The Christmas carol that we just sang has some surprising words in it, if you know what you’re looking for.
Good Christian friends, rejoice With heart and soul and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ is born today;
Ox and ass before him bow, And he is in a the manger now.
Christ is born today! Christ is born today!
Did you notice the animals? “Ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now.”
Ox and ass. We don’t use those words much any more. An ox is a large species of cattle, used as draft animals. We have tractors and other motorized equipment today, so most oxen are found in less-developed countries. But an ox is simply a really large bull or cow. Likewise, we call the smaller relatives of horses “donkeys” these days.
So why do we make the point that an ox and an ass were present where Jesus was born? There are a couple of reasons that are not at all obvious.
First, there’s their nature.
An ox or bull can weigh upwards of 1500 pounds or even more. It is a formidable and potentially dangerous creature. No one would want to encounter an angry bull. It would be a terrifying experience, and people have been killed that way.
And a donkey – well, they’re best known for being stubborn. It can be surprising how such a small animal – they might weigh 150 pounds – can dig in its heels and refuse to do what its owner wants. And convincing it to comply is next to impossible.
So Jesus was born between two unique animals – one that, if angered, could kill a grown man, and the other that can be so stubborn that nothing will make it obey. Are you picking up on the point here?
Don’t those two attitudes – furious anger and obstinate stubbornness – actually represent a big part of human nature? They might be two extremes, but they are emotions that pull on us quite often.
In today’s world, we see people who are so stubborn that they even refuse to do something that could save their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. No amount of pleading or persuading, presenting scientific evidence, or appealing to their love of others seems to make any difference.
And we see people so angry that they resort to violence and even insurrection to try to force the world to become what they want it to be? And aren’t these people even more dangerous in a society where it is so easy to obtain really violent weapons?
What in the world do these creatures have to do with the innocent baby lying in the manger?
I’ll tell you. Jesus came into the world to offer an alternative to rage and denial – another way to live in peace, love, and harmony with others. As a new-born child, he couldn’t preach or use parables to teach another way to live in this world – but his mere presence in between these two familiar animals speaks volumes.
Not to mention that he is lying in the place where they usually get their food. Is he positioned so that they have to stop and think, or is he reminding them that the food they really need is not in the manger, but rather must be inside them?
While we’re at it, let’s consider what these two animals meant to the Jewish people of his day.
An ox, when it grew too old to work, became dinner. It was kosher – considered a “clean” animal by Jewish law. A donkey, on the other hand, didn’t have cloven hooves. It was “unclean.”
The presence at the manger of these two polar opposites speaks of the reality that Jesus has come for all people – Jews and Gentiles, those who were respected and those who were rejected, those who already followed God’s law and those who were just as beloved by God, even though they didn’t.
Ox and ass before him bow.
The song says that they stopped doing whatever ox and ass normally did in a stable. Somehow, they recognized something new, something holy, some alternative to how they have been behaving. They stopped and looked at the place where their food was usually served, and instead they saw something unexpected, new, life-changing – someone we recognize as the Bread of Life, [John 6:35] food from heaven that gives life to the world, [John 6:33] so that we will never again hunger and thirst for righteousness. [Matthew 5:6]
It is tempting to say that today Christ came to us, or for us, or for our sins. But the truth, I think, is found in another Christmas carol:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
Christ came in order to be born IN us – to become a part of us, of our hearts and minds and souls and strength. And if we open ourselves on Christmas – and all the days to come – and welcome Jesus INTO our lives –
rather than keeping him at a comfortable distance where he is a baby in a manger, or someone who lived a long time ago or whom we visit in church once in a while –
if we allow him into our lives, then his presence, his holiness, his love for us can conquer our emotions of anger and stubbornness.
And we can be born again with him.
Ox and ass behold him now – will we do the same?
Let us pray.
Loving God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our human nature upon him, and to be born in us. He was placed in an animal’s feeding-trough, between a bull and a donkey, between a clean animal and an unclean one, between creatures representing anger and stubbornness.
Help us to see the miracle of Jesus’ birth, not as something that happened to other people a long time ago, but as something that has the power to change us, to change our lives forever. And grant that we may rejoice at the birth of your incarnate Son, a fellow human being, our brother – that we may listen to him, learn from him, and choose to live as he taught us by word and example. Grant that this Christmas may be a changing-point in our lives, and that we may carry the Good News of Jesus to a world that is self-centered, angry, and stubborn.
And we know that we can do this because Jesus is with us – right here, right now, and every day of our lives. In his holy Name we pray. Amen.