In the western Church, feasts of Old Testament Saints are not unheard-of, but they are extremely rare, and only one has ever been generally observed. (This is on August 1st, the feast of the scribe Eleazar and the mother and seven sons whose martyrdom is described in 2 Maccabees 6 and 7.) The Byzantine Rite, on the other hand, has many such feasts, including those of most of the Prophets. Several are kept in the period leading up to Christmas, as a sign that Christ is the one whose coming they foretold, and today belongs to Habakkuk, the eighth of the Twelve Minor Prophets. His role in the liturgy as a prophet of the Incarnation is indicated by this hymn sung at Vespers of his feast: “Standing on divine watch, the honored Habakkuk heard the ineffable mystery of Thy coming unto us, o Christ, and he prophesied most clearly the proclamation of Thee…”
His brief book gives no details about him; from its subject, the invasion of Judea by the Chaldeans, it is dated to the late 7th century BC. He also makes an appearance in the Deuterocanonical 14th chapter of the book of Daniel, the episode known as Bel and the Dragon, in which an angel carries him by the hair to Babylon to deliver food to Daniel in the lions’ den. However, despite his fairly minor part in the canon of Scripture, he has a very significant place in the history of the Christian liturgy. The whole of his third chapter is a canticle which has been used from the most ancient times in most historical rites.
(The Prophet Habakkuk and the Angel; sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1656-61, in the Chigi chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Image from Wikimedia Common by Peter 1936F, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The opening verses of this canticle in particular played a very important role in the Christian liturgy and art. The Greek translation known as the Septuagint, which was the Church’s original Bible, read the difficult Hebrew text of verse 2 as, “Lord, I heard Thy report, and grew afraid; Lord, I knew Thy works, and was amazed. In the midst of two living beings, Thou shalt be made known.” The “two living beings” were variously taken to mean the Prophets Elijah and Moses, who appeared to either side of Christ at the Transfiguration (Tertullian, Against Marcion 4, 22), or the two Seraphim whom Isaiah sees (6, 2-3) with God in his vision in the temple (Origen, On First Principles, 18). St Augustine accepts Tertullian’s interpretation, but also took the verse to signify the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ (City of God 18, 32). From this derives the Roman tradition of singing the canticle on Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, and the first part of it at the liturgy of Good Friday.
However, the Greek word “ζῴων – living beings” can also mean “animals”, and in this sense, the opening words of Habakkuk’s canticle could be referred not to the circumstances of Christ’s death, but of His birth, when He was laid in a manger. Cross-pollinated, so to speak, with Isaiah 1, 3, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger”, they gave rise to the artistic tradition of having an ox and a donkey in Nativity scenes, a tradition already well-established and widely known by the end of the 4th century.
In that same era, however, the great Biblical scholar St Jerome realized that both the Septuagint and the older Latin translations derived from it were in many ways very inaccurate, and set out on his great project to give the Latin-speaking Church a better translation of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the older version of Habakkuk 3, 1-2 was changed from:
“Domine, audivi auditum tuum, et timui: consideravi opera tua, et expavi. In medio duorum animalium innotesceris: dum appropinquaverint anni, cognosceris: dum advenerit tempus, ostenderis. – Lord, I heard Thy report and grew afraid,; I considered Thy works, and was astonished. In the midst of two living being Thou shalt be made known; when the years shall have come nigh, Thou shalt be known; when the time shall come, Thou shalt be shown.”
to: “Domine, audivi auditionem tuam, et timui. Domine, opus tuum, in medio annorum vivifica illud; in medio annorum notum facies: cum iratus fueris, misericordiæ recordaberis. – O Lord, I have heard thy hearing, and was afraid. O Lord, thy work, in the midst of the years bring it to life; in the midst of the years thou shalt make it known: when thou art angry, thou wilt remember mercy.”
Aware that his new translation was depriving the Church of a text with an important exegetical tradition attached to it, it seems that St Jerome tried to balance this by giving the canticle a more explicit reference to Christ. He therefore translated the Hebrew word “b’Ēlohēi yish‘ī” in line 17, “in the God of my salvation”, as “in Deo, Jesu meo – in God, my Jesus”, since the Lord’s personal name means “salvation.”
St Jerome’s new translation swiftly found broad acceptance in the Latin-speaking world, and has been the standard form of the Latin Bible for well-over a millennium. It is a tribute to the weight and force of tradition within the Church that nevertheless, the ox and the donkey, who were given their place in Christmas manger scenes by the older version of this text, still have it to this day, as we will see in our churches and homes over the coming weeks.
(A Nativity scene on a Roman sarcophagus made at the end of the 4th century. Note that by this period, the ox and the donkey, the “two animals” of Habakkuk 3 and Isaiah 1, are so well-known that they suffice to indicate what the scene is, without the presence of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the magi, the star, or even the stable.)