"The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." - Isaiah 1:3
When Isaiah says an ox and ass are smarter and more devoted than the people of Israel, you know things are in a bad way.
Donkeys are not known for their obedient, agreeable nature. Oxen are slow, plodding creatures. Neither has much affection for or loyalty to its owner. You won't find them as team mascots. To be called a cow or an ass today is a grave insult.
So why then do the ox and ass keep popping up in countless nativity paintings and Christmas carols? In one carol we sing, "Ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now." In another we ponder "Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?" In "The Little Drummer Boy" the original verse, "Mary nodded, the ox and ass kept time," has been upgraded to "the ox and lamb" to keep children, and some adults, from collapsing in a fit of giggles.
I believe Christian painters and carol writers took a note from Isaiah and included the ox and ass at the crib to offer humanity both challenge and comfort. If these "dumb" beasts recognize the Master, why don't we? And if they can find him, way before the smart and worldly PhD types arrive from the East, maybe there's hope for every dull and stubborn heart on earth.
That really is something to sing about.
Thank you God for choosing the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and give hope to all. Amen.
Matthew Laney is the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, UCC, in Hartford, Connecticut.