In 1223 St Francis went to Rome to seek approval from Honorius III for his new order of friars; he also asked the Pope’s permission to create a new and special kind of church service. He had recently returned from the Holy Land where he had been profoundly impressed by his visit to Bethlehem. His plan was to offer a living representation of the nativity so as to bring to life the mystery of the Incarnation. On Christmas Eve 1223, near the rough buildings where he had built his community, against a backdrop of rocks, St Francis staged an open-air nativity scene with a crib, and a real ox and ass. This innovatory act of worship was the origin of the diorama, models and dramatic performances of the Nativity in Christian countries and communities all over the world.
But where do the ox and the ass come from? These animals do not feature in either Luke or Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus, yet they are present in artistic representations of the scene from the earliest days of Christianity. Old Testament prophecies are the source. The eighth-century non-canonical gospel called Pseudo-Matthew puts it thus:
And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”