The animals of Christmas

December 15, 2017

The Pastor's Page


The Birth of Jesus and the
Adoration of the Shepherds – Shepherd’s Field Bethlehem, Israel

There are several animals that are sometimes included in the Nativity or manger scene used to portray the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

An ox. An ox alone is a symbol for Jesus. An ox is strong and powerful and able to carry an enormous burden, while Jesus is all-powerful and able to carry any burden. Jesus explained, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). Also, an ox served as the largest, most imposing, and most expensive animal to be sacrificed on the altar in the temple as a sin offering, and Jesus is the pure and unblemished lamb that was sacrificed on the altar of the Cross as a sin offering for the redemption and salvation of the world.

An ass. An ass or a donkey was part of several key events in the life of Jesus. Many religious artists portray an ass as present at the time of Jesus’ birth. Baby Jesus and Mary probably sat on an ass on their flight to Egypt (see Mt 2:14,21). Jesus rode astride an ass as he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mt 21:2,5,7; Jn 12:14). An ass represents humility, patience, peace, and service.

An ox and an ass together. An ox and ass are often displayed together in Nativity or crib scenes because of a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger” (Is 1:3). There is a connection between this text and the birth of Jesus because the words “owner,” “master,” and “manger” in the verse from the prophet Isaiah apply to Jesus. Jesus is the creator of all things (Col 1:16); he is the owner. When Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger (Lk 2:6,12,16). As the one who would take the throne of his father David, rule over the house of Jacob, and whose kingdom will never end (Lk 1:32,33), the child is the master.

The ox and the ass at Christmas. The ox and ass are not depicted in all Christmas scenes, but when they are, they are shown in the background, behind Jesus who is usually in the manger in the foreground, flanked by Mary and Joseph. The shepherds or the magi may also be depicted in the crib scene, always secondary to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and ahead of the ox and ass. The two animals are among the humblest and least of the animals, representative figures for all of the animal kingdom. They are shown watching and waiting, docilely and patiently, in admiration and joy over all that is happening before them.

A dog. Shepherds and dogs worked together to care for the sheep. The shepherd led the flock from the front, and the dog was responsible for the rear. The dog used barking and nipping to keep stragglers in contact with the flock, to prevent sheep from straying, and to seek and find any sheep that may have wondered off. When the shepherds went to see the newborn Jesus (Lk 2:15-19), they would have taken their dogs with them. A dog keeps watch at night and is a faithful friend to its owner, and on Christmas night, the dog kept watch over the manger and acted as a faithful friend to Jesus. A dog represents fidelity, loyalty, and watchfulness.

, ,

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

View all posts by Father Michael Van Sloun