“The Ox Knows His Owner”: The Nativity Icon

(This is Neil.) I wonder if some of my readers remembered – hopefully, in prayer – that yesterday marked the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley’s birth. Actually, I’ll post something more substantial about Charles Wesley later. I want to quickly excerpt a very interesting sermon about the Nativity icon here. It might seem rather strange to begin a post on the Nativity icon with a mention of Charles Wesley, but sight – the “eyes of faith” – played an important role in his hymns and in his own spiritual life.

If you scroll down his journal to May 25, 1738 (a few days after he was able to write, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ”), you can read:

Before communicating, I left it to Christ, whether, or in what measure, he would please to manifest himself to me, in this breaking of bread. I had no particular attention to the prayers: but in the prayer of consecration I saw, by the eye of faith, or rather, had a glimpse of, Christ’s broken, mangled body, as taking down from the cross. Still I could not observe the prayer, but only repeat with tears, “0 love, love!”

But, again, more later. Regarding the Nativity icon, Bishop Basil of Amphipolis mentioned it during his sermon on December 9 on Luke 13:10-17 (the healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years “by a spirit”). I keep thinking back to the sermon. Do we feel “locked up in a stall, tied, restrained” – is this our condition? Do we imagine that Christ can truly “lead us to water,” or has Christmas become, as Henri Nouwen once worried, only a “good occasion to experience illusory happiness that offers a short break in our fear-filled lives”? And can this provocative meditation remind us that all creation – including oxen and asses – “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19)?

But enough. Please tell me what you think.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from Bishop Basil:

The icon of the Nativity is one of the most complex of the liturgical icons. There are a number of different figures in it. Through the icon we are called upon to venerate the birth of Christ, but we are also called upon to identify with the figures in the icon, for example with the shepherds who come glorifying God, with the wise men, who for all their wisdom come bearing gifts to this young boy child, with the women bathing Christ in a basin of water, showing tenderness towards the infant Christ. We are called upon to identify in a way with Joseph, who is quite clearly being tempted. He is doubting, asking what is actually going on. All of us have moments when we do not understand. We are invited to identify with Mary, as the very archetype of the human being, bringing Christ to birth in herself – just as we are all invited to bring Christ to birth in ourselves.

What then are the ox and the ass? If we look at the dark centre of the icon, in almost all icons of the Nativity you will see the ox and the ass looking at Christ as he lies in the manger. This is a reference not to the Gospel, but to the book of Isaiah, for in Isaiah 1:3 the prophet says:

The ox knows his owner and the ass knows his master’s crib. But Israel does not know, and my people do not consider me.

In this icon, then, there is a contrast between the faithfulness and the knowledge of the ox and the ass, and a lack of knowledge and lack of faith – because the ‘crib’ in Isaiah corresponds to the manger, and the ‘owner’, of course, corresponds to the Creator, God. In other words we can identify not only with the human creatures, but even with the ox and the ass, because they know the owner, and the crib in which he is laid. And the faith of those two dumb animals is of a simplicity which I believe Christ would like us all to have.

In today’s Gospel Christ rebukes the rulers of the synagogue when they complain about healing on the Sabbath: ‘Does not each one of you loose his ox or his ass from the stall and lead him away to water?’ In other words, Christ compares the ox and the ass to the woman who is being healed. He sees in her someone who is locked up in a stall, tied, restrained – and he unlooses her and leads her away to water.

In fact in both cases, the ox and the ass represent our humanity: in Isaiah as creatures of God called by their very existence to acknowledge their Creator, and in the Gospel as fallen creatures bound by Satan, locked up Satan, and freed by Christ from their bonds and led by him to partake of eternal life – that spiritual water which is given us to fill our souls. From this we can conclude that Scripture has quite extraordinary depths. They are a constant invitation to reflection – reflection in the light of the Gospel, in the light of Christ.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to “The Ox Knows His Owner”: The Nativity Icon

  1. Dea says:

    I think the ox and ass look like they’re about to eat the baby Jesus! But that’s okay.

    The ox and ass at the manger remind us that the manger (from the French mangeoir, which is a feeding trough) is where their food is usually found.

    Instead of straw to feed their stomachs, it is the Lord in their dish — Food from Heaven, and a lovely symbol of the Eucharist.

    I was wondering why the animals were closer to the Babe than any humans, but as you’ve explained that they represent our humanity, it makes much more sense.

    Thank you for posting this, Neil.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Dea,

    Thanks for your very kind response. I hadn’t thought about the Eucharistic significance.


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