Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto,  Christmas Eve, 2022.   Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20




Earlier tonight, at our 5pm liturgy, we gave ourselves permission to make gentle fools of ourselves in our “pop up Nativity pageant”.   It was the usual collection of characters that most of us recall from our childhoods – shepherds and angels, animals and magi.   It doesn’t matter if you have to mash Luke’s and Matthew’s nativity stories to put all these characters together, because a good nativity play isn’t about biblical accuracy.   A good nativity play, as I said at 5pm, is about recovering our sense of childhood wonder at a world in which God dwells among us.


Earlier tonight, we played the old familiar roles.   Yours truly made an ass of himself, just because the donkey costume we have is so much fun, but I also insisted that we have an ox.  Why an ox?   Because this year I went down a bit of a rabbit hole as far as oxen and nativity stories are concerned, because in every nativity story worth its salt, and in every decent Christmas creche, you have to have an ox and an ass.  


They’re in all the great carols, like “What Child Is This”, and there’s an ox and an ass in every good Christmas creche, like the beautiful one that was recently donated to All Saints.   However, if you look at the two nativity stories in Matthew (Mt 1.18 – 2.15) and Luke (Lk 2.1-20), there is no mention of ox, nor of a donkey, and for that matter, no sheep or camels!   And yet, the ox and ass are part of our Christmas tradition.  Why is that?


The very first nativity play was probably staged by St. Francis of Assisi in the year 1223 in Italy.  Francis’ biographer St. Bonaventure writes that “Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed”.  Francis thus began a tradition that many rural churches continue to this day, of bringing live animals inside the church on Christmas Eve, which all the misadventures that can befall.   But Francis was probably following a well-established custom in Christian art.



You can find images of the ox and ass kneeling beside the manger from as far back as the year 400 AD.    There are many legends and stories that grew around these figures, that the donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem, that the ox was intended by Joseph to be his payment of Caesar’s tax.   Perhaps the most charming of these stories is that the ox and the donkey who showed their love to the baby Jesus by keeping him warm with their breath. 




No doubt St. Francis in his nativity scene was drawing on this idea of the animals bringing their simple love and devotion to Jesus, and thus inspiring the same love and devotion in those there that night.  Scholars today call this “affective piety”, the idea that our faith could be highly emotional, focused on the humanity and vulnerability of Jesus, from his infancy to his agonies on the cross.  The simple devotion of the animals at the manger made its way into all sorts of Victorian songs, like “The Friendly Beasts” or, as it is sometimes known, “The Animal Carol”.


Let us fast forward now to England, in the year 1915, where the world is in its second year of a terrible war.   The poet Thomas Hardy was probably thinking on the country Christmases of his youth when he wrote this poem, The Oxen.


The Oxen


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.


We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.


So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,


“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.


The poem can seem to be merely a wistful longing of an old man for this lost innocence of a child at Christmas, but this year Hardy’s poem has spoken to me and I pray that it might speak to you as well.   Why shouldn’t the oxen kneel before the one who created the world?    Is that one detail any more wonderful than any of the other cherished details of the nativity story?   Is this not the reason why you braved winter’s blast to com here tonight, for precisely this sort of magic and wonder?


Yes, I know that we may carry layers of sophistication and experience that might bar the door to magic and wonder.   We might think that magic and wonder are childish things that we should put away as we get older and wiser.   We might think that oxen kneeling in love and awe are part of a primitive worldview, one  incompatible with our post-Enlightenment, rationalist explanations of reality.   Or, if we have been strongly formed by the Protestant tradition, we might dismiss medieval legends as simple stories not found in scripture and not justified by Reformed theology.


Tonight, dear saints, I ask you to set your sophistication aside.   Give yourself permission to enter into the magic and wonder of this night and of its story.   For tonight only, if tonight is all that you can manage, believe that a virgin conceived and gave birth to a Mighty Counsellor, the Prince of Peace.  Believe that angels from the realms of glory have come to summon shepherds and give us good news.  Believe that camels glide across the dark desert under a shining star, bearing kings from distant lands.    Believe that the humble animals bow down in devotion to the child who was present when heaven and earth were made.  Scholars may call it affective piety, but tonight, let us be content to feel childlike wonder and adoration.


For really, nothing about tonight is too great or too magical to not be unbelievable.  For the greatest thing of all about this story is the one who stirs in that manger.  Writing sometime around the year 400, St. John Chrysostom said this:


Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side – a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels.

To Him, then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path; to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

Dear saints, tonight nothing is too wondrous, nothing is too magical.   Scepticism and doubt can wait for another time, as God gives us grace to deal with them.   Tonight, it is enough to go and join the oxen.  Let us kneel with them at the manger and together let us adore the child who has come to save us.