Fr. Matthew O'Toole posted on December 24, 2012 15:00
The inspiration for these two animals likely comes from the prophet Isaiah:
An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood. (1:3)
Thanks to a sermon on the infancy of Jesus as told in gospel of Luke, the second century Church Father Origen of Alexandria made the mental leap of associating this passage with the Bethlehem event, and the tradition of the ox and the ass in the manger was fixed. As Origen reasoned, the messiah “came to his own, but his own received him not.” And using the Isaiah passage he contrasted people’s disobedience with the obedience of the animals who showed their deference.
Now then, does this mean we should purge the animals from our Christmas crèches? Well, even Pope Benedict admits, “No one will give up the oxen and the donkey in their Nativity scenes.” Nor does he expect us. To be sure, you will find the animals in abundance at the Vatican’s manger scene in St. Peter’s Square.