Every Christmas we sing, “Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, ox and ass before him bow and he is in the manger now, Christ is born today, Christ is born today.” Then everybody, particularly the youth, giggles, like they just sang something naughty. But in fact, during this Advent season when we are celebrating favorite Christmas characters, we should pause to recognize that the ox and the ass, the donkey, are essential figures in every true nativity scene, as essential as the wise men and shepherds and even Mary, Joseph and the babe! Their presence in the nativity scene is historic and theologically significant. Why? Partially because of Isaiah 1:3, which says, “The ox knows his owner and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” That verse spawned an early Christian tradition dating back to the 7th century that said, “On the third day after the birth of our Lord, Mary went out of the cave and entering a stable placed the Christ child in a manger, and an ox and a donkey adored him.” The ox came to be a symbol in early Christianity of infinite patience and strength. Indeed, in Christian symbolism, the ox came to be seen as a symbol of Israel waiting for the Messiah. It was not happenstance that the molten sea of Solomon’s temple rested upon the backs of twelve bronze oxen.
Likewise the ass, the donkey, as Bettie Rose Addleton has noted in her wonderful Advent Devotional, was, and remains, a ubiquitous and important presence in cultures ancient and contemporary. It was upon a donkey that pregnant Mary surely rode to Bethlehem and upon a donkey that she and the Christ child would have fled to escape Herod’s purge. The fact that Christ rode into Jerusalem during Holy Week not upon a steed or drawn in a chariot, but upon the back of a lowly donkey, indicated then and now that the Kingdom of God articulates divine values that contradict human expectations and standards of success. Indeed, in Christian symbolism, the donkey became a symbol of the Gentiles, a living paradigm of the spiritual willingness to live as a humble servant of Christ.
Sheep, of course, have been a mainstay in nativity scenes from medieval times onward. Certainly this is in part because when God chose to reveal to humanity the coming of the Christ, the divine messengers were directed first to obscure shepherds. But there is more to it than that. Sheep must be tended; sheep require direction and care – just like we do. Sheep symbolize the community called into the fold of the Christ. We are God’s sheep and the sheep of God’s pasture – and Christ declares Himself to be the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us. Indeed, many nativity scenes take pains to ensure that a young male sheep, a lamb, is included among the menagerie gathered around the Christ child. For lambs were the dominant sacrificial victims in the temple practice of the Biblical Hebrews – and John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” I would add in passing that a variety of animals have been included in live nativity scenes over the years, depending on their location, including camels, symbolic of the obeisance of the magi, and even elephants. God bless the custodian of that stable!
But the presence of all these animals in the manger scene speaks to a profound truth larger than any specific symbolism. Their presence in the manger indicates that the coming of Christ is meant to unleash a redemptive and restorative power over all the earth. The whole of creation is ultimately to be transformed. That poetic prophet Isaiah envisioned this insight six hundred years before the Bethlehem birth. He proclaimed that when the Kingdom of God is realized in full the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard will slumber beside with the goat, the ox and its calf and the lion will no longer regard each other with enmity, and a child shall play harmlessly with the cobra. Isaiah envisioned that the coming of the Christ is meant to alter the direction and nature of the whole order of creation! That is the glorious future to which we look forward when the fullness of God’s Kingdom is realized in the new heaven and the new earth, a realm where the whole order of creation revels in a cosmic peace and harmony that boggles our wildest imagination. The most amazing aspect of all in this divine plan is the wondrous fact that we – each of us – has been called to play a role in bringing this unimaginable realm into being.
What do you mean, Dr. Kremer? We cannot truly help usher in this unimaginable, cosmic Kingdom of God. Ah, but we can; we must. There is yet another vital truth signified by the presence of all the animals in the manger scene: they speak to humanity’s divinely-ordained role as stewards of God’s good creation. This one point deserves an entire sermon, but I can state the essence of that sermon in one sentence – God has entrusted humanity with “dominion” over all the creatures of the earth, and “dominion” does not convey to us the right to dominate and destroy and manipulate God’s creatures. Rather “dominion” means that we have been entrusted with the responsibility to be stewards of God’s creation and to do all within our power to ensure the health and welfare of the whole order of creation. God gave us the role of being God’s stewards of God’s creation. The entire cosmos is God’s. But we are meant be to caretakers of that cosmos, stewards of our environment, stewards of all that live. Genesis established the foundational fact that every creature, from the largest whale to the tiniest sparrow, from the fiercest rhinoceros to the gentlest butterfly, from the most beautiful snow leopard to the ugliest toad, has its origin in God’s created intent. All have been granted by the divine a role and purpose in the vast pageant we call life. All creatures belong to God’s created order. And we are meant to be shepherds of these creatures as surely as Christ feels called to be a shepherd unto us. Jesus commanded Peter and us, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” He meant for us to live as stewards of each other and stewards of the entire order of creation. Ox and ass, sheep and lamb, camel and dove and wolf, lion and elephant – all bow before Him reverentially in the manger, for they sense instinctively that Christ comes for them, too. And He comes to empower us to be stewards of all that belongs to God. For the whole earth is meant to be full of God’s glory! Which means that as we decorate our house of worship this morning, we symbolize not just the adornment of one sanctuary, but we symbolize the adornment of the entire universe that will ultimately be transformed by the coming of the Christ – and everything that draws breath is included in God’s beneficence. May we ponder that wondrous truth as we “Hang the Green” on this day.