When you put out your Nativity scene, what do you see when you take up the crib? The wooden boards of a manger? Straw? Swaddling clothes? Baby Jesus?
Maybe you’ll see a bread box?
Bethlehem, the town in Palestine where Jesus was born, is called Bayit laham in Hebrew. The name means “the house of bread.” Interestingly, in Arabic, the town is Beit Lahm, which means “house of meat.”
The translation of these words offers interesting insights, especially when we think of the traditions of Christmas. Here we have references to bread and meat, staples of life. Bethlehem has been a marketplace for thousands of years, which explains why it is called a “house.”
However, while “bayit” and “beit” both mean “house,” the words also refer to an enclosure used for “safekeeping.” No doubt, this is where animals and trade goods were guarded during the night.
The Hebrew “laham” meaning “bread,” can also refer to both food for animals and for a sacrificial offering. In Arabic, “lahm” can mean “meat” or “in the flesh, similar to our English “incarnate.”
When you delve into it, Bethlehem and its manger are perhaps the first examples of Christmas food.
Bethlehem is located just southeast of Jerusalem. It stands on top of a great aquifer, which means it has always been a fine agricultural area and a great place to raise sheep because it has an unfailing source of water. This was true even at the end of the last century. Today, Bethlehem’s economy is largely tourist-driven, although it still has an agricultural side and serves as a marketplace for Bedouins in the area. The Bedouins herd sheep and goats, as well as a few other animals.
Our familiar Christmas stories always include animals: sheep, a donkey and oxen. However, the only animals listed in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’ birth were sheep, animals that eat grass and grain for food. (Matthew doesn’t mention animals, though he hints at camels and donkeys.)
So when did animals such as oxen and donkeys begin appearing in the Christmas story? We can certainly find them in early Christian art, such as that found in the catacombs in Rome. The ox and donkey stand near the infant Jesus in an ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus dating to the 4th century.
By the seventh century, we can find stories such as the apocryphal gospel known as “Pseudo-Matthew,” which shares many legends about Jesus’ childhood. Here we do hear about animals in the stable: “On the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored him.”
The Middle Ages brought about what we now call “miracle plays,” theater-like productions performed in churches on special feast days. One of the earliest of these was the 12th century’s Auto de los Reyes Magos about the Three Kings visiting Jesus in the stable.
The tradition of animals and celebration of the Christmas liturgies continues today in the Misa del Gallo (the Rooster’s Mass), a traditional Midnight Mass in countries of Spanish origins or traditions. The legend is that a rooster crowed at midnight on the night Jesus was born. (And remember that a rooster also crowed on the last night of Christ’s earthly life, after the institution of the Blessed Sacrament.)
St. Francis of Assisi
By the next century, St. Francis of Assisi gave animals an unshakeable place at the stable with his Living Nativity at the Franciscan hermitage in Grecchio in 1223. He included live animals.
By the 15th century, many artists produced works about the Nativity that included oxen and donkeys, as well as horses and camels. “The Adoration of the Magi” by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi even had peacocks on the stable’s roof.
While traditions added oxen and donkeys to the Nativity scene, on Christmas we can also remember that these animals eat from a manger — the feed box for grazing animals — which Luke tells us served as Jesus’ first bed. Some types of grain that feed cows and donkeys can also be used to make bread. Add to that the fact that sheep and oxen were traditionally sacrificed in the Temple, with their meat going to feed the priests and the people.
Bread of life
With this information, we can see how Matthew and Luke may well have intended their audiences to remember Jesus’ mission as our Eucharistic Lord when they wrote of his birth. This becomes more clear when we think about Jesus’ own words, recorded in John’s Gospel. There Jesus called himself (6:25-59) “the bread of life” and told us to “eat of my flesh.”
One of the clearest foreshadows of these words may indeed be Luke’s manger scene. Here, in a wooden or stone feedbox, filled with oats, grass or barley, the most humble animals — animals often used as food themselves — came to eat. Jesus’ presence there speaks not only of his own humility, but also of the heavenly banquet to which all of us are called by his self-giving love and the mercy of God.
Pope Francis said much the same in his Christmas homily in 2016: “(Jesus) is born in Bethlehem, which means ‘house of bread.’ In this way, he seems to tell us that he is born as bread for us, he enters life to give us his life, he comes into our world to give us his love. He does not come to devour or to command but to nourish and to serve. Thus there is a direct thread joining the manger and the cross, where Jesus will become bread that is broken: it is the direct thread of love which is given and which saves us, which brings light to our lives, and peace to our hearts.”
While our traditional Christmas foods of ham, turkey and special breads fill us each year, this first Christmas food of the incarnate Christ is a food meant to fill us eternally.
Sources: Strong’s Greek Dictionary; nationalgeographic.com; BiblePlaces.com; abarim-publications.com; britannica.com; New World Encyclopedia; and zenit.org