Oh dear! What new devotional message about the wretched animals looming over the manger can Father deliver as the tinies and their smirking parents gather round for the Blessing of the Crib on yet another Christmas Eve? Not the same platitudes as last year, surely? No worries. Rescue is at hand in the ancient pages of the Gelasian Sacramentary, which includes material used in Sixth Century Rome. Here is part of a Preface used at Mass on January 1 ... rather more over-the-top than modern liturgical committee-persons could stomache, but still ...
'' ... suckle, O Mother, our Food; suckle the Bread which cometh down from heaven, placed in the manger as feed for devout pack-animals. For there the Ox (bos) that is, Circumcisio, hath recognised its Owner, and the Donkey (asinus), that is, Praeputium, hath recognised the manger of its Lord.''
At first sight, this is uncannily like a piece of Counter-Reformation piety in the sentimentalism of its sudden baroque apostrophe to our Lady, or like a Metaphysical poet on one of his off-days ("suckle the Food"), even if the primacy of dogma, as always in the classical liturgical texts, soon reasserts itself in the powerful identification made between the manger-enthroned Flesh of the Incarnate Word and his Sacramental Flesh upon its Altar-throne to be received by the mouths of the Faithful. And there is something distinctly pre-modern (and pre-Enlightenment) in characterising Christians as 'devout pack-animals (pia iumenta). But what on earth are we to make of Circumcision (Circumcisio) and Foreskin (Praeputium)?
Explanation tomorrow, if you can bear to wait that long.