The ox knows its master,
The donkey its owner’s manger,
But Israel does not know,
My people do not understand.
We often find the ox and the donkey depicted in manger scenes and Christmas cards and carols and pageants. But one place we do not find them is in the story of Jesus’ birth that is presented in the New Testament.
What we do have in the New Testament nativity story, however, is the manger. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, so it would make sense that there would be at least an animal or two present that was common to Bethlehem at that time.
This was not lost on the Church Fathers. The tradition of the ox and ass in the manger scene goes back to the early Church, at least as far as Origen (about AD 184-253). In his thirteenth homily on the Gospel of Luke, Origen finds great significance in the manger in relation to Isaiah 1:3.
That was the manger of which the inspired prophet said, “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master's manger.” The ox is a clean animal, the ass an unclean animal. “The ass knows his master’s manger.” The people of Israel did not know their Lord’s manger, but an unclean animal from among the Gentiles did. Scripture says, “Israel, indeed, did not know me, and my people did not understand me.” Let us understand the manger. Let us endeavor to recognize the Lord and to be worthy of knowing him, and of taking on not only his birth and the resurrection of his flesh, but also his celebrated second coming in majesty, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen. (The Fathers of the Church: Origen, Homilies on Luke. Translated by Joseph T. Lienhard, S. J. p. 55)The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (aka, The Infancy Gospel of Matthew), an apocryphal book dating back to about the ninth century, if not earlier, also relates the manger of the nativity with the ox and ass in Isaiah’s prophecy:
And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 14).The ox and ass are certainly not out of place at the manger scene, and they have an important lesson for us, as Origen exhorts us in his homily:
Let us understand the manger. Let us endeavor to recognize the Lord and to be worthy of knowing him, and of taking on not only his birth and the resurrection of his flesh, but also his celebrated second coming in majesty, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen.The ox and ass, then, help us to recognize and adore the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles
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Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.