The Gospel of Luke describes the place of Jesus’ birth as where the animals were kept. Jesus was placed in a manger after his birth. The location in Bethlehem is actually part of a series of caves where the animals would be sheltered. Stables as we know them were not common. An inn might have a lean-to structure that provided shelter for mules and animals of the travelers. The idea of it being a stable comes to us from Saint Francis of Assisi.
Francis was in Grecio in 1223 for Christmas. He wanted to make the celebration special so he had a stable constructed and populated it with the scene we are so familiar with. He had already received permission from the Pope for what he was going to do.
In addition to Mary, Joseph and the baby, he included shepherds and sheep as Luke recounts. Francis also added an ox and an ass to the scene. The Gospel makes no mention of either animal being present. Francis based his decision to include them on the words of Isaiah the prophet, chapter 1 verse 3, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” For Francis, they represented the idea that even the ignorant animals knew what God was doing and could teach us.
I remember an old TV program called “I Remember Momma.” One year their Christmas special was entitled “The Night the Animals Talked.” The story Momma told the family was that at midnight on Christmas the animals had a special gift, the ability to talk on that night. In the episode the littlest girl sneaks out into the stable and hears the animals talk.
Ever since the time of Saint Francis Christians have decorated their houses with the Creche scene. While public displays at government buildings have been challenged, you can still see the popular display. Some places even do live nativity scenes like Francis first did.
A popular Advent practice is to set the crèche up without figures and to encourage the children as they do good works to put a piece of straw into the manger for each good deed they did. The shepherds and sheep can populate the stable in advance but wait until Christmas to add Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
The Feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6, is the time to add the Magi. Tradition has named them and told us there were three kings. The Gospel of Matthew only says Magi from the East came. To complete the Twelve Days of Christmas, add the Magi on Jan. 6 to complete the scene.
Father Patrick Toner is pastor at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 140 West Ave., Plain City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (614) 873-8850.