Ox and AssA sermon for Christmas Day December 25, 2021 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
was humbly born in a stable rude,
and the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.
2. 'I,' said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
'I carried his mother uphill and down;
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town;
I,' said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
3. 'I,' said the cow, all white and red,
'I gave him my manger for his bed;
I gave him hay to pillow his head;
I,' said the cow, all white and red.
You may remember this song from Sunday school.
It was one of my favourites growing up.
Children easily identify with the donkey and the cow,
or as the poem “In the bleak midwinter” has it,
the ox and ass and camel, which adore,
at the side of baby Jesus in the manger.
Children are easily drawn in to the animals in the Christmas story,
since the animals are a little more approachable than the heavenly angels
and the strange wise men from the East.
Almost every child has probably seen cattle or a donkey at a farm.
"The ox and the donkey stand or lie peacefully at the manger
and look at the newborn child,
They warm the child with their breath,
creating a shelter in an inhospitable night.
The ox and the donkey are part of almost every nativity scene"
But what is the background story of these animals?
Were there any animals in the stable?
In the New Testament account of the birth of Jesus
there is no mention of any cattle or donkeys.
In the Gospel of Luke, we only hear about the manger,
the feeding trough of animals, where Jesus was laid.
But the Church Fathers soon began speculating.
In the 3rd century, the early Christian scholar Origen already quoted the prophet Isaiah who had written: (1.3)
“The ox knows its master and the donkey it’s master’s crib.”
The Christian fathers explained that the ox was a symbol of Judaism
and the donkey was a symbol of the gentiles (or non-Jews),
and they emphasized that the ox was symbolic for all those
who did not recognize the Lord,
unlike the shepherds and angels,
who understood that the newborn Christ was the Savior.
Little by little, over the centuries,
the idea took hold that maybe animals were in that stable after all.
Ox and ass have been part of stories and illustrations
since the 6th century.
In the first nativity scene of St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century
they were there,
and then even live animals appear in Italian mystery plays
Around the same time,
and since then, the ox or cow and the donkey have become an integral part of our conception about the first Christmas.
What ox and donkey tell us about the birth of Jesus
is that all creation participates in salvation,
Salvation extends even to the animals, not just humans,
And this salvation appears in the midst of great poverty.
There is no Ferrari or Rolls-Royce parked next to Joseph,
but only two inferior animals,
probably old and a little bony.
Yet the animals are loyal, patient and sensitive,
and they show us what Christmas is all about.
The ox is a calm, peaceful worker
and is a symbol of peacefulness and good-natured strength.
It is a role model for patiently bearing burdens.
Anyone who owned an ox in those days
Was a little better off, as he had a strong partner for agriculture,
and could do much more work in the fields than without him.
In ancient times, the ox was also a popular sacrificial animal.
The donkey is a symbol of humility,
Of gentleness in patiently bearing burdens.
It is one of the oldest domesticated animals
and was a sacred animal used for sacrifices by the Romans.
The donkey has also sometimes been described as being even smarter than humans, such as with the story of Balaam's donkey,
who was so clever and sensitive that she recognized the angel of God blocking her path.
It is conceivable that the Holy Family traveled to Bethlehem with a donkey,
As well as on the flight to Egypt,
and you can see the donkey in many depictions of these trips.
However, this fact is not documented in the Bible as it is for example
at Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday.
So we now have two animals that were used for sacrifices at the manger of the world’s redeemer;
is this possibly a sign of the path that Jesus would go,
as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world?
Ox and ass are positive role models and symbols,
but they also have negative qualities.
Both ox and donkey are stubborn, sometimes lazy and callous.
They do their work looking neither left nor right,
And they're not particularly creative.
If we decide that ox and ass are role models for us, what does that mean?
We're burned out in this phase of the pandemic,
we're tired and exhausted,
The rapid growth of the Oh-micron variant disappoints us,
Annoyed that we can’t procure a booster shot appointment
or a free rapid testing kit,
Either that or we're sick, or bitter
plagued by doubts or we’re lonely.
In short, we're trying to survive
but we're not really thriving.
This virus has weighed heavily on us over the past 21 months.
Maybe we feel like pack animals.
Our brain and our systems are not working optimally.
The pandemic has reduced our level of functioning.
We are all sitting on the backburner.
Maybe you feel like this too,
but I can't muster much empathy for other people's issues.
Sometimes it feels like the water is up to my neck.
You could say we feel like an ox or a donkey on some days,
especially when the news scares us,
or new restrictions or lockdowns are imminent.
We feel sluggish, tired and just drag ourselves through life.
But maybe this Christmas
Let’s not try too hard.
Maybe it's all a little easier than we think
If we take the ox and the donkey as role models.
These animals have a simple sense and awareness of the Christ child
lying in the manger!
Perhaps we need to surrender ourselves to our urges
and our basic instincts;
we feel it at Christmas,
It’s an instinctual, emotional feeling,
and it's easier than we think.
Maybe we should think less,
Just let ourselves be drawn to the manger.
Ox and donkey are symbols that give us an immediate experience
of the Christmas events.
We don't have to worry too much about it all
whether we are the right ones to be here.
God knows we're here.
We may not be the most attractive, or the most powerful, or the brightest, but we are just here, contemplating the nativity,
and that's enough.
Sometimes we're just like an ox or a donkey.
Sometimes all we can do is just watch with admiration and astonishment,
And shut down our super-ego, and adopt a posture of humility
and follow our instincts to the manger,
because all philosophy and rationalizations are of no use
in the face of the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ the Lord.
The gospel, the good news is that God came to the poor
and the ordinary of this world.
He did not appear in the palaces of power.
The loyalty of ox and ass are a great example for all
who celebrate the birth of the Savior at Christmas.
The ox and the donkey, the first witnesses of God's love,
invite us to get very close,
to provide protection and security,
especially for those who need it:
the homeless, the refugees, the lonely and the abandoned…
Those infected by COVID-19,
Those shunned for their vaccination choices.
Celebrating Christmas, real close to the feeding trough,
This breaks our constraints and our fears,
and we only need to exclaim with our hearts:
“Here I am Jesus!
Can you use me, just as I am?”
Here I stand at your manger, Lord, you are my life, my all.
I come and bring you all that you have given me.
Take it, dear Lord, my spirit, my very being,
My heart, my pride, my false pretences,
And transform me, dear child, into one worthy of your image.
Let us pray.
God, child in the manger, we pray to you for the courage to be humble
That we may be able
To serve you with our life in our world:
We ask you for the strength to be faithful
That we don't stop
Being there for others;
We ask you to be close to us this Christmas
That we may feel how you carry us
so that we may have enough strength to carry our own burdens. Amen.
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