How many of us thought it the best thing ever when Fisher-Price made a nativity scene for our precious little ones? I know I did for two reasons: 1) teaching about the Birth of Christ was friendlier, tangible and 2) family heirlooms had a better chance of staying in one piece.
Ever wonder why certain animals were depicted in that manger scene besides reflecting the cultural context of the era Christ was born? There is more to it than I ever thought. I used to take the nativity scene in to my catechism classes and let my middle schoolers delve a little more deeply into the symbolism of each animal.
First, let us give credit where credit is due. St. Francis was the first to publicly display the nativity scene in 1223 in a cave with a live reenactment. And the following figures were and continue to be intricate to the imagery:
Let us think of sheep in a few ways and then correlate them to Jesus being the Lamb of God.
They are pathetic looking and dirty and in the same way Jesus know the messiness of our lives. They don’t fight, known for their gentleness as they are led to slaughter. That’s easy to parallel.
And remember we are Jesus’ lost sheep that He came to gather. Is 53:7, John 10:27
Here is another layer of trust in the manger. Mary trusted God. An ox knows and trusts his owner. Do we trust our Maker? We are represented here as God is the owner of our lives.
A donkey always knows where it is fed and will always returns to the source. At the manger, the donkey shows the side of us that always needs to return to our holy nourishment. Whether it is feeding on scriptures or helping to be that holy nourishment for others.
Additionally, the donkey reappears as it carries Jesus into Jerusalem in a peaceful way. Should Jesus have ridden in on a horse, it would’ve been perceived more threatening. Is 1:3
Camels are a sign of life in the desert and have the endurance to travel great distances. They carried the wise men to Bethlehem and then carried the message of his birth to the continents.
It’s important to note that throughout history there have been many other animals included in renderings of the nativity, like cock, cats, goats, lions, dove, peacocks, etc. While historically and biblically significant, this author is keeping this simple to share with our children…. simple like Christ’s love.