How many times in the last few weeks have you wished you were first in a long line while shopping? Time is tight, patience is running short, and 21 strangers are waiting ahead of you to check out. Oh, to be at the front!
An ox and an ass. Two very unusual suspects to be front and center. But there they are. They appear in Roman Catholic medieval paintings of Christmas. They are present in nearly every Orthodox Christian icon of the Nativity. The ox and ass are front and center in a sixth-century image from Palestine.
Most anyone who knows the usual Christmas carols sings about them.
In addition to llamas (llamas!), sheep, goats and other animals ever-present at live creches, there are the ox and the ass, like Waldo, found in every picture.
But these two animals do not appear in either of the two biblical narratives that describe Jesus’ birth. Shepherds, yes, and therefore sheep, and perhaps goats (to complete the later biblical metaphor). Magi, the “wise men,” yes, and perhaps, therefore camels, though in iconography, these Persians ride in on horseback. Sorry, it is still impossible to justify a llama on any traditional grounds.
In the common image of the Nativity for Orthodox Christians, Mary, the God-bearer, is obviously central, reclined, with Jesus wrapped in his swaddling clothes (like a buried corpse, an evident foreshadow), in his manger. But the two nearest the manger, and the first looking in, are the ox and the ass.
Did the painters just want them there, some sort of early Hallmark scene? And from whom did the carol-writers receive their inspiration about the ox and ass?
To be sure, they are intentional and very meaningful.
About eight centuries before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah the prophet had a vision, written in Isaiah 1:3-4:
“ ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.”
We have found our two animals at the manger (both the 200 B.C. Greek Old Testament, and the Nativity accounts in the Greek New Testament render “crib” as “manger”).
These two animals make quite a statement, both unsettling and comforting at once.
They comfort the world, in the interpretations of many early Christians, in that they represent — as one “clean” and one “unclean” animal — both Jews and Gentiles (the same dual witness is given by the Jewish shepherds and pagan Wise Men).
That is, this is the Christ for the whole world. He is the promised messiah of and from the Jews, following Isaiah’s later words, “A virgin shall bear a son, and call his name Emmanuel” (which means, “God with us”).
But he takes flesh and is born to bless the whole world, as Abram was told before he went to Canaan: “(The Lord said), I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”
But the presence of the ox and the ass unsettles us by the direct words of Isaiah: “The ox knows is owner and the ass its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people, does not understand.” The animals recognize who is born, and who is in that manger. Their heads hanging into the feeding-trough remind us of Jesus’ later declaration that he is the true bread, come down from heaven, and therefore the food for the life of the world.
The ox and ass eagerly take their place front and center to pay him homage. But, according to the Scriptures, his people do not recognize him. Is the hard prophecy true?
And so every man, woman, and child — and also the animals — are left, not only at Christmas, but every day, asking ourselves that front-and-center question with reference to the newborn surrounded by these animals: “Who do you say that I am?”
Fr John Parker is rector of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On, and the chairman of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He can be reached at frjohn@ ocacharleston.org or 881-5010.