Thursday, December 22, 2016

Animals in the Manger

The Byzantine icon of the Birth of Christ depicts Jesus at the epicentre. In this icon we also see a number of animals, specifically a bull and a donkey. This signifies the fact that the Son of God was born as man not in a palace, not even in a house, but in a stable, pointing out the importance of humility in our life. It also foretold the ‘humiliation’ He was going to go through (i.e. the passion and the crucifixion) in order to save mankind from sin and death.

Additionally, choice of the depiction of the bull and the donkey relate to Isaiah’s prophecy from the Old Testament. In Isaiah (1:3) we read: ‘The ox knows its owner, And the donkey its master’s crib; But Israel does not know, My people do not consider.’ The Church has taken this phrase, relating it to the Birth of Jesus Christ.
However, why do we refer and depict these two animals? They are known for their low intelligence, and in regards to the donkey, it is known for its stubbornness. St Gregory the Theologian explains how the two animals symbolise the two peoples, i.e. the bull is according to the Law a clean animal (see Leviticus 11), therefore symbolising the Jewish people, who ruminate the Law. The donkey, on the other hand, which is an unclean animal, according to the Law, symbolises the pagans.

The two animals, therefore, show the coming together of the various people into the Body of the Church, whereby ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28). There are no national, social and gender differences. We now have a new existence (Ephesians 2:15), the regenerated, sanctified, man in communion with Christ, the man of Grace, who lives a Christ-centred life. However, it also shows that all of creation is part of this monumental and unique event. 

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