Donkeys and lambs are part of the Holy Spirit Catholic School’s nativity scene performance. Photo by Evan Boudreau

What the animals knew at Christmas

By  Dr. Donald Demarco
  • December 17, 2016

You may have wondered, and rightly so, why the ox and the ass appear so often beside the Christ child in various images of the Nativity.

These two rather disparate animals frequently appear in Catholic medieval paintings of Christ’s birth, and nearly all the Orthodox icons of the first Christmas. Yet they are not mentioned in the New Testament narratives. Nonetheless, even in the earliest example of a nativity scene known to us, a swaddled babe is flanked, not by Mary and Joseph, but by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.

Apocryphal texts, such as the Pseudo-Matthew, record these animals worshipping the Christ child. Also, in what seems to be an Arabic translation of Habakkuk 3:2, the prophet states: “Between two animals you are made manifest.” Although these texts may not be authentic, they nonetheless add weight to the legend.

The most important and reliable biblical text, Isaiah 1:3, makes it clear that the ox and the ass are not present in the manger scene to provide atmosphere or as the product of a pious imagination. According to the great prophet, “An ox knows its owner, an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people has not understood.”

This text makes it clear that the ox and ass know something very important that even many human beings do not know, namely, who their master is. This resonates with Christ’s question to Simon Peter: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter does answer correctly and is rewarded by being given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and made the Church’s first pope (Matthew 16: 16-19).

Pope Benedict XVI includes a chapter called, “Ox and Ass Know Their Lord,” in his 2007 book, The Blessing of Christmas. “It is striking to note,” he writes, “in the medieval pictures of Christmas how the artists give the two animals almost human faces and how they stand before the mystery of the child and bow down in awareness and reverence.” According to the former pontiff, this makes sense because “we are but oxen and asses vis-à-vis the Eternal God, oxen and asses whose eyes are opened on Christmas night, so that they can recognize their Lord in the crib.” The birth of Christ opens our eyes so that we come to know who our real master is, and it is not wealth, power, status or pleasure.

A second important point is brought out in Deuteronomy 22:12, where we read: “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass harnessed together.” According to dietary proscriptions in the Old Testament, the ox was considered to be a “clean” animal while the ass was regarded as “unclean.” Also, the ox was seen as representing Israel whereas the ass symbolized the Gentiles.

Biblical scholars have explained the presence of the ox and the ass at Christmas as Christ joining factors that are usually regarded as extremes. Therefore, the birth of Christ is the union of the spiritual and the corporeal, the clean and the unclean, the uncreated and the created, the human and the divine, Heaven and Earth, time and eternity.

Christmas is about a birth. But more importantly, it is about opening our eyes to our true Master who has widened our perspective on life, showing us that there is far more to our lives than what we can find immediately around us, and that we have much greater capacities for love and peace than we could ever have imagined.

May this Christmas be your happiest and most meaningful.

(Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and the author of 29 books.)

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