No animals are ever actually mentioned in the Gospels, though they are traditionally placed in the manger near the baby Jesus. The oldest example of a carved depiction of the nativity (from 4th century on a sarcophagus in Italy) has only a swaddled baby Jesus, flanked by the Ox at his head and the Ass at his feet. It may be because of Old Testament references, like this verse from Isaiah 1:3 – “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand”, in which God speaks clearly to the disobedient people of Israel about the trust and intuition simple animals have to know their master and come to his for their basic needs – a trait which, we can infer, should be the same for us when approaching Jesus, our Saviour.
Therefore, as well as being animals that one might have associated with a stable or out-house – and we can presume that they were present in this context – the Ox and Ass represents something deeper. The human-ness of Jesus is represented in the Ox and the Ass, as well as our need to rely on him. In the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, we read that “In the midst of two living beings, thou shalt be known”.
The Ox also traditionally represented the people of Israel (the believers – because the Ox was seen as a “clean” animal) and the Ass or Donkey represented the Gentiles (the unclean – because the Ass was an unclean animal according to Jewish dietary laws and Gentiles were seen as unclean in the sense that they were non-believers).
So, the coming together of the Ox and the Ass at the nativity speaks to us of the way that the baby Jesus comes for all of us. It reminds us of the universality of the church and of Christ’s saving message for all humanity! This mixing of Jews and Gentiles – of clean and unclean – was very much forbidden in Jewish law and yet, in Jesus – in God incarnate – we see this being accomplished. That would have been a huge step for people of the time, but reminds us of the amazing gear-shift initiated in Jesus’ coming – that each person is unique and special and not just the “chosen few”. Let us allow a revolution in our thinking – that of the equal worth of our neighbour – as we complete our journey to Christmas.
Lord, we thank you that you are the Lord of us ALL!
Just like these humble creatures,
who know the one who can provide them with all their needs,
let us be docile to your Holy Spirit,
and be prepared to keep you at the centre of our situation.
May we draw ever closer to you,
with trust-ful hearts,
that we may know you in a deeper way this year.