‘The Ox and the Donkey’
Christmas Day 2015
Belle Vue Baptist
We’ve just heard read the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s gospel.
Its one of those bits of the Bible,
that if I asked you to shut your Bibles and your eyes and tell me what happens,
I think most of you could get pretty close to the words Luke uses.
Don’t worry I’m not going to put my theory to the test.
These are very familiar words.
And if I asked you to describe the nativity scene,
I’m pretty sure we know what would need to be in there.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus of course.
A stable with a manger.
An ox and donkey.
Some shepherds with maybe one or two sheep.
Three magi with their camels parked outside.
A star over the stable.
This is the scene on the increasingly rare Christmas card,
this is the scene of numerous paintings of the Nativity by great painters,
this is the scene at the end of the BBC’s version of the Nativity from a few years ago.
And of course its wrong.
Yes, we read of Mary, Joseph and Jesus lying in a manger.
We don’t actually read of a stable, but this is surmised from the presence of the manger.
We don’t read of any animals.
We do read of some shepherds arriving.
We don’t read of any stars.
We don’t read of any magi or wise men or three kings and any camels – they turn up in Matthew’s gospel and the suggestion is Jesus is no new-born by then, but perhaps at the age of beginning to walk.
Our version of the Nativity story is a creation,
it’s a mash-up.
I’m not saying this is wrong and we shouldn’t do it,
but wanting to draw attention to how we have sought to sentimentalise the story,
to make it almost fairy-tale like,
when it was anything but.
Over time and legend,
we’ve taken the danger, the trouble,
the scandal, the poverty
out of the story.
Familiar words have made us over-familiar with the story we celebrate.
Having said all that,
I want to come back to the ox and donkey.
Why on earth do they come to appear in the story?
Well the answer emerges from early Christian readers of the nativity story
who saw Luke’s emphasis on the manger – he mentions it three times:
‘lying in a manger’
and from an verse from the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah chapter 1 verse 3 reads:
‘the ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.’
Early Christians read the Old Testament a lot.
A lot more than we probably do.
They read it through the eyes of the gospels.
This verse from Isaiah finds it fulfilment in the birth of Jesus.
Luke’s repetition of ‘manger’
is an echo to this verse,
and so of course an ox and donkey must be present at the nativity.
Why does Luke want us to think of Isaiah 1.3?[i]
Because this word of judgement against Israel
- Israel does not know or understand -
is now being repealed in the birth of Jesus.
Those who did not know,
through the shepherds are now beginning to come to know –
as they ox knows its master,
so the shepherds come know the birth of Jesus as the coming of God.
The mystery of God’s faithful love
is being revealed,
is being announced.
Or perhaps it’s the opposite,
perhaps the echo is to remind us that God’s people,
will continue not to know,
will continue not to understand,
that in Jesus, God is in the midst.
They will remain ignorant of Jesus’ identity,
and so point to all those who miss who is the manger,
those who refuse to accept or believe the tender mercy of God.
God does not force himself upon us,
for he comes as vulnerable and defenceless baby.
Or perhaps the presence of the ox and the donkey
is a sign of God’s care for the Christ child.
One writer imagines,
‘the ox and the donkey kneeling down,
putting their mouths to the manger,
breathing through their noses on to the Child,
because they knew that at that cold time
he needed to be heated up in that manner.’
I love the image of that.
It takes us back to our animal service in October,
and the reminder that animals know how to show affection and care
and Jesus receives their affection in this moment,
they know who is before them,
they recognise who is lying in their manger.
Or perhaps the presence of the ox and the donkey
should be seen as a sign that the whole of creation
shares in the joy of the birth of Jesus.
That perhaps those who are included in those on whom God’s favour rests
is all creatures.
God’s salvation is for all the whole cosmos,
and so just as shepherds represent the poor and lowly,
and the magi represent the nations,
the ox and donkey represent the creatures of the earth.
All come to worship and bless the birth day of Christ.
This short verse from Isaiah,
and the presence of the ox and the donkey in our nativity scenes,
present us with the question of whether
we know our master,
of whether we recognise the owner of the manger?
Will we draw near and offer our love to the one
who is God’s love made flesh?
Will our familiarity with the nativity story,
give way to a new reception
of the Lord of shepherd and maiden,
of carpenter and prince,
of ox and donkey,
of the one born king of angels
and king of all creation?
The long wait is over,
God has arrived,
born of Mary.
Now is the time for singing and dancing,
now is the time for mooing and braying,
now is the time for joy and feasting.
Glory to God in the highest heaven
and on earth peace to those
on whom his favour rests.
See what God has done,
it is marvellous in our eyes!
[i] These reflections were helped by Richard Harries, A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ (Lion, 1995), p.36.