The Angels are rejoicing and proclaiming the Good News. The Magi, journeying from afar, bear their gifts foreshadowing the divinity, sovereignty, and humanity of Christ. The shepherds, the first Jews to believe, explain what they have seen and heard, leading others, too, to wonder!
As we make our way, as if in a spiral towards the center of Rublev’s Nativity, we are greeted by a strange pair. A couple we wouldn’t expect to find so attentively gazing on our Lord. Two that are as close to Christ in proximity as the Virgin Mother.
Two well-known carols in the Western Christian tradition reference these two animals who by their eyes direct ours to our infant Lord in the manger. Perhaps you remember the tunes:
Ox and ass before him bow / And He is in the manger now. / Christ is born today! / Christ is born today! (“Good Christian Men, Rejoice!”)
But where do this ox and this ass appear in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity? Every crèche displays them. We sing about them. Christians paint them into the Nativity. And yet, searching high and low through the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke, we don’t encounter them. Why? Because they are not found in the New Testament! The ox and ass put us humans to shame, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, nearly 800 years before the Holy Advent of our Lord:
“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).
The birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel – God with us, Jesus the Christ, is truly an awesome event—in the classical sense of “awesome”. So marvelous is it, so utterly extraordinary, the heavens and the stars recognize Him. The earth itself recognizes him. “Foreigners” recognize him. Even “dumb” animals worship Him! Once again, we return to the Orthodox Christian hymn:
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; The shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; The wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!
In fact, one of the theological reasons we celebrate Christmas at the Winter Solstice (just a few days later on our present calendar…) is because of the point made by the universe at this time. What is that point?
The Solstice is the shortest day of the year. Each day thereafter, light increases on the Earth. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The true light, Jesus Christ, has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome Him. For Christians, Christmas is a festival of the Light, Jesus Christ who announced, “I am the light of the world.”
The heavens demonstrate it; the stars point to Him; the ox and the ass gaze upon Him, showing us with their devotion what they cannot tell us with words. And we are left with the question Jesus later asks Peter and His followers, “Who do you say that I am?”
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