The following is taken from the book "Meditations for Advent, Preparing for Christ's Birth" by Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou, published by Ancient Fath Publishing.
Continuing looking at what the icon of the Nativity of Christ tells us about Jesus. Why are there animals in the icon?!
Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed time, as do the turtledove and the swallow of the field. The sparrows watch for the times of their coming. But my people do not know the judgments of the Lord. (Jeremiah 8:7)
Another common image in icons of the Nativity is that of the ox and the donkey. Where does the idea that there were animals at the Nativity come from ? There is no mention of them in the New Testament, although the presence of a manger in Christ's birthplace implies the presence of animals as well. We got this idea from Nativity plays, and the Nativity plays got the idea from our icons and hymns. So what is their significance?
The ox and the donkey in the icon of the Nativity point us to the Book of Isaiah:
The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know Me, and the people do not understand Me. (Isaiah 1:3)
With this image, therefore, the Church is asking us a simple question: Do you realize who this child is? Do you recognize Him as your Lord and Master?
Do I truly recognize Christ as God? Or do I praise Him with my lips and deny Him with my life?
Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
Do I not deny Christ every time I despise humility? Do I not reject Him every time I refuse to deny myself for others as He denied Himself for me?
The invitation to recognize God in the Christ-child does not stop with the image of the ox and the donkey, but is also conveyed in the Magi, who are depicted in most icons of the Nativity. These were Gentiles - that is to say, not people of Israel, but pagans, outsiders. Their coming to worship Christ indicates that He is the King and Savior not only of the Jews, but of all people. They are the first Gentiles to follow Christ. They represent us and indicate the conversion of all nations:
I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12)
And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16)
Even these pagan Magi who worshiped the stars recognized the baby Jesus as the King of Glory. Heathens and animals are seen worshiping the one true God. It is a humbling image. Are we Christians worse than heathens and animals? Will we deny God while they accept Him?
"Israel does not know Me...the people do not understand Me." Do I know? Do I understand? Am I merely paying lip service to God, or do I truly know and recognize Him in this little child as the Lord and Master of my life?