private recitation, this enables you to conceive of yourself as a voice in the heavenly choir rather than a “pellicano solitudinis” or a “nycticorax in domicilio” (Ps 101:6).

This is just to compare the two Latin versions. It is best to cast a discreet veil over the English versions, especially the UK one. There are some things which are just too awful to contemplate (Grail Psalter, dreadful hymns, intercessions composed by inebriated seminarians at the VEC … cont p94). As Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus "that whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over silence".