In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Christ is born!
Out of the many elements associated with the birth of Christ, perhaps the most surprising are the two animals that are almost always depicted on the icon of Nativity – a donkey and an ox.
Just look at the icon here when you come to venerate it at the end of the Liturgy. The donkey and the ox are right there next to the newborn Jesus.
The Bible does not mention them being part of the narrative of the birth of Christ. But then again, the Bible does not mention everything.
For example, just this week, someone asked on facebook whether Jesus ever smiled or laughed. The Bible does not explicitly say that Jesus laughed, or did not, at any point. But we are told that He attended dinners and weddings. Can you imagine Him sitting there all grim-faced all the time?
So the donkey and the ox are not in the Bible; yet, besides Christ Child Himself, these two animals are the most ancient and the most stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity. In fact, the earliest example of the Christmas icon known to us, dating to the 4th century, contains only Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at His head and the donkey at His feet.
Prophet Isaiah mentions these two animals, saying, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows its master’s crib (manger); but Israel has not known Me, My people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).
So, what is the relationship between the ox and the donkey, and why are they paired together?
Traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the donkey as the Gentiles. This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals. The ox is a “clean” animal, and the donkey is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.
Israel is seen “clean” here because they were the chosen people of God. Gentiles are “unclean” from their constant idol worship.
The donkey and the ox are together, the clean and the unclean are mixed. Mixing these two elements is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles, who together make up the Church of Christ, His Body.
This bringing together of the “inside,” the Jews, and the “outside,” the Gentiles (and by the way, all of us are former Gentiles), can only be accomplished without sin by Christ.
The donkey and the ox help explain what the incarnation of God means. The clean and the unclean, the two opposites, are united together at the manger. So the manger becomes the place where separated things come together.
By depicting these two animals, the Church has been telling us for a very long time now that Christ is the One in Whom all human beings are united. It’s not done by the civil laws, or morality, or social activism. It is done in and through and around Christ.
And more than that, the fact that this unity happens at the manger is likewise very important. The manger is the feeding trough for the animals. It’s the place where animals come together to eat.
And the place where the Christians are united, where all people come together, also happens in the food, in the holy Communion. And in Communion we also have the joining of the pure and the impure, just like at the manger there is the joining of clean and unclean. The purest and most precious Body and Blood of Christ, of God Himself, are joined with the impure, broken, and sinful body and blood of every human being.
All these details of the icon of Nativity were not added there randomly. They are there to help us focus, to give us one more hint of the implications of the moment when God united Himself with human beings.
All these details point to the fact that this Child, in this manger is the union of the very lowest with the very highest. The birth of Christ became the center of the universe, the center of all things, actually.
And in Christ we find unity not only with God, but also with each other.
To Jesus Christ, the Eternal God, Who today is willing to appear as a little Child, together with His Father, Who has no beginning, and the Life-giving Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
Christ is born!